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Report: UK physics 'damaged' by budget blunder bloodbath

Not enough boffins at the top, says top boffin

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An authoritative review into the management of physics in the UK has concluded that overall things are in good order. However, the panel led by Professor Bill Wakeham also identified "weaknesses" in the present physics setup, and said that "significant damage" had been caused by recent funding decisions.

"UK physics enjoys excellent international standing," said Prof Wakeham, publishing the report.

"The role of physics and physicists is vital for other disciplines... The value of physics to the UK is such that relative weaknesses in its structures and in the skills pipeline must be addressed."

The Wakeham review was set up following widespread discontent in the boffinry community after unforeseen costs - mainly in so-called "big science" projects like the Diamond synchrotron - led to painful economies elsewhere. In particular, it was felt that areas of research which had no practitioners on the board of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) - one of British physics' main funding bodies - were unfairly marginalised.

According to the Wakeham report:

The Panel believes that significant damage has been done to the UK's international reputation in some areas of the discipline of physics following the furore that was generated by the manner, timescale of changes and announcement of recent STFC funding decisions.

The Panel were very concerned at the make-up of the STFC Council, both in terms of the over representation of the executive and the lack of representation of the community it serves in comparison with other Research Councils... this has not best served the scientific community in some branches of science... This is in sharp distinction to the practice of other Research Councils.

The Panel recommends that the membership of STFC’s Council be broadened to include more of the stakeholders... and to redress the balance between executive presence and non-executive oversight.

Apart from getting more proper boffins onto the STFC, the Wakeham panel also felt that it was important to get more kids to study hard sciences at A level - especially girls. The total number of physics A-levels is down by 13 per cent over the last five years, and by 16 per cent among girls.

There was some upbeat stuff in the report as well, however, with the panel saying that British physicists are rated highly by their fellow boffins worldwide and get their papers referenced a lot. There's no danger of any looming "retirement crisis" either - Blighty's brainboxes are suitably young and frisky as a group.

The full report can be read here (pdf). ®

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