A funding crisis at one of the UK’s leading research councils has forced the country to pull out of plans for the International Linear Collider (ILC). The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) says in a report published today that it does not see “a practicable path towards the realization of this facility as currently conceived on a reasonable timescale”. The report also says that the UK will stop investing in high-energy gamma-ray astronomy, withdraw from the Gemini telescopes, and cease all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities.
The withdrawal from the ILC is perhaps the highest profile casualty from the funding crisis that is rocking the STFC, which runs large UK research facilities such as the Diamond synchrotron, pays for the country’s subscriptions to labs like CERN, and hands out grants in physics and astronomy.
Shortfall of £80m
Following the government’s comprehensive spending review, however, the council will have a budget of £574m in 2007/08, rising to just £651m in 2010/11. This is a shortfall of £80m once inflation, increased running costs for facilities such as Diamond, and the need for research grants to now pay a much larger proportion of a lab’s running costs are taken into account. The STFC says that to establish “a robust programme”, it will have to withdraw from major facility programmes that are not of the highest priority and cut spending on research grants.
The ILC, which will collide beams of electrons and positrons, is being planned as the next accelerator following the Large Hadron Collider, which is set to come online at CERN in 2008. The UK has played a significant role in building the LHC and the withdrawal will come as a blow for the particle-physics community. The STFC has also confirmed that it will revamp plans for a fourth-generation light source with a view to deliver a new proposal by summer 2009.
“This is one whole great big bombshell,” says particle physicist John Dainton from the Cockcroft Institute at Liverpool University in the UK, which is involved in planning the ILC. “How can administrators in government departments and the STFC get this so wrong? There must be a reason and incompetence comes to mind. We are furious. You are killing off the exploitation of years of investment.”
The STFC defends its plans in its report. “Change is unavoidable and necessary if we are to move forward on a stronger sustainable financial footing and deliver the strong vision we have for the council,” it says. The STFC promised to work with the research community and the UK’s international partners “to manage the process of change and limit disruption”.