May 13, 2011

UK Cuts Astronomy And Particle Physics Budget

MPs said that deep-funding cuts put the U.K.'s prominence in astronomy and particle physics at risk.

The Science and Technology Committee said astronomy funding will drop 20 percent over a four year period.

MPs said some of the resulting cuts are likely to deter scientists from working in the U.K.

The government said it has protected the science budget but is not able to make individual funding decisions.

Committee chairman Labor MP Andrew Miller told BBC:  "If you don't invest in big science at the level it needs, it's going to have a big impact on our competitiveness and pre-eminence in areas that are important to the country."

The U.K. has withdrawn from involvement in projects using ground-based telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere.

Professor Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who is president of the Institute of Physics, said the projects could be reinstated for a relatively small amount of money.

"It only takes £2-3m to keep several Northern Hemisphere telescopes operating," she told BBC News. "The amount seems to me remarkably little and I observed when we met with the select committee that it would be no more than a banker's bonus."

Professor Roger Davies, the president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), told BBC he fears this decision may drive many of U.K.'s best astronomers away.

"The UK recruits in the global marketplace and there's a great deal of competition for the posts we do have available. If people are no longer able to have access to global facilities then they will think twice about moving here."

The body that funds astronomy and particle physics, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), told the select committee that withdrawal from telescopes in the Northern Hemisphere was necessary to pay for access to observatories in the Southern Hemisphere.

Davies said there were plans to reduce the sake in some Northern Hemisphere observatories, "but it's not at all true to say that they would amount to the wholesale cuts we are seeing now."

The science budget received a more generous settlement in last year's spending review that had anticipated.  There were fears of budget cuts of between 20 percent and 30 percent.

Instead, the budget received a freeze and an assurance that it would be ring-fenced for four years.

The cut to particle physics and astronomy research is worse, partly due to STFC's inherited debts of $121 million from when it was created in 2007. 

The funding body said it shared the committee's belief that physics research should remain world class.

"Particle and nuclear physics and astronomy, with space science and the other disciplines we support, play a crucial role in inspiring younger people to become involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics," the body said in a statement.

A spokesman for the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which funded the research, said in a statement:  "Despite enormous pressure on public spending, the £4.6 billion ($7.4 billion) per annum funding for science and research programs has been protected in cash terms and ring fenced against future pressures during the spending review period.

"The Haldane principle dictates that the government cannot intervene in individual funding decisions."


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