Nuclear industry undermined by savage science cuts

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Cuts of up to 40 per cent in grants to scientists have been announced, triggering a warning they could undermine the nation’s ability to build and decommission nuclear power plants.

The reduction in support for individual scientists stems from the budget squeeze experienced by the funding agency which oversees astronomy and physics - the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

The council has sought to claw back £80 million of savings to balance its 2009-11 budget of about 1.9 billion - and it told researchers at the Royal Society, London, that one third of the savings would come from axing project grants.

Although astronomy and particle physics will also be affected, the hardest hit will be grants to university researchers in nuclear physics, which at £8 million is only a "small fraction of the overall budget" said Prof John Womersley, director of science programmes at the Council.

Despite support falling by 40 per cent over three years, the council still plans to spend £10 million on FAIR, an international accelerator laboratory being built in Darmstadt, Germany.

"It has a human impact and an impact in terms of the science,” he said, adding: “It is not something we have chosen to do lightly."

The Nuclear Physics Forum, which represents nuclear physicists, has voiced "serious concerns" and said a recent analysis shows that even before these cuts, UK nuclear physics was funded at levels significantly below other European countries.

Prof Jonathan Billowes, at the University of Manchester, home of the Dalton Institute for Nuclear Skills commented: "The grant announcement has been particularly depressing for our younger researchers and academics who are wondering if there is a career for them in nuclear physics. They are essential to the future health of this fundamental discipline which provides the underpinning research, education and expertise in nuclear applications to energy, health and nuclear decommissioning."

Chair of the Forum, Prof Rolf-Dietmar Herzberg of the University of Liverpool, said: "Since December we have feared that this grants round would be disappointing but we did not expect such a severe cutback of our core science programmes which scored so highly in the peer review process. We are also very concerned about the future ability to provide the necessary skills base to support the government on its path to new nuclear build."

Dr. Paddy Regan, at the University of Surrey said "Investment in nuclear power, defence, medical diagnostics, treatment and related technologies is all very well, but without core funding for the subject of nuclear physics at the University level, the UK will be chronically short of trained manpower in these vital sectors for decades to come."

Also at risk is Britain’s participation in the biggest European space mission of the next decade. Funding for UK-led experiments on the ExoMars rover and Mars lander are likely to be cut by 25% in their key development phase.

Prof Steve Schwartz, from Imperial College London said that if the cuts are made, as recommended by an advisory panel, it means "some instruments won’t fly; that some groups either won’t participate or they won’t participate in as many instruments as they planned to."

ExoMars is crucial first step for the Mars Sample Return (MSR) mission and Dr Mark Sims of Leicester University, who is working on ExoMars, said: "Critical instrument technologies may be lost abroad with funding reduction with loss of opportunities on future missions and instrument technologies that will be developed for MSR."

A spokesman for the STFC said it supports nuclear astrophysics and not nuclear power, nuclear engineering, or the building or decommissioning of power stations.

“None of the scientists or science projects supported by STFC concern nuclear power or nuclear engineering, or the building or decommissioning of power stations.”

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