Facing the Black Hole

An £80m shortfall in funding for the Science and Technology Facilities Council has led to uncertainties over the future of some of the most iconic astronomical and particle physics research in the UK


Britain’s scientists are up in arms. An £80m shortfall in funding for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has led to uncertainties over the future of some of the most iconic astronomical and particle physics research in the UK, such as the Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank and its part in the eMerlin networked radio telescope system. It’s also damaged the UK’s involvement in some of the most ambitious major research, including the plans for the giant International Linear Collider to investigate phenomena that even CERN won’t be able to observe.


This is obviously bad news for fundamental research, and it also has a direct impact on engineering — all these mega-instruments have to be built, maintained and operated, and that takes a whole range of engineering techniques from hard-nosed civil to delicate microprocessors, not to mention control systems and electronics. But the worst aspect of all is its impact on the future, and British science and engineering’s place in it.


Astronomy and particle physics are rather esoteric subjects, and are often viewed as the ultimate in ‘blue sky’ research. Yes, it’s very pretty and fascinating, the cynics say, but what’s the point? But that’s a very myopic viewpoint. Basic science breeds practical applications, and it does it in ways which are often unexpected. The entire semiconductor industry, with its ramifications in IT and telecommunications, came out of the first research into quantum theory. Space science — a lucrative industry for the UK, and one in which it is hugely respected — has a symbiotic relationship with astronomy. And every single medical imaging technique, not to mention the ever-advancing field of nuclear medicine, came straight out of high-energy physics.


It’s scientists and engineers, working together, who make these advances, and these collaborations are becoming ever closer. The advantages of meshing the design and function of these large scientific experiments are becoming apparent, and every time we on The Engineer talk to the people involved with them, they tell us that closer collaboration will lead to further advances and quicker exploitation of possible commercial spin-offs. This could be blocked off from British scientists and engineers; someone else will reap the benefits.


And let’s not disregard the blue sky aspect. Radio telescopes and particle accelerators have their own charisma. Stand next to the Lovell Telescope, or go into the caverns at CERN, and try to look away from these monstrous machines that probe the ultimate mysteries of the universe. You can’t help but become fascinated by them, their ambition and their goals. And you can’t underestimate the power of these experiments to get people interested in science and technology. Universities always complain how hard it is to persuade students onto these ‘difficult’ courses. Think how much harder it will be to grab them without the prospect of access to these spectacular devices.


Far be it for us to comment on the high mysteries of government finance, but the £80m STFC shortfall seems pretty paltry, especially when set beside the billions for bailing out certain financial institutions. Maybe the money really can’t be found from some contingency fund somewhere. If that’s the case, then we can only hope that the government realises the ramifications of these cuts — and finds some way to restoring the funding in the near future. The sooner, the better.



Stuart Nathan, Special projects editor