Dear STFC, WTF? Sincerely, Ian

This week has been a horrid few days for UK physics. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced on Wednesday that it was going to plug a hole in their funding deficit by withdrawing the UK’s participation in a number of astronomy, nuclear and particle physics projects.

This measure will have a huge impact on the number of PhD and postdoc positions that will be available for students pursuing research training. In fact, a whopping 25% of fellowships and student grants for PhD projects will be eliminated next year.

On reading some of the reports, anyone would think the UK’s institutions are pissing their funds away Enron-style. How many billions of pounds is the STFC hoping to hide from these money-hungry physicists? After all, tea breaks and lasers don’t come cheap.

£115 million.

WTF?

Perhaps I’m just a little numb of hearing national debt topping “hundreds of billions” and “trillions,” but doesn’t £115 million sound petty by today’s standards? In a world where banks have vaporized zillions of pounds/dollars/euros and world governments are baling them back out again, just over one hundred million pounds doesn’t strike me as a huge number by a nation’s standards.

It’s okay, let’s pass the mic over to Prime Minister Gordon Brown for an explanation, surely he has a clue why baling out banks is better than baling out a research funding body? Actually, I think he’s got his work cut out in Copenhagen at the moment, but he seemed pretty upbeat about science in Feb. 2009 when he made the grand statement, “The [economic] downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.”

(I followed up the STFC turmoil on the Number 10 Downing Street website, but it appears the Prime Minister’s search engine is unavailable for comment on the issue.)

This statement came after a fairly ratty time during 2008 when I had a rant (across a series of articles) about the UK government’s stupidity when handling astronomy funding. The STFC — a then-recently appointed funding body that was formed after the merging of PPARC and CCLRC — had announced to the world that the UK was going to back out of its commitment as joint funding nation for the Gemini observatories in Hawaii and Chile.

Astronomer outrage and ceremonial Union Jack Flag-burning ensued.

In an effort to plug an £80 million hole in the STFC’s budget, the funding body appeared to slam the door shut on Gemini. But that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and after huge protests by astronomers, the UK’s involvement in Gemini was reinstated. Good times.

However, it would seem that the STFC deficit is getting worse and increasingly desperate measures are being taken. For a full run-down of STFC funding problems, have a look at Paul Crowther’s growing list on STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy. Also see STFC Funding Crisis: Particle Physics and STFC Funding Crisis: Neutron & Muon Science.

Ian Douglas, Telegraph science producer, has compiled a sobering list of the projects that are facing the axe in this new round of science culling. However, for me, this is the most alarming part:

SOHO, a collaboration between ESA and NASA, was to study the structure of the sun and its solar wind. The loss of Venus Express again puts Britain on the back foot when it comes to the exploration of other planets. Withdrawing from ALICE at CERN means that Britain will lose influence at the site of the largest experiments ever conducted and the Boulby underground laboratory is one of the leading centres of research on dark matter.

SOHO? Cassini? Venus Express? ALICE? It’s beginning to sound like a Who’s Who of projects you would never withdraw from. This shouldn’t be a budget cut hit list. Granted, all the projects, no matter how big or small, will be an irreplaceable loss for all scientists involved.

The Institute of Physics President Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell echoed some of my points in a recent statement, but also highlighted a fundamental flaw in this STFC strategy (emphasis added):

The greatest shame about today’s announcement is the reduced investment in people. With all of the challenges we face, from climate change and energy security to a rapidly ageing population, we urgently need individuals well-trained in physics. Today’s announcement, which includes a 25 per cent reduction in studentships and fellowships, runs counter to this need.

The amount needed to avoid this unfortunate cut is minor in comparison to the huge sums of money spent saving the financial sector, surely money can be found to avoid it.

Money to one side, this is the thing that worries me the most: If the STFC cuts back on the research opportunities available to postgrads and postdocs, the UK’s future in a huge swathe of physics disciplines could be crippled. If you start weakening the UK’s ability to lead, or at least be involved with, international physics projects, you ultimately damage the nation’s competitive edge. This impacts employment, innovation, industry, education and the economy.

Although it is fairly easy to paint the STFC with an incompetence gloss, it is really the UK government that’s screwing up. I’d find it insane if any government didn’t step in to fill a science funding deficit of this size (yes, the money could be found), but for the UK — a world leader in science and technology innovation — to stand by, citing the current economic climate as a reason for not investing in the future, is idiotic.

Unfortunately, politics is short-sighted and politicians have a shelf-life of a few years, it’s too easy to let the next administration sweep up the mess.