Monday, 25 January 2010

Missing the "subcritical" point

The Ion Report warned that further cuts in STFC's support for nuclear physics could make it "subcritical." According to a report in today's Research Day (needs a subscription) Lord Drayson said that this point was dismissed because international collaborations are independent of each other and "withdrawing from some does not adversely affect the others."

That is missing the point of what the Ion report said. Without the critical mass in size of UK community, we are not able to provide the broad student training, to run summer schools, the national conference, the vibrant MSc and specialist undergraduate programmes or the specialist training and advice to industry, to law, to journalists and the media. Without adequate funding, people are lost, and along with them the bright PhDs who go off to work in nuclear engineering and industry. Yes, the projects STFC have pulled out of will largely continue, albeit without some UK expertise, but the survival of the nuclear physics community in the UK, which is small by international standards, but packs quite a punch, risks falling apart, and with it, all the added value that it brings to our moderately ambitious country.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Doomsday update

Sometimes, when people ask what I do and I tell them that I'm a nuclear physicist, they look a bit amazed and ask me if I make weapons. It's not terribly surprising since, of all the many uses that nuclear physics has been used to, weapons are the one that has made most impact on culture. Though there are lots of other interesting (and more positive uses) of nuclear physics, weapons will probably always be the most iconic one, and by association, I will have to get used to being vaguely associated with them.

I sort of feel that I came to nuclear physics too late to really be associated with weapons, and I sometimes forget what a powerful influence the threat of nuclear war and nuclear weapons had on the generation before mine. I even spent my first postdoc in Oak Ridge National Laboratory in Tennessee, which was built for the atom bomb project, and visited the museums... but I've never really felt too associated with weapons, though I find the history fascinating. One of the almost romantic hangovers from the cold war era is the Doomsday clock. It was set up by a group of nuclear scientists worried about the problems of the weapons that they created. It perpetually points at a time close to midnight to represent the danger the world is under from threats so serious (originally and particularly nuclear war) that it could spell "doomsday". The clock still exists, and today it was moved back one minute to be 6 minutes from midnight, reflecting an improvement in the global situation, as judged by the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. I guess that's good news... and the announcement, which mentions climate change in conjunction with nuclear proliferation, suggests that the era of nuclear war as the primary (perceived) threat to civilisation is over, and we have a new enemy.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Funding cuts - update

So, as mentioned before Christmas, nuclear physicists were awaiting news of potential funding cuts that would come as a result of a shortage of money at the funding counil, STFC.  We were worried that, of all the areas STFC fund, nuclear physics would face disproportionately higher cuts.  We were right.   I could have (perhaps should have) been blogging about this daily - it's too late to do a complete summary now, but my colleague Niels at Manchester has set up an excellent website summarising much of the information about the cuts and the response to it, and I suggest looking there for more comprehensive information.

This afternoon, I happened to look at a Twitter feed not long after STFC tweeted that their director of science programs had just had an op-ed published in New Scientist.  It was something that deserved comment - and it's got it.  Take a look (my comment is by user "drpdstevenson" since I logged in with my AIM credentials)