Published online 16 January 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.446

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Government was warned of physics crisis

Documents show threat to research from budget levels was known.

The United Kingdom may drop international physics projects after harsh budget allotment.FERMILAB VISUAL MEDIA SERVICES

Documents obtained under the freedom of information act by researchers campaigning for more cash show that the UK government was warned about the consequences of its funding levels for physics, which resulted in a shock announcement of massive cuts to research in December last year (see <a href="http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/news.2007.366">Physics and astronomy research face "catastrophic" cuts</a>).

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds physics research in the United Kingdom, was given a 13.6% budget increase for the next three years in October. However, running costs and commitments to existing projects mean that the real increase would only be 8% for research spending, says Brian Cox, one of those who obtained the documents. As that is only slightly above inflation over three years, Cox says this is a 'flat-cash' scenario.

The documents show that the council described a flat-cash scenario to the government in July 2007, months before the budget allocation, as resulting in "retrenchment" with "facility operations at [a] significantly reduced level" and "severely constrained exploitation grants".

Responding to calls to for more money in parliament yesterday, Ian Pearson, minister for science and innovation, said: "To restate the basic facts of the matter, which have all too frequently been incorrectly reported in recent weeks, the STFC’s budget will go up over the next three years; it will rise by 13.6% by the end of the comprehensive spending review period. The Government’s commitment to the country’s research base is clear."

Flat-cash disaster

"It’s not a belt-tightening process. It is an absolute disaster," says Cox, a physicist at the University of Manchester, regarding the cuts. "People I have spoken to have said it is the worst ever situation particle physics and astronomy has been faced with."

The fact that the STFC advice does not seem to have been heeded has surprised physicists in the light of the government's expressed commitment to UK science, including a doubling of investment in research by 2010 announced in October. Cox says he thinks the government cannot have realized the consequences of its actions. "It’s difficult to understand. Even if the government meant to reduce the funding to STFC they didn’t mean for the consequences that have ensued," he says.

The cuts have also united the physics community in an unprecedented way. "For once everybody has put aside their rivalries," says Cox. "Usually if there was a slight squeeze you’d start manoeuvring for your own project. You don’t see any of that [now]."

Minister admits concerns

In front of a parliamentary committee this morning John Denham, the secretary of state for innovation, universities and skills, admitted that he had concerns over the future of physics in the United Kingdom after the swingeing cuts. He said this had led him to commission in December an independent review of the health of physics, which is currently underway.

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This review is part of a series looking at the health of key disciplines. But Denham’s evidence to the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee may help to explain why physics is being looked at first.

"Because of the implications for some of the decisions that were taken [by the STFC] I was concerned about some of the possible implications for the health of physics as a discipline across the system as a whole," he says. "It seemed to me the appropriate level of my intervention was to say ... can we have a review of the health of physics as a discipline?" 

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