Science funding: Cox-up not conspiracy

Brian CoxLast week, pop musician turned particle physicist turned TV presenter Brian Cox wrote two articles in the New Scientist blog about the STFC‘s proposed funding cuts to particle physics and astronomy. Cox claims that the cuts are some sort of conspiracy by un-named people who sit somewhere between government and the scientists at the sharp end, who have decided that funding to those areas should instead be diverted into what he describes as “maintenance of facilities such as Diamond”. He then goes on to claim that this is a threat to our national interest because physics contributes 6.4% of our GDP.

I should start by saying that Cox does make some good points. The shortfall in STFC funding is around £50 million, which is a drop in the ocean when you consider the billions being pumped into banks and other government spending. Science is always underfunded, and the answer to many of the problems facing it would be to increase spending. This would be a good long-term investment, but unfortunately politicians tend to look no longer-term than the next election. Science may have done seemingly well under Cox’s chum Tony Blair, but then it had been greatly underfunded for many years before he took office, so things could only get better, to coin a phrase.

Unfortunately, Cox seems to think that spending money on Diamond and ISIS is simply “maintenance of facilities”, whereas spending money on telescopes, space exploration and particle accelerators such as CERN is “physics”. In fact, a lot of very good science comes out of Diamond and ISIS. They support academic users from universities across the UK in a wide range of disciplines. New applicants are encouraged, so use of synchrotron light and neutrons isn’t restricted to a small number of established, large research groups.

Cox talks of inspiring science and the exploration of knowledge for the sake of knowledge. This is a noble desire, and he is right that there must always be a place for this in science. However, this sits uneasily with his statement about national interest, and the importance of physics because it contributes 6.4% to the GDP. If we must analyse which fields contribute most towards our GDP, I’m afraid it isn’t likely to be particle physics. The PR team at CERN are good at promoting their activities in the media; however, even if they succeed in detecting the elusive Higgs boson, it can never be used for anything, as it can’t be produced anywhere else, unless you happen to have £5 billion lying around and a spare 27 km tunnel. Given the huge cost of the LHC, this really is exploration of knowledge for the sake of knowledge and some. Hardly can an article about CERN be published on a news site such as the BBC without a mention of the fact that the world-wide web was invented there, yet this isn’t exactly their core activity, or what the money goes into. That this was the most commercially successful project to come out of the facility says something about particle physics’s potential to generate wealth. Cox himself has spoken of the need to fund science to combat climate change, improve energy security and fight pandemic disease – all things that Diamond and ISIS and their users are working towards, but problems that are only likely to be solved at CERN if the next Tim Berners-Lee happens to be given the task of powering the site’s vehicles on an alternate fuel.

In a slight change of tack, Cox then suggests a more tenuous contribution of astronomy and particle physics towards this 6.4% GDP. He claims that students only take up physics because they want to “explore the early universe, be part of missions to other worlds or delve deep into the heart of the atomic nucleus”. A decade or so ago, figures might have agreed with that assertion. When I was starting out on an undergraduate physics course, most people chose to combine it with study in one of those areas, with degree titles such as “Physics with Astrophysics” or “Physics with Space Science”. Few of us took what we informally referred to as Straight Physics (not that we were implying anything about the astronomers, you understand). However, times have changed and the situation is now reversed. The intake of physics students now tends to contain a smaller number who are specialising in space or astronomy, with the majority taking the straight Physics degree. That degree will be an ideal starting point for a career exploring materials for use in building safe nuclear power stations or in hydrogen storage, or for working at the physics–biology interface. It’s hardly surprising that incoming undergraduates would mention particle physics or astronomy as their inspiration, as those are the only separate fields that A-level students are likely to be aware of, and they have to say something other than “physics” or “wanting to know how things work”. What actually inspires them is all the stuff they don’t yet know the name of.

The prioritisation of funding within STFC can hardly be described as undemocratic. There was a wide consultation exercise in which scientists were asked for their views, then the decision was taken by people other than the scientists who would be affected by it. Brian Cox is the one who describes his “personal interactions” with former science minister Ian Pearson: something most scientists who are rather less in the media spotlight couldn’t have dreamed of. Yet all those other scientists across all STFC-funded fields had their views heard before the list of priorities was made. It was Tony Blair and Lord Sainsbury, who Cox is such as fan of (I should point out that Sainsbury, while generally regarded as a good science minister was not an aficionado either – in fact, as many people will realise, he was a grocer) who originally gave the go-ahead for Diamond, and now Diamond and ISIS’s second target station are built, they have to have enough money to operate. They have seen cuts in their operations budgets too, so it’s only fair that the cuts are shared with other large scientific facilities.

Cox finishes his article by asking for the extra £50m to make up the shortfall. I’d be happy to stand with him on that, but I fear wishing for that amount of money is what could be described as a pipe-d:ream. I wish science funding could become an election issue, but can’t see that happening as none of the major parties is likely to propose a significant increase. Science just doesn’t fit into a convenient five-year cycle. This time, the funding situation is likely to get worse before it gets better, and it will have to be left up to the whole of the scientific community to decide which of the large facilities should be prioritised in order to protect our national interest.

The views expressed in this article are my own and do not necessarily reflect those of my employer.

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