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Particles and interactions

Particles and interactions

Physics loses out in UK budget

18 Dec 1998

British astronomers have reacted angrily to the news that they have received the lowest priority in the recent allocation of the UK science budget. They are dismayed that the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) will receive a smaller real-terms increase in its budget than all of the other research councils. PPARC will see its budget rise by only 0.5% above inflation over the next three years. Edwin Cartlidge reviews their complaints.

All of the other research councils will get increases of at least 3%, with the Medical Research Council receiving a rise of 6.8%. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) will get an extra £86m, representing a real-terms rise of 3.5%, but £60m of this will have to underpin work in the life sciences. An extra £400m over the next three years was available to the research councils following the recent comprehensive spending review. Universities are currently bidding for a further £600m for new equipment that was also announced as part of the review.

Richard Ellis, director of the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University, thinks that the budget is a “disgrace” and says that everyone in the UK astronomy community is very disappointed with the outcome. “I am worried that the message of pure science hasn’t got through to government, ” says Ellis. “The fact that PPARC is the only research council that doesn’t create wealth is a problem. Pure science is as badly off as it was under the previous government.”

However, Richard Brook, chief executive of the EPSRC, welcomed the allocation: “The settlement could be seen superficially as pro-biology. But advances in biology have knock on effects into other areas.” Brook says that he hopes “scientists will see the budget as supportive of their efforts”, although physical scientists will not know how the EPSRC budget is to be divided until after a council meeting on 16 December.

The government states that the life sciences are a high priority and says that the UK must be able to “take advantage of the decoding of the genome”. Martin Rees, an astrophysicist at Cambridge University, expected that the biological sciences would be favoured in the budget allocations. But he says that it should not be forgotten that the international competitiveness of physics in the UK remains precarious. “The physical sciences are more dependent on government funds – the biomedical sciences have the Wellcome Trust and a supportive pharmaceutical industry. But physics has less support from industry or foundations, ” says Rees.

Some feel that the biological sciences may have walked off with the extra money because PPARC did not present a good enough case for physics to the government. Ian Halliday, chief executive of PPARC, responds by saying that “the biologists seized the agenda” with talk of the human genome project and its accompanying industrial wealth. “The government bought the biologists’ vision, ” says Halliday. “They had a very positive agenda – physics has to learn a lesson from this. We were talking in terms of efficiency and savings, whilst they were talking about potential spin-off companies.”

PPARC’s level funding means some of its project proposals will have to bite the dust, among them Britain’s membership of what will be the world’s largest optical telescope, the Very Large Telescope, currently being built by the European Southern Observatory in Chile. However, the settlement will allow the UK to become involved in the Large Millimetre Array.

PPARC’s £20m cash increase does bring some good news for particle physicists. The UK will be fully involved in the construction of the Large Hadron Collider at CERN, the European particle physics laboratory in Geneva, as well as its two main detectors. In addition, a reserve of £30m for the years 2000 and 2001 will protect the UK’s subscription to international organizations, such as CERN and the European Space Agency, against currency fluctuations. But any increase in these international subscriptions is out of the question.

Roger Cashmore, head of physics at Oxford University and a particle physicist, thinks that under-investment in basic science is short-sighted. “If you push at the leading edge of thought, there will always be enormous intellectual and technical spin-offs, as there are from accelerator technology, ” says Cashmore. He says that while he is happy that there is more money for UK science, he is disappointed that physics came out second best. “The budget ignores the fact that a lot of physical science is important for society -quantum computing, for example, could bring about a revolution in information technology.”

The science budget allocation acknowledges that the major scientific disciplines – mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering – “form the basis for progress across the full span of scientific endeavour”. However, it stresses the importance of ensuring that programmes in the physical sciences “evolve in such a way that they contribute fully and effectively” to the work of the biomedical research councils.

The interface between the physical and biological sciences will be exploited in DIAMOND, a new third-generation synchrotron due to replace the Synchrotron Radiation Source at the Daresbury Laboratory in Cheshire. It is the first central facility to have its own line in the science budget, and will use synchrotron radiation to determine protein structures. DIAMOND is expected to cost about £175m, £110m of which will come from the biomedical research charity the Wellcome Trust. The rest of the money, including £35m already pledged, will have to come from the government.

The Institute of Physics is pleased that all the research councils received above inflation rises in their budgets. Alun Jones, chief executive of the Institute, said that there will now be less pressure on grant applications. “The budget settlement will lead to more quality grant proposals in physics being supported, ” said Jones.


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