The Economics of Science
Of budgets and black holes
May 1st 2008 | DIDCOT, OXFORDSHIRE
From The Economist print edition
More fancy toys, fewer physicists to play with them
FROM outside, the huge silver doughnut looks like a flight of vain architectural fancy, or perhaps a racetrack for very superior greyhounds. Racetrack turns out to be nearer the truth—but it is electrons, not animals, that are doing laps. Energised by huge magnets, they accelerate to close to the speed of light, before a final series of wiggles persuades them to emit beams of tightly focused, fiercely energetic X-rays. These are then used by researchers to probe the fundamental structure of anything from Dead Sea scrolls too fragile to open, to samples of avian-flu virus, aircraft wings or ancient bones.
This is Diamond Light Source, the newest addition to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL) in rural Oxfordshire, and the country’s most expensive government-funded physics facility of the past four decades. By the time it opened in 2007 it had already cost £260m, with another £120m committed for expansion, and running costs will be steep (its electricity bill alone equals that of a small town). It is just one of the visible signs of a recent splurge on science. Since 2004 total spending on science has risen by 5.8% yearly in real terms, its share of GDP is rising, and further increases are planned until 2011. ISIS, another “super-microscope” at RAL that uses neutrons rather than electrons, is also getting a £120m upgrade.
Yet Britain’s physicists are worried that spending on such fancy toys has meant cutting the money for researchers to use them. They have been up in arms since December 2007 when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), one of the seven research councils that allocate most government money for science, published its plans for the next three years. An £80m “black hole” in the council’s budget means that British astronomy will wither and ground-based study of space will die completely, says the Institute of Physics, a learned society. University physics will face big cuts, there will be swingeing redundancies and some of Britain’s best scientists will leave for more generous climes. The government is sufficiently concerned to have asked Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton University, to review the way in which physics funding is allocated.
Now the select committee of MPs that oversees innovation, universities, science and skills has weighed in. In a report published on April 30th it spread the blame widely, but put the lion’s share on the merger that created the STFC in 2007. Previously, the cash for building and running big facilities came from one research council, and grants to physics researchers from another. The two have now become one—and paying capital and running costs for big facilities has squeezed funding for researchers. And by planning and communicating poorly, the STFC made a bad situation worse, say the MPs. At the very least, all cuts should be delayed until the Wakeham review is published in the autumn.
PhD students with grants from the STFC to do research in fields the council is now abandoning say that they feel betrayed. By making the job market for scientists look prone to boom and bust, the cuts may harm science education, which is already in a parlous state. And attempting to renege on international agreements—for example, by letting Britain’s subscription to the Gemini telescope in Hawaii lapse in order to save £4m a year—will damage British science in general by making the country appear an unreliable partner. (The decision has since been reversed.) This matters particularly because much big physics—atom-smashing particle accelerators, huge telescopes—is now run and paid for internationally.
But physics as a discipline may also be experiencing growing pains—and as new research flourishes, the old inevitably suffers. A visitor to Diamond or ISIS cannot but be struck by the fact that many of the hundreds of researchers who use them are not physicists at all. Engineers, biologists, archaeologists, medical researchers and many others are keen on illuminating the substances they study with Diamond’s super-bright rays, or ISIS‘s almost-unstoppable neutrons. “We offer big facilities for small science,” says Andrew Taylor, the director of ISIS. What lured him back from America—and reconciled him to a 60% pay cut—was the prospect of running a facility where problems from right across science were solved. It is harsh that physicists are now paying for sharing their toys. But it is only because those toys are so nice that others want to play with them.