Death of big physics

Gemini is just the latest in a series of devastating cuts imposed on British science by the Science

To Professor Keith Mason it must have seemed appealing to put out his bad news in a press release near midnight on a Friday. Mason was announcing that Britain was to pull out of two of the world's most sophisticated space telescopes because his research council was running out of money.

It was the latest in a series of blows to British physics. The Gemini Observatory comprises two eight-metre telescopes, one based in Chile and the other in Hawaii, whose powerful reflectors and sophisticated optics mean they can image the oldest and most distant objects in the universe. Britain played a major role in their design and construction and they were meant to remain a centrepiece of the nation's astronomy research for years to come.

Gemini is just the latest in a series of devastating cuts imposed on British science by the Science and Technology Funding Council, of which Mason is chief executive. His attempt to save £80m has seen 300 redundancy notices issued at STFC laboratories at Daresbury, near Liverpool, with a further 200 expected at the Rutherford Appleton research centre near Didcot. Even Edinburgh's Royal Observatory is losing 50 staff.

Some of Britain's most senior physicists are so infuriated they have called for Mason's resignation. Others set up a weblink with the grand title of Fight UK Underinvestment in Solar Terrestrial Facilities and Capabilities - a name deliberately chosen to create the acronym FUK U STFC. For Britain's normally sober science community such angry tactics are unheard of, but Mason is unabashed. He has also pulled the UK out of a planned £3.5bn particle accelerator, axed high-energy gamma ray astronomy and solar science and slashed research grants by 25 per cent - a move likely to force closure of several physics departments.

Together these comprise the heart of British physics, built up over many years and costing hundreds of millions of pounds - all suddenly at risk. Why?

It is not simple cost-cutting. Rather, British physics is being decimated by incompetence, with the ministers and civil servants overseeing the budgetary process displaying a failure to comprehend global science budgets and a dangerous misunderstanding of how science makes progress.

To understand what has gone wrong we first have to go back to 1998 and Lord Sainsbury's appointment as minister for science. He oversaw a renaissance in British science with rising budgets and high-quality financial oversight. The contrast with what has happened since Sainsbury quit in November 2006 could not be greater. Malcolm Wicks, the jobbing politician appointed as his successor, announced a shotgun wedding between the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils. The resulting body, the STFC, could have been a good idea but Wicks allowed an impossibly short timescale for the merger.

Then, in June last year, came another bombshell. Gordon Brown took over as PM and announced that the science brief was to be taken by another new minister, Ian Pearson, a quintessential policy wonk with an Oxford degree in, you guessed it, politics, philosophy and economics, and a brief to make science research more "applied".

Wicks and now Pearson were asked to oversee causes of great scientific complexity including the search for dark matter, the hunt for the Higgs Boson and the first detection of gravity waves, without having the first clue about such topics or about the historical relationship between pure research and commercial spin-offs.

Brian Foster, professor of experimental physics at Oxford University, said: "The research in physics departments sounds blue skies but it has huge practical benefits. The worldwide web came from physics research as did medical scanners and even the silicon devices that power domestic PCs, DVDs and many other appliances."

Neither do Pearson nor his civil servants seem to understand how modern science is funded, especially big physics, where machinery such as telescopes, accelerators and satellites are so expensive that funding is beyond the reach of any one country. This has led to the creation of international consortia such as the Cern particle physics centre near Geneva, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory in Chile and the Gemini telescopes.

Britain has flourished under this regime but the commitment to such facilities is maintained by annual fees - vulnerable to factors such as exchange rates and inflation. Such risks need to be anticipated with contingency funds and other financial devices. Wicks and Pearson have failed to do this. In addition they have lumbered STFC with a legacy of financial blunders, especially the CCLRC's failure to calculate the future costs of running the £300m Diamond synchrotron, which opens for business this month at Harwell near Oxford.

Mason's lack of political experience and of "people skills" has not helped matters. When he first arrived at STFC he assembled staff in a large room and addressed them from his office via a video-link rather than in person. He has infuriated senior astronomers and particle physicists by failing to consult or even warn them of impending cuts.

Among those leading the fight to save Britain's research community is Dr Brian Cox, a Royal Society research fellow at Manchester University and former keyboard player with D:Ream, the band that penned the New Labour anthem "Things Can Only Get Better". He said: "The government and STFC together, after almost a decade of sensible and steady investment, have seriously damaged UK science in one month of madness. It is a kind of vandalism."

Jonathan Leake is science editor at the Sunday Times

This article first appeared in the 04 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, God