Britain's beleaguered Science and Technology Funding Council (STFC), the government body which funds astronomy, particle and nuclear physics, and space science in the U.K., is to get new funding arrangements. The new setup is intended to allow the voracious needs of large-scale research facilities do not squeeze out grants for university-based researchers. Announced today by science minister Paul Drayson, the new arrangements will create a separate funding stream for Britain's domestic large facilities and a mechanism—still to be worked out—to protect the Council budget from currency fluctuations. Those rises and falls can increase its subscriptions to overseas facilities such as the CERN particle physics center and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The measures will, Drayson says, protect the grant parts of the STFC budget and prevent the sort of cuts the council was forced to announce last year.
STFC was created in 2007 by the merging of two other research councils and nuclear physics was shifted over from a third. But the two merging councils brought with them some hefty overcommitments to facilities creating a £40 million hole in STFC's budget. The fall in the value of the pound the following year meant that subscriptions to overseas facilities—including CERN, ESO, the European Space Agency, the Institute Laue-Langevin neutron source, and the European Synchrotron Radiation Facility—became much more expensive. To deal with the crisis STFC announced last year that nuclear physics grants would be cut by 29%, astronomy by 10%, space science by 6%, and particle physics by 4%. In addition, the United Kingdom would pull out of 24 national and international projects and reduce funding to 38 others.
Drayson's solution to the problem is to assess the needs of Britain's domestic facilities—the Diamond synchrotron x-ray source, the ISIS neutron source, and the Central Laser Facility—at the beginning of each 3-year spending period and apportion them a separate budget. For subscriptions to international facilities, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will protect STFC from currency fluctuations until the end of this spending period, March 2011. The Department is working with the Bank of England to devise a scheme to protect STFC from April 2011 onwards. Britain's subscription to the European Space Agency is expected to be taken out of STFC's control when the promised U.K. space agency is created.
The immediate reaction from researchers has been muted so far, in part because the new arrangements do not restore the grants funding that was cut in December.