Published online 8 July 2008 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2008.941

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Spending plan appeases UK physicists

Uneasy truce struck after re-arrangement of limited funds.

Funding for Jodrell Bank is protected under th enew spending plan.Anthony Holloway, Jodrell Bank, University of Manchester

"It's good to see so many friends here, and as for the rest of you, I hope you left your weapons at the front desk." With those ominous words, Richard Wade, the chief operating officer of the United Kingdom's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), opened the first public meeting to discuss the plan published on Thursday 3 July for dealing with a large hole in the UK physics budget.

Yet the acrimony for which the council was prepared never materialized in today's meeting at the Royal Society in London. Instead, many in the audience expressed gratitude over what they say has been a relatively transparent planning process.

The STFC is the main funding body for astronomy, nuclear- and high-energy physics in Britain. In December 2007, the STFC shocked the physics community by announcing an £80 million (US$158 million) cut to both budgets and involvement in international programmes. This was in order to accomodate a restricted STFC budget for 2008–2011.

The cuts proved to be painful. High-energy physicists were angered by the council's unilateral withdrawal from the proposed International Linear Collider, the next-generation particle accelerator. And astronomers were equally furious with a proposed withdrawal from the Gemini observatory. The decisions, which came almost without warning, sparked loud protests and made front-page news coverage.

Crucial changes

Since then, work has been done to re-arrange the available funds in a way the might better suit all. The result seems to be a grudging acceptance of the new plan. "It seems to me that the STFC has listened to the community in many ways," says Michael Rowan-Robinson, an astronomer at Imperial College in London. Nevertheless, he adds, the spat has "damaged morale, especially among young researchers".

The STFC's review took place over the past few months. Expert panels were set up to review some 1,400 responses from the community, according to Peter Knight, a physicist at Imperial College and chair of the council's science board. At every stage reports and responses were made public, Knight says.

The resulting plan is broadly similar to the initial spending plan that caused so much furore, but with some important tweaks.

The council will still forgo participation in the International Linear Collider, for example, but will set aside £1 million pounds for research and development into something similar, and £10 million a year for advanced accelerators.

As revealed previously, the council will continue UK involvement with the Gemini telescope by attempting to sell observing time to other countries.

The council has also promised to try to fund priorities from the community, such as the T2K neutrino oscillation experiment in Japan, and e-MERLIN, a radio-astronomy network run by Jodrell Bank in Manchester.

Give with one hand

The revised spending plan isn't all good news. To make up for funding increases, cuts have to be made elsewhere. The United Kingdom's participation in the BaBar particle-physics experiment at the Stanford Linear Accelerator in California will be ended, for example, as will the nation's involvement in the Integral spacecraft — a gamma-ray spotting satellite observatory.

Much uncertainty remains. Astronomy grants are still facing a roughly 25% cut over the full spending period, and some high-energy physics grants look likely to end soon. Nuclear physicists are also concerned because the plan shifts money from their grants to finance large facilities.

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Some attendees were still annoyed by a lack of detail about where and how cuts will come. "What I wanted was clarity," says Susan Cooper, a high-energy physicist at the University of Oxford. "Without knowing, it is very hard to plan."

But overall, even the more out-spoken critics seemed at peace with the new programme. "I think the consultative process has been a success," says Rowan-Robinson. Ken Peach, a high-energy physicist at the University of Oxford, cautiously agrees. "Things look somewhat better than they did three to four months ago," he says. "But there are casualties." 

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