Cold winter draws in on UK physics

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was created in haste. A sudden transfer of the management structure of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) onto an entirely new budget and a new set of responsibilities formed by a merger of PPARC and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Due to an accounting error, the source of which remains contentious to this day, the budget of nearly two and a half billion pounds came in £80 million short. The result was carnage for various research grants, most notably in Solar Terrestrial Physics (STP). STFC came under pressure from international partners as it reneged on deals at a whim, the government, whose Investing in People report signaled severe structural problems inside the council, parliament whose science and innovation committee branded the STP massacre and attitude towards the field as ‘bizarre’ and of course scientists in the affected fields who felt STFC were working to their own agenda. STFC said this was a necessary painful step in balancing the books of the new council and that it would not happen again.

Fast forward from then to the end of 2009, now. STFC is in a cash crisis of at least similar magnitude. It had been rumoured that around £70 million would be needed to be found due to a loan taken out during the previous crisis (which apparently STFC forgot it had to repay) and fluctuations in exchange rates relating to subscriptions to international facilities (which Lord Drayson said had been fully funded, but the Science and Technology Committee suggests had not been). The cuts announced today amounted to around £115 million.

It would appear that some small progress had been made in making the decisions on where the axe falls more accountable, but they started from a pretty low base. STFC appears to still be making the mistake of following the boss’s (Professor Keith Mason’s) mantra of “we must look like winners or we won’t be funded”, by which he means having only jazzy looking fresh science on the table. Looking at present funding levels and the dire state of physics as a result, it is clear this hasn’t at all worked – either now or during the first round of cuts.

The research council, although responsible for where the axe fell and repaying its own loans, needn’t take the entirety of the blame. Questions are now being asked about the Science Minister, Lord Drayson. Through his twitter account, he continuously spoke with honeyed words about being on the side of scientists. His genuine enthusiasm for the brief and apparent willingness to let STFC know when he was unhappy at preparations to pull out of successful collaborations (in this case the European Southern Observatory and CERN) convinced a few that he was working to salvage something. However, his assurances turned out to be a little toothless as beyond twittering platitudes such as “don’t let stfc do this”, he seemed to forget he was the man in government charged with making sure STFC is run appropriately. The Haldane principle, which is the convention by which politicians don’t interfere in the allocations of funds to science, also applies to administration. This means that if Drayson were to dictate where every penny went, he would be rightly ignored, but if STFC were to make a hash of running the budget, or, more crucially, if they decided to set out a ‘coherent plan’ for the allocation of their budget that went against the advice of scientists, they too would be in contravention of the convention. This latter point seems the case. Whereas 2008 saw STFC at loggerheads with international partners, who referred to the UK as incompetent and unreliable in their handling of subscriptions, this time we see the Government’s Science Minister at loggerheads with his own Quango, each blaming the other for the deficit.

Drayson has today responded by announcing another structural review of the council, rightly noting that a council looking after huge subscriptions and smaller research grants might be tempted to apply cuts to the latter more appropriately sized for the former. But Drayson has also announced a new UK Space Agency, which will be taking over from STFC. Does he intend to create this agency by transplanting a bit of STFC like STFC was created by transplanting a bit of PPARC? Or is he a little cooler on the idea of an agency than has otherwise been suggested? Additionally, with a proposed quarter of new funding earmarked for Government directed research only from 2013, it may be a little silly to waste a lot of time and money examining a structure whose time may be more limited than that of the review.

The response to the cuts has been as swift and savage as the prioritisation itself. A stream of tweets using the #stfc hashtag continues to pass comments around. The Royal Astronomical Society notes that UK scientists have no subscriptions to research grade optical telescopes in the northern hemisphere, plus we’re pulling out of many high impact and very successful space missions. The Institute of Physics has bemoaned the 25% cut to funding for PhD students and Post Doctoral Researchers (ie first jobs for PhD students after qualification) at a time when every other industrialised nation put up their funding (6.7% in the case of the USA). The papers have also focused on this with the Guardian additionally pointing out that nuclear physics faces more than 50% total cuts to funding at a time when Government policy is on creating new nuclear power stations. The Times Higher Education highlights a few flagship programs now down the drain and breaks down the cuts into £42 million off space projects, £39 million off astronomy, £32 million off particle physics and £12 million off nuclear physics.

Scientists on twitter have been active with Brian Cox fighting the particle physics corner and Chris Lintott batting for astronomy. Chris is of the opinion that STFC seem happy to have a finger in each pie, but not to actually sample the taste – we can build or run a facility, but not have the money to use it or store the data derived from it.

But onto the cuts themselves.

In astronomy, the projects Advanced LIGO, KMOS, VISTA, Dark Energy Survey, E-ELT R&D, SKA R&D, SuperWASP, e-Merlin, Zeplin III will be funded throughout the period reviewed, JCMT, Gemini and ING will carry on until 2012 when Gemini loses funding. This group will need to lose £16 million. Projects to lose stfc funding include:

  • Auger –  Cosmic Ray observatory (at a time when new knowledge about the heliosphere is coming in).
  • Inverse Square Law Experiment in Space – looking at deviations from Newtonian descriptions of gravity
  • ROSA – Robotic teaching telescope at Sheffield
  • ALMA – Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array, a powerful telescope exploring a neglected part of the electromagnetic spectrum
  • JIVE – Joint Institute for VLBI (Very Long Baseline Interferometry – a telescope) in Europe. See above, but for longer wavelengths
  • Liverpool Telescope – robotic 2m telescope on La Palma, used for schools and research
  • UKIRT – UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii, very important for the researchers in my own group, looking at the planets.

Particle physics sees the following projects funded, but collectively saving £25 Million; ATLAS, CMS, GridPP, nEDM, Cockroft Institute, IPPP, LHCb, MICE, SuperNEMO, T2K and the John Adams Institute. STFC funding has been removed for the following:

  • Boulby Underground Laboratory – observes particles that don’t often interact with ordinary matter, recently in the news over the search for Dark Matter. That program was called “Missing” as now is Boulby.
  • CDF – Collider Detector at Fermilab, which detects high energy collisions in a particle collider
  • D0 – international collaboration (including CDF) looking at the fundamental nature of matter
  • eEDM – electron-electron dipole moment experiment in space, making advance measurements to search for neutrino absolute masses, dark matter particles and matter: antimatter assymatries
  • LowMass – Generic detector
  • MINOS – Main Injector Neutrino Oscillation Search at FermiLab, looking at how neutrinos interfere with one another
  • Particle Calorimeter – discriminates between particles
  • Spider – silicon detector
  • The Neutrino Factory – experiment to create and study neutrinos

Nuclear physics keeps NUSTAR with £2 million reductions, but loses STFC funding for:

  • AGATA – advanced gamma-ray tracking array, looking at high energy photons for nuclear spectroscopy
  • ALICE – one of six experiments at CERN
  • PANDA – an antiproton collider

In space, the probes still being funded are: Aurora, GAIA, Herschel, JWST-MIRI, LISA Pathfinder, Rosetta, Planck, ExoMars, Hinode, Cosmic Vision, Solar Orbiter, Stereo, Swift and Bepi-Colombo. Many high profile and successful probes have lost STFC funding, including:

  • Cassini – the Equinox mission, presently giving us movies of the aurorae of Saturn in visible, infrared and UV light amongst many, many other things. Vital to research interests at Imperial… an STP field experiment.
  • Cluster – set of satellites looking into Earth’s interaction with the solar wind and the magnetic environment an STP field experiment.
  • SoHO – Solar and Heliospheric Observatory, watches the Sun in a variety of ways an STP field experiment.
  • Venus Express – satellite based on Mars Express technology observing the second planet from the Sun. We help pay to build it and get it there, now someone else takes the data. An STP field experiment.
  • XMM-Newton – space based x-ray telescope. Has been used in STP before…

Other facilities funded include the Diamond Synchrotron, Astra / Astra-Gemini, ESRF, ILL, ISIS, Vulcan 10 PetaWatt, with STFC funding withdrawn for:

  • NLS – the New Light Source; producing highly controlled x-ray pulses
  • The Photon Science Institute – focuses on interdisciplinary use of photon science
  • XFEL – The European X-ray Laser project

These cuts do not take into account any programs that may lose money due to the £14 million loan from other research councils to STFC, are dependent on £11 million of internal savings being found and financial predictions being met. They also ignore the impending £600 million cuts to the Universities budget announced in the PreBudget Report (which oddly enough started with the same “We begin in a position of strength” hollow rubric as the STFC announcement on the cuts).

I guess we’ll save that for the 2010 crisis…

For full details on the cuts, Paul Crowther runs a rolling blog.

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2 responses to “Cold winter draws in on UK physics

  1. Pingback: SarahAskew » STFC: The morning after

  2. Pingback: Cold-winter-draws-in-on-UK-physics : Sysmaya

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