Report: UK physics 'damaged' by budget blunder bloodbath
Not enough boffins at the top, says top boffin
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). ®
The massive budget overrun of the Diamond Synchrotron wasn't STFC's fault, it was ultimately the fault of Tony Blair and partially down to Lord Sainsbury and the Wellcome Trust. It was the latter two that pushed for the machine to be built in Oxfordshire, rather than at Daresbury in Cheshire - which is where it was designed to be built. Blair personally made the final call as to where it was built.
Lo and behold, not only did they have to dig much, much deeper foundations in Oxfordshire before hitting solid rock, than they would have had to do at Daresbury - they also found a load of archeological rubbish which further delayed construction and increased cost. Add to this the fact that most of the UK's Synchrotron expertise was already based at Daresbury, and a lot of them decided they didn't want to move to Oxfordshire, and either took more lucrative jobs abroad, retired, or quit science altogether - and that's the biggest crime against UK Physics.
As a physicist
I'm not sure it's physics itself that's generally important, or just some basic skills like numeracy and an ability to analyse facts (including numbers) logically, draw relevant conclusions, and present them. A decent physicist can do all these. If those skills were more widespread, there'd be no "credit crunch" right now, and economics would never have been allowed to call itself a "science".
You clearly don't know the facts, or the full story behind the decision at the time it was made. And before you say anything, I've worked at both Daresbury and RAL, and lived in both Cheshire and Oxfordshire. And perhaps there weren't any budget "overruns", only because the budget and timescale were both extended significantly from the original plan. It's an overrun by any other definition.
If you'd read the actual article, you'd see that the point was that large projects - of which Diamond is quoted as an example - costing more than anticipated was the cause of budget cuts elsewhere, leading to a brain-drain. Perhaps instead of attacking the good staff of Daresbury (did I attack the staff of RAL? No, I attacked the government.) you could come back with something resembling a sensible argument, instead of spouting dismissive tripe.