Friday, 17 February 2012

We don't need no (nuclear physics) education

Way back in January 2010, the big political topic in the UK nuclear physics community was the cuts being forced on STFC from above, and how they would distribute them amongst the various areas it funds.  That was assuming that they didn't have the stomach for a fight with BIS for more money, based on the apparently correct argument that there was a kind of accounting error when PPARC and CCLRC merged, along with nuclear physics from EPSRC, to form STFC.  If they did have the stomach, then they didn't win the fight.

Lo and behold, Nuclear Physics was disproportionately cut.  We had lots of arguments at the time as to why it should not suffer in this way, not least because a joint EPSRC/STFC-commisioned report highlighted how we were already disproportionately small - not just compared to other fields, but also to other countries - yet provided important training: e.g. "In all application areas, the panel felt that a vibrant, healthy research base is a key component in providing a high quality training programme and skills base."  The then science programme director of STFC, John Womersley publicly defended the apportioning of the cuts as "fair and balanced" (I'm not sure that I hope he used this phrase because Fox News have changed its meaning to be quite the opposite, or whether that would be more depressing).  He also denied the link between academic nuclear physics and the nuclear industry, in defiance of the commissioned report. He has since been promoted to CEO of STFC.

A little before the funding announcements were made, I speculated that no-one really cared about academic nuclear physics, irrespective of a link between the existence of the field in the UK and our ability to build nuclear reactors, understand the safety issues, the radiation issues, to innovate in new technologies, to understand the nature of nuclear waste, to train a body of potential nuclear industry workers with a knowledge of the basic science and so on, because we could buy everything, including expertise from France.  They have a large nuclear power industry, and a commensurate investment in basic nuclear science to drive developments and deliver innovation (as the commissioned report notes).

I was hardly surprised to read today that we have signed a nuclear energy agreement with France. Good.  We can carry on having a thriving City of London, the workhorse of the economy, based on solid financial transactions, and use the proceeds to buy in technological solutions to problems that we can forget, through underinvestment, how to solve.  Allez les Bleus!