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How good is physics in the UK?

17 May 2000

"At its best, research in physics and astronomy in the UK is at the very highest level world-wide." That is the verdict of an international panel of physicists set up at the request of the government's Office of Science and Technology to report on the "standing, balance and potential of physics research in the UK". However, the panel also reports that physics in the UK "continues to suffer from a low level of funding [and] is currently in a state of slow recovery from a long period of chronic underfunding."

The 11-strong panel spent a week in the UK in April and drew on the comments of more than 150 physicists from around the world. The panel’s conclusions were presented at a meeting of UK physics professors in London last Friday by panel chairman, Alex Bradshaw of the Max Planck Institute for Plasma Physics in Germany and president of the German Physical Society. The executive summary of the panel’s report is available on the Web, and the full report will be published soon.

The panel conclude that condensed-matter physics in the UK “still maintains a substantial research base with some examples of world-leading work.” Nuclear physics, the panel states, “has secured international strength by a judicious focussing of scarce resources.” Although UK leadership is apparent in some sub-fields of atomic and molecular physics, the panel also points to “missed opportunities”. Particle physics in the UK is world class but it would be even stronger if its funding matched that of Germany, Italy or France, Bradshaw told the meeting in London. Astronomy and astrophysics are also strong, but there are worries about long-term investments in these areas.

The report stresses the need to attract and retain young people in physics research and education, and school teaching in particular. It also emphasizes the need to attract more women into physics and “to facilitate their retention at all levels in the profession.” The panel also criticizes salaries in the UK as “not internationally competitive”, and says that the regulations governing some postgraduate schemes are “excessively rigid and formulaic.”

The survey was sponsored by the Institute of Physics, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the Royal Astronomical Society.

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