By Michael Banks
If you asked the general public what comes to mind when you say “nuclear physics”, you might hear about “nuclear power” or “atomic bombs”. However, you might not get a reply saying how research into nuclear physics allows us to destroy cancer cells more effectively or improves security and safety by designing better methods to detect dirty bombs or radioactive waste.
To help promote the benefits of research into nuclear physics and to shake off some of the old stereotypes the subject has, the Institute of Physics today launched a new report, Nuclear Physics and Technology - Inside the Atom, outlining how basic research into nuclear physics is being used in a variety of applications from medical physics to fusion research.
The report comes at a difficult time for the subject in the UK. Nuclear physicists were up in arms after deep budget cuts to the subject were handed out in late December as the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced the country would pull out of a number of nuclear physics projects, mostly at laboratories abroad, to help balance its budget for 2011.
Basic research into nuclear physics was firmly in the cross-hairs as the STFC announced the UK would pull out of the AGATA and PANDA experiments at the GSI heavy-ion lab in Darmstadt and also at ALICE at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The only experiment in nuclear physics that is still to be funded is NUSTAR at GSI.
Many nuclear physicists have lamented the state of the subject in the UK, which they say is now funded much less than in other countries such as Germany or Japan. Nuclear physicist Guenther Roser from the University of Glasgow called the UK’s spending on nuclear physics “appallingly low” and that “the balance is not right” compared with how much the UK spends on particle physics (mostly in subscriptions to CERN) or astronomy.
John Womersley, director of science programmes at the STFC, who spoke at the launch of the report noted that nuclear physics had been “severely affected” by the cuts but warned that physics as a whole will have to “make better arguments” in terms of its impact on society to get enough funding “just to stay still”.
I caught up with William Gelletly from the University of Surrey, who chaired the launch of the report, to ask him what could be done to reverse the trend of low funding for nuclear physics. He said that the community has to get the message across that nuclear physics underpins a lot of different areas, be it in helping to train nuclear physicists or helping medical physicist use the latest proton therapy machines.”You need nuclear physicists to teach the next batch of nuclear engineers,” says Gelletly. “At Surrey, we train over 100 MSc students in nuclear physics across four different courses, of which about half are UK students.”
So what can be done to reverse the decline? Gelletly says that making the government aware how important nuclear physics is would be a good start. He advises that a review of the subject - undertaken not by nuclear physicists but by “independent” experts - should be set up to show the government how important the subject is to the country.
The applications of nuclear physics were perhaps brought home most effectively by Gelletly’s Surrey colleague Jim Al-Khalili. In a wide-ranging talk on nuclear physics he also told the audience that his wife is currently undergoing a three week course of radiotherapy battling against breast cancer. He said that techniques in proton and carbon therapy - developed by nuclear physicists - have allowed for all the energy of the ion beam to be deposited in a very small area thus not damaging the remaining healthy tissue meaning it is more effective than chemotherapy.
Indeed, with the report mentioning that at least 1 in 6 of the UK population will require radiotherapy at some part of their lives, it is hard to think of a more powerful reason why the UK should do more to fund nuclear physics.