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UK physics hit by savage cuts

16 Dec 2009 Michael Banks
Closing doors The ALICE experiment at CERN is among the cuts

Savage cuts have been made to the UK’s physics research programme that will see the country withdraw from over 25 leading international projects in astronomy, nuclear physics, particle physics and space science. The cuts were announced today by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which is facing a £40m shortfall in funding. The cash crisis will see the UK pull out of the ALICE experiment at CERN, axe funding for the Boulby Mine in Cleveland, which is searching for dark matter, and withdraw from the European X-ray Free Electron Laser project at the DESY lab in Hamburg.

The STFC released details of the cuts, which will kick in over the next five years, in a document entitled Investing in the Future 2010–15. Michael Sterling, chair of the STFC, says that the programme – worth a total of £2.4bn – is “affordable, robust and sustainable” but admits that it is the result of “tough choices” and represented a “major reorganization” that would involve what the council dubs “a managed withdrawal from some areas”. The STFC now intends to hold discussions over the next few months with national and international partners, including universities, departments and project teams, on how to implement the cuts.

Projects in danger

In astronomy, the STFC will stop supporting Auger, Inverse Square Law, ROSA, the Liverpool Telescope and the UK Infra-Red Telescope. It will also close the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array regional centre and cancel funding for the Joint Institute for Very Long Baseline Interferometry in Europe. These cuts are expected to save the STFC £29m.

Nine projects in particle physics will face a loss of support from the STFC, which will save the council a total of £32m. These are the Boulby mine, the UK’s contribution to the CDF and D0 experiments at Fermilab, eEDM, Low Mass, Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search (MINOS), Particle Calorimeter, Spider and plans for a UK neutrino factory.

The STFC will phase out its support for three projects in nuclear physics: the AGATA and PANDA experiments at the GSI heavy-ion lab in Darmstadt, and ALICE at CERN, saving the council a total of £12m. The only experiment in nuclear physics that will be supported is NUSTAR at the GSI.

The UK will pull out of five different space missions – Cassini, Cluster, the Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, Venus Express and XMM-Newton – saving the STFC £42m over five years.

The STFC also announced that it will cut the number of studentships and fellowships that it funds by 25% over the next five years. It currently funds around 250 students per year. The STFC will also reduce support for “future exploitation grants” by 10%.

Real tensions

The origin of the cuts can be traced back to December 2007 when the STFC announced that it had an £80m budget deficit for the UK government’s current spending round that lasts from 2008 to 2011. It is thought that the deficit emerged by 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 (a grant-awarding body) and the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which ran the UK’s main research facilities.

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). However, over £40m still remained to be cut in the final year of the spending round. Indeed, in an unprecedented step, the STFC announced yesterday that other UK research councils have given £14m to help cover some of the grants it awards to researchers.

David Evans, head of the ALICE research group at Birmingham University, says they still have funding until 2011, but will then have to reapply for more money to keep the UK involved in the experiment. “The planned withdrawal is very disappointing,” says Evans. “ALICE is actually very inexpensive, around half a million per year, now the experiment is built, so this is a crazy decision.”

The UK has played an important role in building ALICE by constructing and operating the so-called “trigger”, which tells the detector when to be ready to start taking data. Evans says that if the STFC pulled funding immediately ALICE would not even be able to work. “The problem is that the STFC are now undermining the UK’s involvement at the Large Hadron Collider,” says Evans. “We will lose influence at CERN.”

William Gelletly, a nuclear physicist from the University of Surrey, believes that the STFC has targeted nuclear physics to bear the brunt of the cuts. He calculates that over the five years from 2011-2015, nuclear physics is being reduced by over 50%, while other subjects such as particle physics and astronomy are seeing cuts of only 5% and 10% respectively. “The problem is we are not well established yet in the STFC,” says Gelletly. “I am not sure they know why the subject is important.”

Gelletly now believes that the STFC needs urgent reforms, which could possibly take place after the general election next year. “It simply cannot survive in its current form,” says Gelletly. Indeed, in a statement by Lord Drayson, the UK’s science minister, he said there were “real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities, and UK grant-giving roles within a single research council.” This he says leads to grants “being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control.” Drayson will now “work urgently” with Stirling to “find a better solution by the end of February 2010”.

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