You may have heard that the STFC, the body which funds a large number of physics research facilities (and jobs), has a budgetary shortfall of around £80m.
This is seriously bad news for physics in Britain, especially astrophysics/astronomy and particle physics. The shortfall is expected to lead to the withdrawal from a number of valuable international programmes (such as Gemini North and the ILC), and could potentially result in a considerable number of job losses in physics departments across the country.
Why is this important?
Physics is valuable to the country on many levels. The most obvious impact is that of new technologies and innovations; LCDs, lasers, microwaves and computers are just some examples of technologies which had their genesis in applied physics research. While a great deal of this research is carried out by private companies, university research departments also have a big part to play. You only have to look at somewhere like Cambridge Science Park to see evidence of this.
Less obvious, perhaps, is the importance of basic research, the type of research which is directly threatened by these budget cuts. The value of basic research is consistently underestimated by policy makers, and it's easy to see why. How could esoteric projects such as surveys of dust in the galactic plane ever yield any economic value?
Well for starters, the scientists carrying out that survey may develop new imaging, modelling or data processing techniques which can be applied elsewhere. The Web is a particular example of this sort of technology transfer, developed as it was at the CERN particle physics facility at Geneva. This 88-page report details the technology transfer resulting from research at CERN alone, and CERN is just one (albeit large) facility. Physicists often cross over from research to industry too, bringing with them valuable skills and knowledge.
Increasing our knowledge of the way the Universe works through fundamental research can also have longer-term benefits. In the early 20th Century, the fields of general relativity and quantum mechanics emerged. At the time these must have seemed of little practical relevance, but by the middle of the century we were using quantum mechanics to invent the laser, transistor and nuclear reactor and are now using general relativity to make the global positioning system work. It's reasonable to expect that at least some of today's "esoteric" research will eventually result in important new technologies.
Don't forget the children, either. The inspirational power of physics can be tremendous; it's unlikely that I would have chosen to study Physics at university were it not for basic research into exciting things such as the origins of the universe, the centres of atoms and so forth, and I daresay the same goes for most Physics undergraduates.
If the funding cuts aren't reversed, who will inspire the next generation of physicists? Come to think of it, who will teach them?
What can I do?
Please sign the petition below: