Scientists have expressed concern that a leading funding council in the UK will make “deep cuts” to its research budget that could threaten fundamental physics in the country. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is expected to announce next week how it will cut over £40m from its research budget next year that some say could lead to a brain drain from the country.

In December 2007 the STFC announced that it had an £80m budget deficit for the UK government’s current spending round, known as the comprehensive spending review, which lasts from 2008 to 2011. Although the reasons for the deficit were not made clear, it is thought that an accounting mistake was made when the STFC was created in April 2007 from the merger of two existing councils: the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils.

For the last two years, the STFC has lowered the deficit by cutting research programmes, reducing grants for scientists as well as taking loans from the Department of Innovation Universities and Skills (DIUS). Now, however, the STFC still has a hole of more than £40m to plug in the final year of the spending round.

From a user point of view, STFC has serious structural problems, Andrew Fabian, Royal Astronomical Society

Over the last few months, the STFC has gone through a consultation period with scientists to prioritize the programmes it funds. However, in a letter yesterday to Paul Drayson, the UK’s science minister, Andrew Fabian, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said that many astronomers and physicists are still frustrated by the manner in which decisions are taken by the STFC. “Whilst the STFC have improved in their consultation with the community, decisions are increasingly taken at arm’s length from us,” Fabian says. “From a user point of view, STFC has serious structural problems.”

Brain drain

As the STFC manages subscriptions to international facilities like the CERN particle-physics lab near Geneva and the European Southern Observatory, some physicists think that the only aspect of its programme the STFC can cut heavily is lower-priority programmes and grants for researchers. “We are fearful that [the budget cuts] will cause serious damage to our work, both through a loss of people, expertise and instruments,” Fabian writes in this letter. “Key postdoctoral staff are likely to be lost to Europe and the United States, where funding has increased.”

I expect that the cuts will be across the board, Paul Crowther University of Sheffield

“This time it is a lot worse than what happened two years ago when the £80m deficit was announced,” says astronomer Paul Crowther from the University of Sheffield. “I expect that the cuts will be across the board.” The council of the STFC will now meet on Tuesday to discuss the decisions made by its science board last week. STFC would not comment on the cuts ahead of the public briefing due to be held on Wednesday.

New space agency

Meanwhile, yesterday, during a speech at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in Oxfordshire, Drayson announced that the UK would set up its own space agency. Although it is yet to be named or have its own budget, the agency will replace the existing British National Space Centre by bringing together existing UK space activities currently done by six government departments and two research councils.