A Letter to Lord Drayson
As reported in the Times Higher, the five chairs of the advisory panels that took part in STFC‘s recent prioritisation exercise have circulated an open letter to Lord Drayson. I’ve taken the liberty of posting the entire letter here.
UK fundamental science at a crossroads
An open letter to Lord Drayson, Minister for Science
On 16 December the Science and Technology Facilities Council announced the outcome of its “programmatic review”. The results present a dismal future for researchers in fundamental science: particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics. In order to balance its books STFC announced cuts to these frontier science discovery areas amounting to about £28m per annum starting in 2012. Although STFC’s total annual budget is more than £450m, the cuts have been targeted at the roughly £175m annual spend on UK projects in these fundamental science areas. The cuts include:
- an across-the-board reduction of 25 per cent for training of our brightest young scientists;
- termination of involvement in more than 20 cutting-edge science projects in which the UK plays leading roles;
- cancellation of support for an additional 20 projects, currently at the early R&D stage, which were planned to form the foundations of the future science programme 10-20 years from now, and in which the UK has international leadership.
Even those projects lucky enough to be continued will face cuts advertised at between 10 and 25 per cent, and this on top of cuts to STFC’s university physics grants, announced in the past 12 months, of 25 per cent across the board.
As chairs of STFC’s science advisory panels we represent the several thousand members of the UK’s particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics communities. On 21 December we wrote to Professor Michael Sterling, chair of STFC Council, to express, on behalf of our communities, dismay at this terrible outcome. We pointed out the obvious consequences:
- the waste of much of the significant prior investment made by the UK in forefront science;
- the loss of hard-won UK leadership in many significant areas;
- the lack of opportunity for developing future UK strategic opportunities for advancing the scientific frontier, with relevant knowledge exchange impact, on the 10-20 year horizon;
- the extremely negative message to bright young people about the importance the UK places in cutting-edge, fundamental science, and the career opportunities that follow from training in these areas.
The Prime Minister has publicly stated his commitment, which we strongly agree with, to preserve funding for science, seeing it as a key part of the solution to the current economic difficulties. Given that, how could more than 40 internationally leading science projects, and hundreds of studentships, be identified for the chop?
The problem stems from the setting up of STFC in April 2007 as an agency for funding both fundamental science and large (mainly accelerator- and laser-based) facilities used by scientists in other disciplines: for example, biologists and chemists, whose research is funded by the other UK research councils. By December 2007 STFC was already in financial difficulty and announced the need to save £80m over the following three years. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee investigated and concluded that STFC had been set up with a shortfall of funds needed to support both the science programme and development and operation of the facilities, and that it had managed the situation very poorly. These problems, inherent at STFC’s inception, have led inexorably to its pre-Christmas announcement to cut the science funding in order to support the operation of its facilities.
The situation has been exacerbated by the collapse of the pound against major currencies: STFC pays about £200m annually in subscriptions (in Euros and Swiss francs) for UK scientists to access major European research centres: CERN, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory and others.
Unless the Government takes action, STFC’s science cuts will almost inevitably lead to:
- irreparable damage to the high international reputation of the UK in these areas: we will be perceived as an untrustworthy partner in global projects;
- a “brain drain” of the best UK scientists, university lecturers and professors to positions overseas;
- a weakening of our capability to attract the best of overseas scientific talent to the UK;
- a consequent reduction in the provision and quality of UK university physics teaching and training that are essential for the UK’s economic future.
It is obvious that STFC cannot continue to stagger between financial crises on an almost annual basis. It is structurally incapable of managing both an internationally leading fundamental science programme and domestic facilities that are used primarily by scientists funded by other research councils. Both the science programme and the facilities operations need to be properly supported by dedicated agencies, and the UK’s globally leading research in particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics needs to be protected against exchange rate fluctuations.
Philip Burrows (University of Oxford) – Particle Physics Advisory Panel
Michele Dougherty (Imperial College London) – Near Universe Advisory Panel
Martin Freer (University of Birmingham) – Nuclear Physics Advisory Panel
Philip Mauskopf (Cardiff University) – Particle Astrophysics Advisory Panel
Bob Nichol (University of Portsmouth) – Far Universe Advisory Panel