One of the UK's leading research councils has announced today that it is to slash funding for a number of key national facilities. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) says that its £491m programme for 2009–10 will include a cut in support for the Diamond Light Source as well as "reductions in facility operations" at the ISIS neutron source and the Central Laser Facility. STFC chief executive Keith Mason blames the cuts on "the impact of the international financial situation", which has led to a 15.1% rise in its subscriptions to CERN and other international facilities from £214.9m last year to £247.3m in 2009–10.

The STFC says it will make "significant internal savings" to re-invest in the science programme, including cuts in staff numbers by restricting recruitment, travel and use of external consultants. The council also plans to review its five neutron and light-source facilities that it funds "to ensure maximum cost effectiveness of these investments for UK science". Mason promises, however, that funding for standard and rolling grants will be maintained at the level previously forecast.

Two other projects will see funding reduced: the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit (CASU) and the Wide-Field Astronomy Unit (WAFU) at Edinburgh. Meanwhile, the UK's contribution to the Nuclear Structure, Astrophysics and Reaction (Nustar) project at the FAIR facility in Germany, and a research effort, dubbed SPIDER, into a generic particle-physics detector, will not now get any cash until April 2010 — a year later than planned. An upgrade to the VULCAN laser at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory will also be deferred by a year.

Neutron reductions

Neutron scatterers in the UK will be particularly affected by the £2.3m cut to the ISIS facility, which has only just opened a £148m "second target station". Uschi Steigenberger, ISIS operations director, told that ISIS can now only be used for a maximum 120 days this year -- a fifth fewer than last year. Indeed, a similar budget cut last year had already reduced the number of days that ISIS is used from 180 to 150.

"Other neutron-scattering labs, such as the Institut Laue-Langevin in France, typically operate for 220 days per year, which is the level recommended by the National Audit Office for an optimum operation and usage of ISIS," she says. "ISIS serves over 1100 scientists and nearly half of the science programme carried out here is in areas like energy, environment, health and IT that map directly onto the UK government's research priorities and have a strong economic impact. These programmes will be directly affected by the drastic reduction in operating time."

The problems at ISIS and elsewhere stem from the 15.1% rise in the STFC's international subscriptions. These have forced the council to fork out an extra £19.3m for its subscription to the European Space Agency, which has risen by 23% to £103.2m, as well an extra £5.5m for CERN, which has gone up by 6.9% to £85.6m. There are also increases to the membership fees of the European Southern Observatory (up 13.9% to £29.3m), the ILL (up 10.7% to £18.4m) and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (up 25.7% to £10.7m).

’Short-term and penny-pinching’

Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics, which publishes, calls the STFC cuts "an ill omen". Although he blames the problems on the "unique structure of STFC and the effects of a falling pound", he thinks that the newly created Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which sets the STFC's budget, needs to do more to protect science.

"We would like to see the government match its verbal commitment to science and technology with funding to maintain the UK’s scientific stature, at the very least," says Kirby-Harris. "Given President Obama has significantly increased the US science budget and the big Asian economies are doing likewise, our strategy appears very short term and penny-pinching. Further threats to the amount of scientific research being undertaken next year by STFC raise alarm bells and there appears to be no end of bad news in sight for this particular research council."

Brian Foster, a particle physicist at Oxford University, who was highly critical of an earlier £80m STFC funding shortfall that opened up in late 2007, says that the council's reaction this time has been "generally very sensible in that they have managed to avoid any more 'blood on the floor'". However, Foster is worried about next year, when he thinks the STFC will face a major shortfall unless the government steps in to help by protecting the STFC from currency fluctuations. "Otherwise it will be impossible for STFC to engage in sensible long-term planning," he says.