PHYSICISTS were left angered and confused last month when the Science and Technology Funding Council (STFC) announced its funding plan for the next three years.
At first glance, the allocation from the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) looked generous, with government officials claiming a 13.6 per cent increase on the last period.
However, it soon became apparent this actually translated into a gaping 80 million black hole that would have to be filled by cutting grants to university departments by at least 25 per cent nationwide.
For the next three years, the DIUS has allocated about 600 million a year for the STFC to play with. When you take into account the proportion of that figure that is actually available for spending on science – and taking into account the STFC's pre- existing commitments and factoring in inflation – there is virtually no increase in funds (a "flat-cash" scenario).
It has now emerged the government knew its proposed funding strategy could seriously harm the research interests of particle physics and astronomy in the UK as far back as July last year, according to documents obtained by a group of physicists under the Freedom of Information Act.
The STFC was formed last April following the merger of two former research councils: the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), who did the science; and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC), who provided the tools.
Understanding where the problem arose is no easy task, but a STFC spokeswoman told The Scotsman: "The shortfall is due to the need to fund extra costs in the (funding] period, including full economic costs on research grants, increased international subscriptions, operations of new facilities – Diamond and ISIS – and the planned run-down of the SRS facility".
There is a sense of confusion within the physics community as to how far up this crisis goes, which is only just beginning to unravel with the release of these documents. Not only does it appear the government was first made aware of the STFC's concerns months before the DIUS announced its funding allocations, but these concerns were reiterated in November, when the research council first learnt of the DIUS's proposal. An internal memo from the STFC on 7 November reads: "All of the options being taken forward have the potential for significant programmatic, reputational and political damage, including an adverse and long-term impact on the skills agenda".
This lack of clarity over who is to blame has fed a number of conspiracy theories. Did the right person in the department not see these memos or were the warnings simply ignored? Professor Richard Kenway, the leader of the particle theory group at Edinburgh University, said: "The biggest cause of concern is that we don't know who the villain of the piece is or if there even is one. This could just be a series of bureaucratic errors that have unfortunately resulted in a huge problem for physics."
A spokesman for the DIUS told The Scotsman: "All research councils must plan for a new spending review period on the basis of flat cash. In the event, the STFC received a funding increase of more than 13 per cent and set its investment priorities accordingly. This was properly a decision for the council."
Reports have been commissioned into the health of all disciplines overseen by research councils. The report into physics "will consider our overall funding of physics, including those areas that have attracted controversy".
As the budget stands, there are severe implications for physics departments nationwide as well as the UK's reputation on a global scale. The UK has to pull out of several high-profile international projects. Most notably this includes the Gemini North Telescope, which, together with its southern twin, allows astronomers to see the entire sky. The UK's role in the proposed International Linear Collider, a particle accelerator that would delve into the mysteries of the Higgs boson, has been shelved. Gamma-ray astronomy is another casualty.
Professor Andy Lawrence, head of Edinburgh University's school of physics, says being short of money is nothing new: "The past 20 years has seen a gradual squeeze in these areas of physics. We have to keep re-convincing the government of our worth. At every spending review, particle physics and astronomy get less money than other research councils.
"The puzzling thing is why there have been these catastrophic cuts over such a small period. Departments haven't had a chance to respond.
"Of course, the loss of our role in international projects is a blow, but the really shocking thing is the cut in grants. We need people to actually analyse data and write the papers, and without these grants how are we going to pay them?"
Lawrence adds: "The situation seems crazy because it has been shown these subjects are the very ones that attract students to physics at a grass-roots level. Cuts of 25 to 50 per cent are enough to send any department into a downward spiral."
• A petition to the government to reverse the Science and Technology Funding Council cuts can be found at petitions.pm.gov.uk/Physics-Funding/