Thursday, July 3, 2008

UK physics got their budget--two billion pounds

"UK physics funding plans are approved"


Hamish Johnston

July 3rd, 2008

After six months of often bitter debate and recriminations, the UK's Science and Technologies Facilities Council (STFC) has approved its funding programme for astronomy and nuclear and particle physics for the next three years. The funding package totals nearly £2bn.

The announcement comes in the wake of accusations of mismanagement against the STFC by both British physicists and a parliamentary committee after an apparent £80m shortfall in funds for 2008-11 came to light in December 2007.

In a decision taken by the council on Tuesday and announced today, STFC has broadly accepted the recommendations of its two committees — the Particles Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Committee (PPAN) and the Physical and Life Sciences Committee (PAL) — which first reported in March, 2008. The committees ranked all STFC-funded programmes with the aim of deciding which projects deserved continued funding.

Both committees then received input from ten panels that were convened in response to complaints from the physics community regarding the consultation process. The concerns of more than 1400 physicists were considered by the panels, which reported in May.

Keith Mason, chief executive of the STFC, told that there was little difference between the recommendations of PPAN and PAL and the ten panels. As a result, there are no reprieves for any programmes originally slated to receive no further funding. This includes UK involvement with the International Linear Collider (ILC) — the next big particle physicists facility after CERN’s Large Hadron Collider.

Brian Foster of Oxford University who is European director of the ILC's global design effort told that the STFC's decision to "claw back" money already promised to researchers involved in the ILC "is an unprecedented step which makes it impossible for universities to plan sensibly".

Some good news

Today’s announcement brings some good news for physicists working on the LHCb experiment at CERN. The STFC had originally planned to cut UK funding of this experiment by 25%, but has been persuaded to reduce the cuts to 5% the first year and 10% in the two subsequent years.

Nick Brook of Bristol University, who has worked on the LHCb experiment for more than 10 years, said that he is "relatively pleased" by the decision, but pointed out that PPAN had chosen to ignore a panel recommendation that the 5% and 10% cuts would still cause significant damage to the UK's LHCb programme. Brook fears that the cuts could lead to a reduction in the number of UK physicists working on the experiment, just as it is about to begin later this year. In the worst case, Brook says that the UK researchers may have to renege on commitments it has already made to the project.

A parliamentary report on the debacle apportioned some of the blame to the way STFC was created in April 2007 by merging the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (which awarded research grants) with the CCLRC (which managed scientific facilities). Mason said "change often brings controversy", adding "we have had a healthy debate over the past six months".

The debate looks set to continue until at least September, when an external review of the STFC will report, along with a separate government-appointed review of UK physics in general.

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