Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 15

Submission from Group Leaders in Particle Physics[31]

  1.  We very much welcome the initiative of your Select Committee to look into the circumstances surrounding the recent settlement for the STFC as a result of the Comprehensive Spending Review. What should have been a good news story for science in the UK was seriously undermined when the consequences of the STFC component of the settlement for physics as a discipline became apparent. We, as group leaders in particle physics, are naturally concerned, but we note that our concerns are widely shared, by Universities UK, the Royal Society, the Institute of Physics, the Royal Astronomical Society, the British Association for the Advancement of Science and many organisations and individuals.[32]

  2.  We cannot believe that the draconian cuts outlined in the STFC Delivery Plan published on December 11th 2007 are a result of a deliberate policy, but the effects are likely to be devastating for some physics departments. We first heard of this problem on 6th November, when STFC announced that there was an £80 million deficit in its budget over the CSR period 2008-2011. We were told that a draft delivery plan approved by STFC had been sent to the Minister (Dr Ian Pearson), and that it contained some radical options. In the end, we understand that this plan was not accepted—certainly an apparently hastily written plan was published on the 11 December. We are particularly concerned that the peer review system was marginalized prior to decisions by STFC Executive to withdraw from leading international programmes and to cut grants to universities by about 25%.

  3.  Given the seriousness of the situation, we wrote as concerned individuals to the Minister and local MPs, to advise them of the consequences for physics departments. At the same time, many other organisations became alarmed, particularly University Vice-Chancellors. We believe that, when serious unintended consequences of an action of a Government Department become apparent, it is essential that the appropriate Minister act quickly to mitigate the damage. This manifestly did not happen. All that did happen was a hastily conceived review into the Health of Physics, to be chaired by Professor Bill Wakeham, VC of Southampton. While this is very welcome, the time-scale for the review, its terms of reference and membership are unclear. However, all we hear makes us believe that the timescale currently envisaged for the review to report will be too late to avoid serious damage to physics departments, national centres of excellence (RAL, Daresbury, Astronomy Technology Centre . . . ) and to individual careers, particularly those just starting out in research—a request for voluntary redundancies at RAL and Daresbury has already been issued, with a deadline of January for applications; by the summer, this invaluable expertise will be lost.

  4.  We urge your committee to ask the Minister to delay implementation of the STFC delivery plan until the Wakeham review has reported by finding the relatively small sum of money to enable this to happen from elsewhere within the Science Vote, for example from the Large Facilities line.

  5.  When the STFC was formed last year by the merger of CCLRC and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), assurances were given that the merger would be properly funded and would not adversely impact scientific research volumes and university physics department finances. In April 2007 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology (which covers part of the brief of your Select Committee) discussed the formation of STFC. There was discussion of the potential impact that a shortfall in the funding of the facilities could have on University Grants, and in general the "conflict of interest" that could arise between the grant-giving functions and the facilities operations of the new Council. The Committee noted that "[t]here were concerns that the STFC would be hampered by CCLRC liabilities, but we have been reassured by the Minister for Science that these will not be transferred to the STFC". It should also be noted that the NAO report published in January 2007 noted the increased operating costs of Diamond and the ISIS 2nd target station. In the draft Delivery Plan of July 2007, STFC noted that they would have to "make provision for the inherited and unavoidable liabilities in relation to Diamond VAT, SRS restructuring and 08/09 operating costs (40 million over the CSR period)" and furthermore "absorb the shortfall in funding in the last Spending Review for the operating costs for Diamond and ISIS Target Station 2 (circa 35 million over the CSR period)". This seems to indicate that STFC inherited a deficit of around £25 million per annum from the CCLRC side of the merger.

  6.  The STFC Delivery Plan following the CSR Allocations will lead to the cancellation of existing research programmes, many with international partners. We know of initiatives in several countries' which have cited the UK as an innovative and imaginative research leader, for example in fostering strong collaborative programmes between national laboratories and university departments. The UK's international reputation in science as a reliable partner will be severely damaged unless the STFC Delivery Plan is revised, just at the point when UK science had recovered after decades of indifference and neglect.

  7.  The impact of the 25% average reduction in grants on many university physics departments will be severe. Most leading departments rely on STFC-funded science for a large part (from a third to much more than two-thirds) of their research income. Some will be hit disproportionately harder. Particle physics and astronomy, which are wholly funded from within STFC and which are most affected by the proposals in the current STFC Delivery Plan, are well documented as the main reasons why young people choose physics at A-level and university. For example, a recent survey2 of 900 first year undergraduates in November 2007 showed that 75% of them cited the study of fundamental particles and quantum phenomena at A-level as having a significant impact on their decision to study physics at university.

  8.  The impact on the national laboratories at Harwell and Daresbuiy will be no less dramatic. There are reports in the press of up to 600 redundancies among the scientific staff—more than a third of the total. It is difficult to believe that this can be achieved without lasting damage to world-leading facilities such as the ISIS Spallation Neutron Source, the Astra-Gemini Petawatt laser and the new Diamond Synchrotron Light Source, as well as threatening world-leading developments in technology and engineering. Expertise in research teams that has been built-up over the years, once dispersed, will be impossible to re-assemble. Over the past decade, the UK has become a magnet to some of the best young researchers world-wide—a genuine "brain-gain"—and many UK scientists who have worked many years overseas have returned. The damage to our international reputation is incalculable; people have long memories.

  9.  The Government are well aware of the key role played by physics in the wider economy. In November 2007, the Minister for Science and Jimovation, Dr Ian Pearson, speaking at the Institute of Physics, said: "Physics makes a key contribution to the UK economy through the one million jobs where the use of physics-based technologies or expertise is critical to the existence of the sector, concentrated in 32,000 businesses." 5% of jobs in the UK are in sectors where the use of physics-based technologies or expertise is critical to the existence of the sector.

  10.  There are illustrations that some damage has already been done. Let us choose just one—the letter of 16th December 2007 to the Secretary of State that was signed by 559 early-stage researchers (graduate students and postdoctoral staff). They are "dismayed by the swingeing cuts" and concerned that these will "inevitably discourage the uptake of science at all levels; school, undergraduate and postgraduate". It is also interesting to note that this impressive number of signatories was collected in less than three days. They were able to do this so quickly through the use of the Facebook website, a development that would not have been possible without the World Wide Web which was, as we are sure you know well, invented by Sir Tim Berners-Lee while he was working at CERN, described in a Guardian leader ("in praise of . . . CERN", March 2006) as the laboratory "whose expertise is so wide-ranging that it invented the world wide web as a sideline and gave it away free".

  11.  There are many questions that we believe your Committee should ask:

    —  Why was STFC set up without sufficient resources to carry out its core business?

    —  Why, when the situation became clear and the consequences obvious to all, was nothing done to alleviate it?

    —  Was the process for allocating the large increase in resources for science conducted properly? On what basis were the final allocations decided?

    —  Did DIUS officials discuss the implications with the Minister before making the final allocations?

    —  Why was the draft of 7t November Delivery Plan proposed by STFC rejected?

    —  There is evidence that the STFC science advisory structure was marginalised and their advice ignored—is this true? Why is the communication between STFC and the communities that it serves so poor?

    —  Since DIUS has acknowledged that the STFC Delivery Plan will cause major problems for physics departments, and has set up a review to investigate these, why does it not find the small amount of resource required to delay the implementation of the delivery plan, with all its disastrous consequences, until a proper review can be carried out?

    —  Why has DIUS decided that STFC will in future be responsible for changes in international subscriptions due to variations in exchange rates? What is the potential impact on science output of this decision?

    —  Was any assessment carried out within DIUS of the impact of the STFC Delivery Plan on the UK's international reputation? If not, why not? If so, what was that assessment, and why were the consequences thought to be acceptable?

    —  What are the likely consequences for university physics departments if this plan is implemented?

January 2008

31   See Appendix. Back

32   See for example the more than 12,000 signatures to the Downing Street petition Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 30 April 2008