STFC refocuses science strategy

Budget cuts to areas of the government’s science strategy could have severe implications for the country’s research base, according to leading UK academics.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has announced a five-year £2.4bn investment strategy that it claims will help deliver future economic benefits to the UK through increased global collaboration.

Prof Michael Sterling, STFC chairman, said that the programme involved ‘tough choices’ and would include ‘managed withdrawal’ from a number of space, nuclear, particle-physics and astronomy projects.

‘This is a major reorganisation of our programme to focus on the top-priority items making use of the international subscriptions’, he said. ‘It allows UK scientists critically important access to the world-class facilities provided by these international consortia.’

As part of the programme, the STFC plans to reduce support for future exploitation grants by 10 per cent next year and cut the number of new studentships and Fellowships by 25 per cent.

However, critics have warned that reducing investment in the next generation of scientists and engineers will be harmful to the UK’s future competitiveness.

Prof David Burgess, director of the Astronomy Unit at Queen Mary University of London, said: ‘The intention to reduce postgraduate studentships by 25 per cent will damage the contribution made by astronomy to scientific training at the highest level.

‘Postgraduate astronomy students go on, after qualification, to make a major contribution to the UK’s scientific workforce, with tremendous benefits to the economy.’

Astronomy has taken one of the biggest hits, with planned withdrawal from major programmes.

Instead, the STFC will provide £267m over the next five years to support ground-based astronomy in the UK, as well as providing access to global telescopes through membership of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) organisation.

Nuclear physics also faces a budget cut of around £8m, which – including cuts to future nuclear projects – represents a 52 per cent drop in overall nuclear-physics funding.

Prof Paddy Regan of Surrey University said: ‘The nuclear-physics communities fears were that scientific debate and prioritisation would give way to ‘block voting’ within the STFC and these fears appear to be borne out. To say we are disappointed would be a massive understatement. These acts of scientific vandalism must be challenged and overturned.’

The five-year strategy includes the allocation of £690m for support for particle physics in the UK, focusing on work at the European particle-physics laboratory, CERN, in Geneva where the Large Hadron Collider is scheduled to start routine science operations in January 2010.

Around £258m will be provided over five years for access to light sources for the medical, biological, chemistry, environmental and materials research through improvements to the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in Grenoble.

Responding to STFC’s announcement, Lord Drayson, science minister, said: ‘It has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant-giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects, which are not solely within their control.  

‘I will work urgently with Prof Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.’