Many others have been doing their best to disseminate information on the UK Physics funding crisis (especially Sheffield Prof Paul Crowther) but it’s probably worth pointing out the latest repercussion (which has already been picked up by the BBC): despite a bid to remain involved at a reduced level, it looks like the UK will be forced to completely withdraw from the Gemini telescope consortium. This is particularly dangerous for astronomers here, as Gemini-North was the only large telescope (about 8 meters in diameter) in the Northern Hemisphere to which the UK had access. Now, half the sky will be inaccessible, at least at the highest sensitivities and with the most advanced instruments. (Realistically, this will likely force us to collaborate with European, Asian and American colleagues, and probably to give up leadership roles in these projects.)
Meanwhile, committees are meeting, the government is holding hearings, and we scientists are being quietly advised that, essentially, you attract more flies with honey than vinegar, so we’d better not start pondering the thought that, perish forbid, anyone had actually made a mistake getting to this increasingly difficult position. Let’s hope that whatever is going on behind the scenes is better than what we’re seeing out front.
Today we heard that the (bizarrely agglomerated) UK Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills will be significantly cutting the physics budget that comes through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). STFC was formed earlier this year out of PPARC (Particle Physics and Astrophysics) and the CCLRC (which ran big facilities like the Rutherford Appleton Lab). When it was formed, we were told this would enable better science. But it seems we may have been sold a bill of goods: the science program is being saddled with what is, essentially, CCLRC’s debt, in the form of an £80 million shortfall that will fall disproportionately on academic research. And therefore, of course, on physics departments and, inevitably, physics education.
The Delivery Plan has just been announced, but of course the spin is all on the overall increase to funding, not these cuts. Happily (and a little surprisingly) the BBC highlighted the impact on physics in its usual stroppy manner.
Andy Lawrence has been following the news of the impending cuts over the last few weeks. Chris Lintott and Stuart have some more details. The headline cuts seem to be: withdrawal from the International Linear Collider (particle physicists’ next big instrument after the LHC at CERN), cessation of all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities (i.e., telescopes and instruments that investigate the sun and its impact on the earth from the ground), and “revisiting the on-going level of investment” in gravitational wave detection, dark matter detection, the Clover CMB experiment and the UKIRT telescope. The UK will pull out of the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes.
Most important for me, so-called post-launch support for existing space missions (such as the Planck Surveyor CMB Mission, although it was never explicitly mentioned in the plan) will be cut by around 30%. This is a very cynical ploy: we will undoubtedly be so excited by the data from missions like Planck that we will donate our time, gratis, just to make sure that it gets analyzed.
There do appear to have been some small victories. Rather than a full termination as mooted last week, STFC plans “to withdraw from future investment in the twin 8-metre Gemini telescopes and we will work with our international partners to retain access to Gemini North.” So at least UK astronomers will have access to a world-class telescope in the Northern hemisphere. Most importantly, “Science Minister Ian Pearson said [on the BBC] funding arrangements would be reviewed,” — which we hope means actual compromises are possible — although of course he “did not promise extra money.”
Congratulations to Dr Brian May, PhD, for successfully defending his PhD thesis, “Radial Velocities in the Zodiacal Dust Cloud”. At the time of his defense, I was up in Durham, lecturing to the mostly younger incoming class of STFC-supported UK grad students. Best of luck to them, too, and let’s hope they can finish before their funding runs out in three or four years and so won’t have to make do with a less interesting career like Brian’s.