UK’s young physicists continue to fight for their future

15Jan08

Here’s a update from the front lints of the UK young physicists’ plight in the STFC HEP/astro funding crisis. Last month, Bristol/CERN postgrad James Jackson organised a well-publicised letter from over 550 young physicists to the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities, and Skills. Today he received a response from the Minister of State for Science and Innovation, I. Pearson.

Pearson’s letter is available here.

In short, the MP points to numbers to claim that science funding has risen overall and that any decisions to cut high-profile experiments are natural parts of `strategic restructuring’ within the STFC. (Never mind that physicists were assured that the PPARC-CCLRC merger wouldn’t affect the levels of funding.)

The response doesn’t touch on the main concern of the original letter: the de facto cuts to the specific particle physics/astronomy/nuclear (PPAN) communities within the STFC and the effect of those cuts on UK leadership and participation in high-profile international projects.

The letter notes that the UK will continue to be part of CERN and the European Southern Observatory, while failing mentioning the scuttling of the ILC and Gemini programmes. To top if off, Pearson mentions how nice it will be now that the UK has ISIS TS2 and the brand new Diamond facility whose operational budgets have been linked (though possibly incorrectly) to the funding crisis.

Many students are frustrated that the MP seems content to skim over numbers which appear to be increasing year-to-year and conclude that everything must be fine. Similar flimsy arguments were made when NASA’s funding was increased by the current president, even though his cavalier `Mission to Mars’ went on to cannibalise the rest of NASA’s budget and suffocate several well-established scientific programs.

A couple of students have spoken up to note that the MP cannot expect to use statistics `bamboozle’ a group of physicists. Indeed, if you’ve ever spoken to an LHC experimentalist about backgrounds for Higgs searches, you already know that these are people who are trained to `recover relevant information from the incomprehensible.’

And at points Pearson’s letter was indeed incomprehensible. One of the most salient features of the scanned-and-e-mailed letter was apparent lack of proof reading. In addition to grammar errors, there is an entire paragraph that has been repeated in the two and a half page document. Students have been incensed at this apparent lack of care, saying it sends quite a contradictory message from the MP who claims to care about the future of UK science.

Jackson has already started to organise the young physicist community to draft a response. The early draft that I saw mentioned the Haldane principle, which says that research funding should be allocated by researchers and not politicans. Indeed, parts of Pearson’s letter seem to suggest that particle/astro/nuclear funding is out of his hands as a politician, noting futher review committees by the RCUK. (i.e. “Politicians don’t give a FCUK.”) The fear among the research community, however, is that irreparable damage would occur before such a review would be completed. Needless to say, students have been unimpressed by the letter’s attempt to convince them that “everything is fine and if it’s not fine it’s someone else’s fault.” (The latter may end up being true, but then the community depends on the politicians to help find a timely solution.)

As you’re reading this many UK students are already collaborating remotely to draft a follow-up letter to Pearson, being sure to include a copy of his original letter in the likely case that he never actually read it. They’re writing their MPs, reaching out to their friends to explain why their research is important, pushing petitions. They care about their research and what it means (economically, culturally) for the United Kingdom as a whole. They’re upset and are doing something about it. (So advisers, give them a bit of slack if they spending a bit of time on social networking sites…)

It’s very encouraging to see the UK young physicist community really come to life to stand up for their futures as scientists. Part of the reason for this is the extent to which this generation of researchers is connected to one another via social networking sites. But for the UK in particular, there is much to be said about the strong sense of community fostered by the PPARC (and now STFC) supported schools and conferences that regularly bring students in contact with their peers at different universities.

I hope that a similar grass-roots effort among American students could make a dent in science policy in light of the upcoming 2008 elections (congressional as well as presidential), though it seems to me that a similar sense of community does not yet exist among American postgraduates.

Related News

The Parliament’s Innovation, Universities, and Skills Committee will be holding an inquiry on `Science Budget Allocations.’ Brief background notes are available from a recent IOP news item. Paul Crowther hosts one of the most comprehensive continuously-updated news pages on the funding crisis, see the links contained therein for further information.



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