UK Physics Investment Decimated

By Sean Carroll | December 11, 2007 4:26 pm

Via Andrew Jaffe and Not Even Wrong, news that the UK will be withdrawing a massive amount of investment in large physics projects.

A funding crisis at one of the UK’s leading research councils has forced the country to pull out of plans for the International Linear Collider (ILC). The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) says in a report published today that it does not see “a practicable path towards the realization of this facility as currently conceived on a reasonable timescale”. The report also says that the UK will stop investing in high-energy gamma-ray astronomy, withdraw from the Gemini telescopes, and cease all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities…

“This is one whole great big bombshell,” says particle physicist John Dainton from the Cockcroft Institute at Liverpool University in the UK, which is involved in planning the ILC. “How can administrators in government departments and the STFC get this so wrong? There must be a reason and incompetence comes to mind. We are furious. You are killing off the exploitation of years of investment.”

Andrew also notes that they will be:

“revisiting the on-going level of investment” in gravitational wave detection, dark matter detection, the Clover CMB experiment and the UKIRT telescope. The UK will pull out of the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes.

Terrible news for particle physics, astrophysics, and solar physics. The ILC is certainly on shaky ground; if countries start dropping out, the LHC might very well be the last particle accelerator at the energy frontier built in our lifetimes.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Science and Politics, World
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  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/julianne Julianne

    They’ve already backed out of Gemini:

    http://scienceblogs.com/catdynamics/2007/12/dissed.php

  • bswift

    This is awful news!!

    Perhaps they are taking notes from our own country with regards to their attitude toward science! :(

  • Mohammad

    I always wonder…

    There are like 10,000,000 millionaires in the world (100,000 of which their wealth is over 30 mil) according to wikipedia, if every one of them donated at least $10,000, thats is at least $100 billion !!
    That is more than enough to build the best ILC, and if they donated more, other serious project can be accomplished in particle physics, medicine, hunger problems..etc,

    (May be just a collider should be called the people collider, and the 1st nobel prize should be awarded to all the millionnairs who contributed financially!)

    It is definitely saddening what happened in the UK, but what I find even more saddening and maddening is the fact that there are super rich countries in this world, namely the gulf (oil) countries, which as far as I know contribute nothing to international physics projects, if such countries invest in major physics programs and projects around the world then shortage of the fund from some country would not affect the project anyway

  • Philip Rodrigues

    The apparent offhandedness of the paragraph in the “delivery plan” describing the ILC funding cut is surprising:

    We will cease investment in the International Linear Collider. We do not see a practicable path towards the
    realisation of this facility as currently conceived on a reasonable timescale.

    That’s it. Two short sentences…

    Still, there’s some amusement to be salvaged. I like the assertion that neutrinos “may ultimately account for the very existence of our Universe”, and the gratuitous “We fight terrorism” claim (“Global threats to security” is “an area of societal and economic relevance” addressed by STFC). Well, at least I have something new to tell people when they ask me what I do…

  • Markk

    The ILC news is not so big to me as it really is dependent on LHC results. Realistically it would never be built if it was not needed. Its not like anybody anywhere had actually committed any big resources to it. The other stuff is disappointing but seems to be of the same ilk as the shutting down of a lot of physics departments at UK universities. Looks like the physical science in Europe is draining out to the continent – at least viewed from the U.S.

    This looks like what that Harvard president said about what was going to happen to US research.

  • Jon Hendry

    Why don’t they just hit up Dubai for the cash?

  • gfl

    :( – Bad news, although the UK has suffered from a wealth of riches lately, the fall was inevitable. Looks like I’ll put going back off for another decade.

  • WhatMeWorry

    Quote from the source

    “the council will have a budget of £574m in 2007/08, rising to just £651m in 2010/11, which is a shortfall of £80m once inflation is taken into account.”

    Looks like a nice little increase to me.

  • Martin

    Julianne — no, they haven’t pulled out of Gemini yet — the agreement doesn’t allow them to do that and save money — but they’re looking at how they can do so, or whether UK time can be sold.

  • Rhys

    A quick search suggests that inflation in the UK is running at approx. 2%. If we assume conservatively an average inflation of 2.5% over the next 3 years, then £574m becomes £618m. How do they arrive at a £80m shortfall if their projected budget is £651m? Am I doing something stupid?

  • SquirrelsUnite!

    “How do they arrive at a £80m shortfall if their projected budget is £651m? Am I doing something stupid?”

    I think it’s a £80m cutback from the previous plan. No idea how inflation comes into it.

  • http://theobservershunch.blogspot.com Mark A. Norris

    The £80m comes about because of a combination of inflation, cost overuns and higher than expected running costs at new facilities such as Diamond and ISIS and them (STFC) screwing up the maths on how paying Universities for the full economic costing of research would work out.
    The situation isn’t helped by various bits of governmental interference, my favourite being the pressure to include private money in the bulding of Diamond, which they did, around 14% of the funding came from the private sector. Because of this private money the treasury charged VAT at 17.5% on the entire budget. Great accounting there boys.

  • Hektor Bim

    As far as I can tell, this only covers particle physics and astrophysics. What are the funding levels for condensed matter physics or other branches doing?

    Is it all of physics being cut, or is some of the money from big science going to other physics research projects?

  • Hektor Bim

    The more I read about this, the more it seems like big physics is getting slashed, but other parts of science are getting a lot more money.

    So if the particle physics budget is getting slashed, why should non-particle physics and non-astrophysics people care?

  • Ellipsis

    Hektor — many CM/AMO physicists care an extremely great deal about the health of the field of physics in general. And they are also, obviously, not narrow-minded people who lack understanding of how the fields are irreversibly intertwined.

  • http://web.mit.edu/sahughes/www/ Scott H.

    Because of this private money the treasury charged VAT at 17.5% on the entire budget. Great accounting there boys.

    That’s almost surreal in its stupidity. Wow.

  • tyler

    Almost as as bad as the news itself is the fact that this gives Gregg Easterbrook the basis for another ludicrous rant. Any bets on him blathering on for five or six paragraphs about how smart this move is?

  • cjv

    It’s hard to look at the size of their budget, over a billion US dollars I think, and see a short fall when that money is coming from taxes, which people are forced to pay. It seems their are cost overruns and accounting troubles, such as the VAT, that come into play. With that in mind I think there is plenty of money being forcibly taken from the citizens for science.

  • dark-matter

    Come on folks. UK government has made a smart decision. Some might not believe it but governments also make decisions requiring return on investment justification. They simply decided that current level is not justified. Where’s the short fall in return on investment? Two areas. Astronomy – UK has no space science program to speak of (I am talking launching space telescopes of your own designs like the U.S.) and only a small terrestrial astronomy program, both have delivered little of consequence for a long time. Theoretical physics – the crash of string theory is crashing the associated scientific community and the interests from the military and the public. Theoretical physics cannot predict what LHC will find so why invest in ILC? Such is reality from policy makers. The government refused to invest in them anymore.

    [“.. LHC might very well be the last particle accelerator at the energy frontier built in our lifetimes.]

    Not so fast. The LHC and the people who works on it will decide their own fate. If no new fundamental discoveries are made, LHC will probably be the last. But if not, if the discoveries are big enough, the world will rush to build ILCs like coffee shop.

  • Jason

    dark-matter,

    Here’s the the thing. The LHC cannot help but make new fundamental discoveries. In essence, there are all sorts of fundamental reasons why it would make no sense whatsoever to see nothing but more confirmation of the standard model at the LHC: if we did, even that would be a new fundamental discovery regarding the nature of the universe.

    Also, the “crash of string theory” is nothing but a myth. Furthermore, if the UK is falling behind in delivering Astronomy of consequence, why is the correct answer to cut back? Won’t that just make them fall further behind?

    Finally, there’s the spinoff effect: in developing any new scientific instrument, new technologies are developed, technologies that often have interesting and totally unforeseen applications in the business world. Why would the UK not want in on this very juicy pie?

  • http://theobservershunch.blogspot.com Mark A. Norris

    UK has no space science program to speak of (I am talking launching space telescopes of your own designs like the U.S.) and only a small terrestrial astronomy program, both have delivered little of consequence for a long time

    Apart from say involvement in the XMM-Newton, HST, JWST, GAIA, Herschel, Hipparchos, Casini-Huygens and Planck Missions of course, yes we don’t build missions fully ourselves, we tend to work in collaboration with ESA and NASA, what do you expect, space missions are expensive?

    Regarding the apparently little work that we do in astronomy we have to ignore the discovery of sub-mm galaxies, the 2dF survey or all of the work in the simulation of galaxy and structure formation, not to mention that UK astronomers are generally involved in any large international collaboration which more and more is how things are done these days.

    Regardless of this I would be much more concerned if I were a particle physicist in the UK, the STFC has a list of 12 important questions that it sees as typical of the ones it seeks to answer, the 5 that relate to physics rather than just applications of materials science are:

    Why is there a Universe?
    How did galaxies form?
    Was there life on Mars?
    How do planetary systems evolve?
    How are chemical elements created?

    I guess if you tried hard you could jam particle physics into 1 and 5, but they couldn’t even be bothered to put in one question out of 12 that directly related to particle physics? You can see the whole list in this document .

  • sharon

    Yeah, well, all our spare cash for the next four years will be going into paying for the Olympics, which are of course already going massively over budget, so fuck knows what they’ll cost by 2012. It’s not just science that’s going to be hit. (Eg, the British Library is facing major cuts.)

  • http://msm.grumpybumpers.com Coin

    Not so fast. The LHC and the people who works on it will decide their own fate. If no new fundamental discoveries are made, LHC will probably be the last. But if not, if the discoveries are big enough, the world will rush to build ILCs like coffee shop.

    It seems like this isn’t really something that will be decided by anyone on the LHC, but decided by nature, in a sense– that is, decided by the physical coincidence of whether the next blob of “interesting” physics are below or above 15 TeV (or whatever it is the LHC ceilings at).

  • Stuart

    Mark, that is a good list of projects/missions that the UK is involved in. I could add the Liverpool Telescope, ESO, SOHO, STEREO, MERLIN, EVN, global VLBI, SKA (the UK will host the global headquarters), ALMA, ELTs. Most of these are international projects as are any large astronomy projects these days.

    The issue here is that a year ago particle physics and astronomy existed within PPARC. If a project over-ran then other projects would have to take cuts, but the community had had a say in the original funding decisions. STFC was created this year by combining PPARC and CCLRC. Now the over-run on the operating costs of the Diamond light source (started by CCLRC) is being bailed out by cuts to the particle physics and astronomy communities who had no input into the decision to fund it in the first place. The decisions of science funding in the UK are supposed to be governed by the Haldane principle so this is not government making “decisions requiring return on investment justification” as dark-matter states. This is simply one area of science paying for an accounting mess of another.

  • dark-matter

    Perhaps I should make my points clearer. Of course UK has all kinds of space astronomy programs, but just about all are participating in *someone else* programs. In this mode, you operate as the follower. That means anything you know or discover, the leaders already know. Only leaders set the agenda, gain the tremendous payback of vehicle, launch and operations capabilities. Only leaders get all the details, the complete analysis, the advanced computational facilities, transfer of knowledge to university and industry, not to mention the glory. UK has been a world leader in many things past, and know this very well. But they decided to be not even follower. Don’t mind being left behind in something the UK simply cannot play a leadership role anymore. BTW, the science cut is only one part – UK is also cutting the military, principally the navy, deeply. The days of large British naval power is finished.

    [Also, the “crash of string theory” is nothing but a myth.]
    Indeed the crash is a myth in the minds of those engaged in it. Always will be a myth. Until the day of budget reckoning come. I wonder if they will treat budget as a myth too.

  • chemicalscum

    The country of my birth is descending into the dark ages. As a chemist I have been appalled at the shutting down of UK chemistry departments. At least the one I used to work and my old unit has survived. I have grave worries about the future of science in Britain. The situation was worrying enough when I left 18 years ago but it appears to have got worse ever since.

  • http://theobservershunch.blogspot.com Mark A. Norris

    “Of course UK has all kinds of space astronomy programs, but just about all are participating in *someone else* programs. In this mode, you operate as the follower.”

    In the case of NASA projects that is true, but how exactly do you define the leadership of ESA? The UK is the 4th largest (2nd if you exclude optional contributions to say human spaceflight) contributor to ESA, but because France is number 1 does that mean by your definition that France is the leader in everything ESA does? I’m pretty sure it doesn’t work like that, I’m also fairly sure that in almost all space missions the make up of the analysis of the data generally depends on where the best people are, not who put in the most money. Also of course the data is freely available to everyone else with an internet connection usually after a year, so I don’t see that it is a major disadvantage not to lead a project.

    I’m not exactly sure what your point is anyway, the UK has an economy a fifth of the size of the US, are we meant to be spending on research at the same rate as the US despite this?, is it not worthwhile in your opinion to be involved in international collaboration? Or should anyone that can’t afford to run a whole project themselves not bother and leave you to it? That would have been a great idea for the likes of ITER or the Human Genome project.

    “BTW, the science cut is only one part – UK is also cutting the military, principally the navy, deeply. The days of large British naval power is finished.”

    Thats not surprising, we have the worlds 5th largest economy but spend (officially) the second largest amount on the military. I would say our priorities need to be reorganised.

    Lets be clear, what happened with the STFC was the result of a series of factors that mostly boil down to unforseen circumstances and incompetence on their part, they had the opportunity to go to the government with the increased costs for Diamond and they didn’t until it was too late. They also miscalculated the costs of implementing Full Economic Costing. The net effect will be the loss of several useful present and future capabilities, and quite probably several physics departments at UK universities (due to a cut in grants), as well as many jobs in the materials science section. If this was the private sector someone in the STFC would be falling on their sword right now, but being government of course this won’t happen so we get to look forward to them having to repeat the procedure 3 years from now.

    I also agree with Stuart that astronomy and particle physics are being punished for decisions that they had no influence over, completely counter to the way things worked back in the PPARC days, where to a certain extent they had the right of veto over each others projects if they could negatively affect each other. They did however agree that the risk for the budget when agreed was shared between astronomy and particle physics on the understanding that debts would be repaid if one got into trouble and needed to be bailed out by the other.

  • Stuart

    dark-matter, I don’t think having vehicle and launch capabilities is such a huge necessity given the number of commercial launch opportunities. Italy doesn’t have its ‘own’ launch facilities either but they manage to lead development of space craft too. However you would be hard pressed to know about Italy’s achievements because ASI don’t have the marketing budget of NASA, their first language isn’t English and reporting tends to be biased towards the achievements of the country in which the media is based (except in the UK where there is a preference towards saying how bad everything is).

    By the way, astronomy isn’t just about space telescopes. You can do a huge amount from the ground.

  • Pingback: UK young physicists speak up against STFC funding cuts « An American Physics Student in England()

  • Peter Shor

    My question is whether the funding agencies have started killing particle physics, or whether particle physics has shot itself in the foot by starting planning for the ILC before it was clear that a new accelerator was warranted by discoveries at the LHC.

    Hopefully, if a new accelerator really is warranted, one will be built, despite all the handwaving now.

  • Peter Shor

    And of course I meant handwringing and not handwaving in my last post.
    Oops.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/cosmicvariance/sean/ Sean

    Peter, it takes a really long time to plan and build one of these machines. If they had put off thinking about the ILC (it’s not like huge amounts of money were being spent) until interesting physics came from the LHC, there wouldn’t be anyone around still doing particle physics by the time it came online.

    I don’t think that more money would be flowing to particle physics if they hadn’t started planning for the ILC.

  • Peter Shor

    I still think the particle physicists may have shot themselves in the foot. The only figure I could find for how much the Brits were going to spend was $28 million. Looked at one way, that’s pretty small compared to the eventual cost of $6 billion total for the machine. Looked at in another way, that’s a fairly large amount of money for something that may be just be wasted effort if the LHC finds the wrong physics.

    And anyway, if the LHC finds new and interesting stuff, there would presumably be lots of things for particle physicists to do while waiting for the ILC to come online. If the LHC doesn’t find any new and interesting stuff (meaning it finds the Higgs and not much more), then looking at it realistically, I don’t see how the ILC is ever going to get built.

  • dark-matter

    Mark, Stuart, Peter – all of your views are correct and contribute to understanding of the situation. Appreciate.
    UK is wealthy enough to do just about any science in a leadership role if the government and people desire so. But have chosen not do. Indeed having a launch capability is not essential to do the science. But it is very important for public support, funding, and secondary benefits. France has a world class launch capability you know – second only to the American. And she can design advanced space crafts. Therefore it is a small jump to play a lead role in space science, which will likely expand now that UK is out.

  • Ellipsis

    Peter — construction of an ILC with a given specific set of design parameters has always (or at least in the last 8 years, once it became entirely clear that the LHC would start up well before the ILC began construction) been dependent, in the minds of most of the involved physicists, on what the LHC would find. It would indeed be fairly crazy to build a 500 GeV machine knowing that the interesting physics might lie at 600 GeV and above. People knew this and know this. Nevertheless, most of the development work (for example, on the superconducting cavities, the beam injection system, and on the basic parts of civil construction), is entirely independent of whether the machine is set to start up at 500 GeV, 700 GeV, or 1 TeV (or even a little beyond). A 500 GeV startup is not mandated by the design, it could certainly be higher if more cavities are added. The “wrong physics” really only means one’s energy is set too low, and it is known that the ILC can be pushed higher if needed. So cutting off all funding for development in Britain doesn’t open up options, it just works in the direction of closing them. Nevertheless, it is clear that physics will, as it always does, win in the end, and if (when) the LHC sees something interesting, I’m sure Britain will resume funding for ILC work.

  • http://www.sunclipse.org Blake Stacey

    The ILC is certainly on shaky ground; if countries start dropping out, the LHC might very well be the last particle accelerator at the energy frontier built in our lifetimes.

    C’mon, Singularity. . . .

  • Jim Miles
  • Jonathan

    There’s a campaign afoot to protest the proposed STFC cuts and lobby the UK government to reverse this decision. Find out more at
    http://www.saveastronomy.org.uk/.

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Cosmic Variance

Random samplings from a universe of ideas.

About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] cosmicvariance.com .

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