Don’t Cut my Research Programme, Cut Theirs!

Nuclear physicists in particular seem to have been singled out disproportionately with these government cuts. Two of their three currently funded national research projects have been killed off along with all seven of proposed future projects. This represents a massive 52% cut. To have this at a time when the UK is discussing a new nuclear power programme and addressing nuclear waste issues is mind bogglingly short sighted.

Institute of Physics Report highlighting importance of nuclear physics to UK economy.

A recently published report on UK nuclear physics and engineering stressed the need to maintain a healthy nuclear science base and made it clear that nuclear physics has applications across many fields. Its applications in healthcare, the environment, the nuclear industry and national security require many skilled people trained to a large extent by academic nuclear physicists. The report stated that “further funding cuts could be terminal, resulting in the loss of an important skill set which would impact the delivery of Masters courses”. Many of the research groups in universities around the UK run and support Masters level courses – a spin-off of our basic research – which provide graduates who enter directly into the nuclear, health and radiological sectors.

The supply of skilled workers for the nuclear industry is a high priority for the UK since we must, even if we no longer design and build nuclear power stations, be intelligent customers for reactors commissioned from abroad. We must also have the nuclear expertise to deal with the decommissioning of old reactors and the safe treatment of our nuclear waste. Where does the STFC think the trained manpower that the UK in nuclear physics and associated instrumentation and measurement is going to come from? The UK spends about 1/20 on nuclear physics research compared to France and Germany, so can we really be so wrong?

What must be addressed now is how the academic community of nuclear physicists, government and funding bodies can work together to ensure survival of the best science and those areas of expertise essential for the Nation’s future. Simply shouting to reverse decisions already made may well be counter productive, given the sheer number of likely “don’t cut my area” lobby groups. We must also, make sure that our government understands the excitement, importance and relevance of the research we do in nuclear physics, from studying how stars shine and how they cook all the elements to applying our knowledge to develop new treatments for cancer. If our discipline dies, government ministers might reflect on how they will explain in the future their failure to support nuclear physics at the level well below Ronaldo’s salary at Real Madrid.

About Jim Al-Khalili

Professor of theoretical physics at the University of Surrey, author and broadcaster.
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