Published online 11 December 2007 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news.2007.366
Corrected online: 12 December 2007

News

Physics and astronomy research face "catastrophic" cuts

UK government plans to scrap future collider and slash astronomy grants.

The plan will end Britain’s investment in the International Linear ColliderCourtesy of Fermilab Visual Media Services

Physicists and astronomers in the United Kingdom are expressing shock at a plan to slash their budgets and end involvement in a number of programmes.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council, which coordinates large-scale facilities and much of Britain’s research in the physical sciences, announced the cuts today. The reductions are part of an effort to make up for a large overspend, with no increase in its budget for 2008–2011.

The plan will end Britain’s investment in the International Linear Collider (ILC), a US$7-10 billion particle accelerator. The withdrawal will affect well over 100 physicists, at 16 departments across the country, according to Phil Burrows, a particle physicist at Oxford University. "The ILC has been identified by the world particle-physics community as the next big thing," he says. "We are sort of devastated."

And the effect of the cuts is likely to extend beyond the United Kingdom. UK physicists were in charge of developing the electron and positron sources that provide particles to the ILC, according to Jean-Pierre Delahaye, a physicist at CERN, Europe’s particle-physics laboratory in Geneva, Switzerland. They were also taking the lead on a system that would focus the particles into the collider's massive detectors. "The systems in which the United Kingdom was in charge were essential," he says. "If it is not there anymore, it will be traumatic."

The plan also calls for cuts in grants. No number has been given, but the cuts are expected to be deep — around one-quarter of the current figure of roughly £100 million (US$204 million), according to Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society in London. The plan also calls for ending Britain’s funding of high-energy ɣ-ray research and cutting operating budgets on existing space-based instruments by 30%. "This will have a catastrophic effect on astronomy departments," he says. "It is just crazy."

Concession

The council has made one important concession, Rowan-Robinson says. It will seek to retain access to one of the two US Gemini telescopes. Previously, it had said that it would completely withdraw its £4 million commitment to the project (see <a href="http://www.nature.com/uidfinder/10.1038/450468b">UK astronomers stunned by Gemini withdrawal</a>). Keeping a stake in the northern Gemini telescope, in Hawaii, will allow astronomers to follow up on some of their findings.

The cuts are needed to make up for an £80 million cost overrun, in large part by two major facilities — the Diamond Light Source synchrotron and the ISIS neutron and muon source, both at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire. A report released this November from a parliamentary committee found around £60 million in overruns in construction and operating costs at the two facilities, in part due to rising energy costs.

The cuts are unfair, says Burrows, because the facilities involved are used by scientists in fields different from those affected by the cuts. "Particle physics and astronomy are effectively bailing out facilities for other disciplines," he says, "There is a certain sense of injustice."

Keith Mason, chief executive for the council, says that the cuts had to be made because the budget had not been raised. Cuts to other programmes could follow, he adds. Space science, ground-based astronomy, nuclear physics and gravitational-wave detection will have to be "tensioned against each other from the available funding," he says. 

Corrected:

This story originally incorrectly flagged nuclear physicists as the users of the facilities that have had cost over-runs. This has been corrected.
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