Leading physicists have come out in support of plans by the UK’s science minister Lord Drayson to make a series of structural changes to the running of one of the UK’s main research councils.

Drayson was forced to review the operation of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) after it announced in December that the UK would pull out of 25 leading international projects in astronomy, nuclear physics, particle physics and space science. The withdrawals were the result of a £40m shortfall in STFC funding that will lead to a 25% cut in the number of STFC studentships and fellowships over the next five years, as well as a 10% reduction in support for "future exploitation grants".

The cuts led to an outcry in the physics community, which feared that the UK would be perceived as an untrustworthy partner in global projects and a potential brain drain of the best UK scientists to positions overseas.

Foreign currency fluctuations

Responding to these concerns Lord Drayson announced that he, together with Michael Sterling, the STFC's chairman, would address the STFC's structure in terms of how foreign currency fluctuations affect its subscriptions to international bodies such like CERN and the European Space Agency (ESA), which have been putting pressure on grants to scientists.

I think he could not have gone any further in the current economic climate Paul Crowther, University of Sheffield

In his announcement today, Lord Drayson says that the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) will provide the STFC with a "level of protection similar to that which has been provided this year and last in respect of the additional costs of international subscriptions". After 2011, BIS will then look at "options" to manage the risks of currency fluctuation on the STFC’s budget.

Also from 2011, Research Councils UK – the umbrella organization for the seven major UK research councils – will seek new ways to help the STFC to fund large facilities such as the ISIS neutron scattering facility and the Diamond synchrotron, which are used by other research councils. This could mean other research council being billed for their usage of central facilities.

The announcement also proposes that a UK space agency will handle the STFC's subscription to ESA. "The minister's decisions will enable STFC to move forward with greater financial confidence, removing the risk of foreign exchange impacts, and securing a longer term funding arrangement for our big science facilities," says Sterling.

Long term plan

"There is no doubt that STFC faced a difficult situation. A lot of work has gone in to finding ways of preventing such pressures rearing their heads again in future," says Drayson. "The better management of international subscriptions through measures to manage exchange rates, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities will allow STFC's grant-giving functions to be managed with a higher degree of predictability."

"I welcome the announcement by Lord Drayson," says astronomer Paul Crowther from the University of Sheffield. "I think he could not have gone any further in the current economic climate." Crowther also praises Drayson who he says has gone to "extra lengths" to fix the problem he inherited with the STFC.

"It's a first step in the right direction," says particle physicist Brian Foster from Oxford University, who submitted evidence to Drayson's review of the STFC. "But we still need to get more money into the STFC and solve remaining issues in the STFC management."

In a joint statement, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, president of the Institute of Physics (IOP), which publishes Physics World, and Prof. Andrew Fabian, president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) said: "Today's announcement demonstrates that the problem has now been recognized and we look forward to seeing how it will be addressed. IOP and RAS trust that the Treasury will recognize the importance of science by taking responsibility for currency fluctuations."