The UK government has launched a review into physics funding in the wake of a damaging £80m shortfall in the budget of Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) that emerged last month. The review had been promised after the STFC said the cuts will force it to end UK participation in the International Linear Collider (ILC), withdraw from the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile, and axe funding for solar-terrestrial physics.

However, physicists' hopes that the review will lead to the cuts being reversed took a knock yesterday when Keith Mason, chief executive of the STFC, told the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills that "the review is a valuable exercise but it was never intended to address the current situation.”

Priorities for investment

Research Councils UK (RCUK) — the umbrella body for the UK's seven main science-funding agencies — has now agreed to the terms of reference for the review. To be led by the physicist Bill Wakeham who is vice-chancellor of Southampton University, the review will "consider the priorities for investment across physics as a whole"; "identify the contribution physics makes to other areas of research;" and "examine the provision of physics-based facilities and means of sustaining their operation".

Wakeham will be assisted by nine other panel members. Although the names have not yet been finalized, they will include three members from the UK and one from both the US and Europe. The other four panel members will be taken from nominations made by the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society, the Royal Astronomical Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering.

Deep lack of trust

Physicists in the UK, who were quick to express outrage when the potential impact of the funding shortfall first emerged, have now started a campaign to have the cuts reversed. Last week, for example, 64 young researchers in solar-system science wrote a joint letter to Mason, expressing their "bewilderment and development of a deep lack of trust in, and respect for, STFC management". The scientists also complained that the cuts — the impact of which is outlined in the STFC's "delivery plan" — will destroy the government's hopes of getting more students into physics.

It now seems clear that major mistakes have indeed been made in determining the [comprehensive-spending review] settlement for the new STFC John Dainton, Liverpool University

Particle physicists also claim to have obtained a series of documents under the Freedom of Information Act that show that the STFC had warned the government as far back as last July of the potential impact of the funding shortfall , which saw its budget rise by an average of just 4.5% a year to £652m by 2010/11.

"It now seems clear that major mistakes have indeed been made in determining the [comprehensive-spending review] settlement for the new STFC," says John Dainton, a particle physicist at Liverpool University.

The Wakeham review aims to report its findings by autumn this year and then make recommendations to John Denham, Secretary of State for innovation, Universities and Skills.