Particle physics crisis

As some might be aware, the Government either has a death wish for fundamental science in the UK, or is just showing its affection for it in a very strange way: cutting our funding by more than a quarter.

There's a complex back-story to this, but sort-of-briefly:

  • Back in July 2007 the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC --- the body that people like me get their research money and wages from) was merged with another council, CCLRC, to form the Science and Technology Research Council. STFC does the same fundamental science as PPARC did, plus a range of more industrially-connected science which needs big technology. This set off the spidey-senses of a lot of PPARC scientists, as our research doesn't directly hit the fashionable "technology transfer" targets. But the merger was promised to be properly funded, i.e. to ensure that deficits from CCLRC wouldn't impinge on the ex-PPARC projects, so everyone breathed a sigh of relief. * Since at least November 2007, STFC has been aware of a Government funding deal from the Department for Industry, Universities and Skills (DIUS) which effectively gives it a "flat cash" funding projection for the next 3 years. While this looks okay, due to science research funding concurrently changing to a full economic costing (FEC) model, it will actually leave STFC with a deficit of more than 25% on the part of the budget that isn't already ring- fenced for international subscriptions like CERN. * Despite vigorous campaigning from scientists, the STFC has announced its "Delivery Plan" to meet this constraint, consisting of a full UK withdrawal from the International Linear Collider programme and the southern Gemini telescope, as well as an expected >10% cut in number of postdoctoral research staff (i.e. people like me). The cuts are likely to lead to closure of many university physics departments, but the Government continues to claim that it's increasing funding, despite being perfectly aware that such a naive picture doesn't acknowledge the effects of FEC.

There's lots more information in these places, if your interest is piqued:

Anyway, frankly, it's rather disappointing to start a research career and then find your subject being shut down a few years later, for the sake of what is really very little money: STFC's deficit is 80m over 3 years, which isn't much compared to the roughly 1.5bn per year for the Iraq war, 12bn for the dysfunctional, unwanted NHS Connecting for Health scheme, potentially 30bn over Northern Rock, 8bn, or maybe more now, for the 2012 London Olympics, probably the upper end of 6bn-20bn for the "National Identity Management Scheme" (ID cards++) and so-on, ad infinitum. Naturally, this really makes us feel wanted; maybe "blue skies" science should have kept the Web and the MRI scanner to ourselves.

Anyway, lest you get the impression that STFC are righteously and courageously defending particle physics, astronomy and suchlike against an onslaught from a government obsessed with financial short-termism, take a look at this BBC article about STFC CEO's testimony before the DIUS funding committee on Monday. In particular, note that PPARC science hasn't done terribly well out of the merger: Mason cites Diamond, space science and laser research (all formerly CCLRC projects) as doing well, while "We have had to constrain some investments (particularly in the particle physics and astronomy programme)". No shit.

Anyway, this all looks like we're going to hell in a handcart, but good for the IOP and the RAS for doing what STFC should have done all along and proposing a sensible, affordable way to postpone these cuts until after the situation has been reviewed. As they say, "We're talking about 20m --- it's not a terrific amount of money, in order not to allow things to go beyond the point of no return." Hear, hear.


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