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Cut particle physics, engineers tell government

Infighting has broken out among the leaders of the UK research elite as professional societies move to protect their disciplines from promised spending cuts.

The often fragile consensus that existed among professional scientific societies has collapsed with the Royal Academy of Engineering the first to argue its corner, saying that engineering is more important to the UK than basic science.

In a submission to the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, the academy calls explicitly for particle physics to be cut. The academy says that since most particle physics goes on at Cern, the field makes “a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines”. It argues that this field of fundamental science makes only a “modest” contribution to the challenges facing society compared with engineering and technology.

In a letter accompanying the submission, academy president John Browne wrote: “We believe that research should be concentrated on activities from which a contribution to the economy, within the short to medium term is foreseeable. This may mean disinvesting in some areas in order properly to invest in others.”

The submission adds: “It is not suggested that those subjects where research funding is reduced should disappear. However, the country cannot currently afford to invest as much in such areas as it presently does and, arguably, the need for solutions to the fascinating problems that lie in some areas of basic science is not urgent.”

The academy’s arguments are likely to carry weight with the government. Since the election, Browne has accepted a role as adviser to Francis Maude, minister for the Cabinet Office, on civil service reform. He is also steering a long-awaited government review of university tuition fees.

The engineers also call for removing funding from interdisciplinary programmes such as Living with Environmental Change. But the Council for Science and Technology, the prime minister’s top advisory group, takes the opposite view on this, suggesting that cross-council programmes should be protected.

BIS asked six organisations to advise on what cuts should be made to research. Adrian Smith, director general of science and research at BIS, announced in March that he would consult the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering, the British Academy, the Council for Science and Technology, the government’s scientific advisers and the CBI before going to the Treasury with plans for what and how to cut.

The Treasury has told BIS to present an outline submission for the spending review by 16 July. Research Fortnight has learned that Smith asked the six to submit their preliminary thoughts to him a week earlier, on 9July. Any additional ideas must also be sent this week.

As Research Fortnight was going to press, the Royal Society had not published its submission to BIS. One possibility is that the society will prepare a number of scenarios outlining the effect of cutting the science budget by 10 and 25per cent. The society is warning the government that making excessive cuts will damage the science base beyond repair.

“The issue really is that once cuts get to a certain level, you get a spiralling of effects in terms of other streams of investments from business and charities and the net effect of cuts is far more serious than even the cuts themselves,” a senior official says.

“It’s disappointing and counterproductive if individual disciplines or research areas descend into some kind of bidding war in response to the spending review process,” says the official. “The only winners from that are likely to be those who seek to reduce the science budget further.”

In a statement, the British Academy said: “A strong research base is essential to meet national priorities and global challenges. That base needs to have strength across the disciplinary spectrum, including humanities and social sciences.”