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Lean Days Ahead for U.K. Physical Science

11 December 2007 (All day)
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Gemini Observatory/AURA

Collateral damage.
STFC will withdraw from the Gemini Observatory, citing a budget shortfall.

Particle physicists and astronomers in the United Kingdom learned today that their grants and programs face dramatic cuts due to an £80 million shortfall at their primary funding agency, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Several U.K. scientific organizations, such as the Institute of Physics, the Royal Society, and the Royal Astronomical Society, quickly issued protests. "They're talking about a 25% cut in grant support," says Phil Allport, who leads a large particle physics group at the University of Liverpool.

The council's problems stem from birthing pains. It was created earlier this year through the merger of a funding council that handled the U.K.'s large-scale physical science facilities and another council that funded particle physics and astronomy. The union appeared to make sense because both scientific disciplines increasingly depend on large, expensive instruments such as mammoth telescopes and particle accelerators. But the facilities inherited by STFC, both old ones and those still under construction, are suffering cost overruns. The situation is so bad that the new council won't have the amount of money it expected for other purposes despite a small overall increase in funding during the budget cycle. Researchers don't completely blame STFC, saying government ministers promised there would be no shortfall. "This really looks like unintended consequences of the merger," says Allport.

STFC's budget document, which covers 2008 through 2011, acknowledges its funding woes and offers a tough prescription: cuts to programs and facilities and less money for grants. The council has already announced plans to withdraw from the Gemini Observatory, which marries optical telescopes in both hemispheres for full-sky surveys, and now says it will no longer invest in, among other things, high-energy gamma ray astronomy and the planning for the International Linear Collider.

"The STFC seems landed in a position where it could inflict seriously damaging cuts in university physics departments and be unable to derive full benefit from the world-class facilities that have already been funded," Royal Society President Martin Rees declared in a statement. Allport says that he and colleague still hope that the government will allocate additional money to STFC once it realizes the implications of the cuts.

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