The case for fundamental science!

I’ve been trying to get this post going for a while and am not really sure how to start, so apologies if it seems somewhat rambling and incoherent. As most of you know, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) prioritisation exercise, that was largely finalised on December 16, has resulted in significant cuts to facilities, exploitation grants, and to fellowships and studentships. The one positive outcome is that Paul Drayon (The Minister for Science and Innovation) has now recognised (quite why it took him so long is a mystery) that “there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council” and will find a solution by the end of February. A number of solutions have been presented some of which are summarised in Jon Butterworth’s Life and Physics blog.  Some more detail can be found in these slides from Paul Crowther’s STFC funding crisis webpages.

Given the current situation, all of these suggestions are reasonably sensible and we may well end up going down one of these routes in the near future. One problem I have is that none of these really intend to even try to resolve the real problem :  for the foreseeable future, Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics (PPAN) will be funded at a level that barely makes them viable. The projected level of exploitation funding suggests that only 1 in 4 academic staff will be funded at any one time and that grant success rates will be something like 1 in 12. As pointed out in Mike Cruise’s (outgoing Chairman of the Astronomy Grants Panel) slides, also on Paul Crowther’s STFC page, this means that on average most academics will only hold two STFC funded research grants during their career. What is more likely is that some will be more successful at holding onto grants (especially if they are successful early on in their careers) and many others may never have a successful grant application. Some of these may still have successful research careers, but with the inclusion of Full Economic Costing it is going to become increasing difficult to sustain a research career without funding.

Over time one would expect Physics (and Astronomy) departments to slowly move from PPAN research areas to areas that are more likely to receive funding, potentially reducing the number of PPAN staff by as much as three-quarters (the most extreme scenario admittedly). Some of you may note that this is roughly in line with a recommendation of the Wakeham Review of Physics , namely :

The Panel recommends to the Funding Councils and Research Councils that they work together to consider how they can encourage physics departments to reclaim the intellectual leadership in the broader spectrum of physics supported across the full science base.

Although the Wakeham review was generally well received, I do have one problem with it.  Rather that reviewing Physics in the UK, it reviewed Physics Departments.  One of the conclusions (implied by the above statement from the review) is that there is too much fundamental physics taking place in Physics Departments (or more correctly, Physics Departments are too reliant on STFC funding). In fact, I have heard, that this has resulted in a general view that too large a fraction of UK Physics funding is spent on fundamental physics and not enough on applied physics.  In truth this view may have been held prior to the Wakeham Review, but the Review certainly didn’t help.  The problem with this view is that it ignores all the physics taking place in other departments (Engineering, Medicine, Chemistry, Biology, Geosciences, Mathematics, etc.).

The idea that a lot of fundamental physics research takes place in Physics Departments and that applied physics research moves out into other departments seems perfectly reasonable to me.  This isn’t to say that Physics Departments shouldn’t do applied research, but just that being dominated by fundamental research may not be unreasonable. Certainly changing the makeup of Physics Departments because of some misconception about physics research in the UK seems like the wrong reason for doing it. It seems important to me that we should be making the case that not only is the fraction of physics funding spent on fundamental physics not too high, but that Physics departments being dominated by fundamental research areas is perfectly fine (as long as the applied research is being done effectively and in the appropriate place).

What is more, I think we also need to make a passionate case for the value of fundamental research itself.  Brian Cox in his two articles in the S word (here and here) has done a really good job of making the case for fundamental science, and so have others. It just doesn’t seem to be having any impact with those who are making the decisions.

We need to convince people that the reason we do this is because we are fascinated by the subject and that it is curiosity driven. What is more, society in general is fascinated and we are a much better society as a result of our understanding of the universe and the world around us than we would be if we were ignorant of these things. At this stage some might argue that this places us in the same positions as the arts, who are not funded nearly as well as the sciences. The difference is that we also know that physics itself underpins something like 6% (~ £40 billion a year) of our economy. The ability to attract students into physics degrees to sustain this sector of our economy is crucial and there is good evidence that a fascination with fundamental physics is a prime factor in students deciding to do physics. Spending less than £1 billion per year to underpin a sector of our economy worth about £40 billion a year seems like a really small price to pay.  I am convinced that the damage being done today to research in fundamental physics will have a negative impact on our ability to attract good students into physics degrees.

We then have the additional benefit that some fundamental research produces completely unexpected results that change the way we live and have an economic benefit that completely dwarfs what has been spent funding the research itself. This is particularly unique to fundamental research, since applied research is inherently predictable. Again, I’m not arguing against applied physics, but arguing that we must not undervalue the importance of fundamental research (I should clarify here that my definition of fundamental research is research that is curiosity driven, while my definition of applied research is research with a particular, well defined goal – i.e., the result is essentially known and the research is trying to work out how to get there).

My concern for the near future is that although people are making these type of arguments, the general view is that the Science Minister wants to make a decision by the end of February and that there is no chance of extra money.  What will therefore happen is that – rather than making a passionate defence of fundamental physics and putting pressure on the government to protect a research area that is crucial for our society and economy – we will essentially give the Science Minister what he wants in order to protect the small amount of funding that remains.  In a sense we would rather keep what we have than take the risk of damaging it further by annoying the government and the Science Minister.  To a large extent I believe that, as publicly funded scientists, if we feel that what we do is important and that the current cuts will do immense damage to our society and economy, we have an obligation to fight against it.  We should not sacrifice the future to protect the small amount of funding we have today – it is selfish and cowardly.

The one thing I have not mentioned is, who does the fighting?  There have been plenty of very good articles in newspapers and on blogs making the case for fundamental science, but this doesn’t seem to be enough (although they have clearly had some impact).  Even David Mitchell has been in on the act. One person would be the head of the research council responsible for funding research in fundamental physics. However, since he doesn’t seem to believe in the value of fundamental science (my opinion admittedly, rather than a fact) and seems to think we spend too much money on exploitation grants anyway, this is unlikely to happen. Although I believe strongly that we should continue to fight for fundamental physics because we believe in its intrinsic value, I am not particularly hopeful of much success.

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6 thoughts on “The case for fundamental science!

  1. Pingback: The case for fundamental science! « To the left of centre | Drakz Free Online Service

  2. “The difference is that we also know that physics itself underpins something like 6% (~ £40 billion a year) of our economy. The ability to attract students into physics degrees to sustain this sector of our economy is crucial and there is good evidence that a fascination with fundamental physics is a prime factor in students deciding to do physics.”

    I do not understand this argument. If the goal is to attract students to physics, would it not be simpler to subsidize them ? Those £1 billion a year could directly be affected to students wishing to engage in physics studies. Moreover if physics is so critical to our economy, then employers should be desperate to hire physicists. We should not even have to entice students to study physics, they will do it because it leads to a large premium in their salaries.

    • The £1 billion figure I used is approximate – and higher than it really is – and includes the cost of subsidising undergraduate and PhD students. The total STFC spend on PPAN areas is something like £400 million and includes the cost of PhD students. Undergraduates students from the UK don’t pay fees and I don’t know the total cost of subsidising these students, but it is probably less than £100 million per year over the entire UK. The total I should have used is probably closer to £500 million than £1 billion.

      I see the point of what you’re saying, but in my view we want to attract the best possible students many of whom are more fascinated by physics, than by money. Some of these students will want to stay in research, others will go off and play a big and vital role in our economy. We also need people to teach these students and if you want these people to be at the frontline of their subjects, they should also be doing research. One could then argue that they could be doing applied research, rather than fundamental research. My argument is that fundamental research is in many ways more attractive both to potential students and to staff (if I was motivated by money I could choose to do applied research and work in industry – rather than in academia – where I might be able to earn more money). Fundamental research then has the added benefit of potentially discovering something completely unpredictable that completely changes our lives (hopefully in a good way).

      My concern in making this argument is that it is perceived as an argument against applied research, which is not my intention or belief. It is an argument that we should not undervalue fundamental research and that in many circumstances it may be more valuable than applied research (with of course applied research being more valuable than fundamental research in other ways).

      • I forgot, embarrassingly, that undergraduate students at English universities do pay what is called a top up fee and this can be as much as £3000 per year. It is still a lot less than the actual cost though, although could be set to rise in the near future if the proposed budgets cuts to Higher Education in England go ahead.

  3. Just realised that I made a mistake – another one you say – with my calculation of the amount that Physics underpins. I calculated it as 6% of the budget (~£40 billion) not 6% of GDP which is more like £100 billion.

  4. Pingback: UKSA no more? « To the left of centre

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