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Sunday, June 15, 2008

Stephen Hawking: ministers’ £80m error puts science at risk

Britain's most famous scientist, Stephen Hawking, has accused the government of making “disastrous” cuts to research funding that threaten the country’s international standing.

Hawking has released correspondence accusing ministers of putting science at risk through basic “bookkeeping errors” that have led to an £80m budget shortfall and warning that several university physics departments may be forced to close.

Separately, it has emerged that he has turned down the offer of a knighthood. “Professor Hawking does not like titles. In fact he dislikes the whole concept of them,” said a spokesman.

In the Queen’s birthday hon-ours this weekend, three respected but low-profile scientists are awarded knighthoods. The absence of a similar accolade for Hawking has long been one of British science’s minor puzzles.

Now Hawking has cleared up the mystery by revealing that he first turned down a title more than a decade ago and since then his resolve has only hardened.

His interventions on matters of public policy have been rare, but he has been angered by the cuts to physics funding that followed the government’s attempts to reor-ganise science. Last year ministers decided to merge the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which funded most of Britain’s physics research.

The merged body, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), was set up with an immediate shortfall of £80m because of mistakes in calculating the running costs of new laboratories. This immediately threatened the jobs of 600 physicists and the closure of facilities such as the Jodrell Bank radio telescope. It could also force Britain to pull out of global projects such as the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii.

British involvement in other major international projects – such as the new particle accelerator at Cern, the physics facility near Geneva – are not believed to be at risk. They do, however, further squeeze the cash available for spending in Britain.

An independent inquiry is under way into the crisis, but this week Ian Pearson, the science minister, is due to publish a report replying to a select committee that was highly critical of the government’s actions.

In his letter, Hawking said: “This bookkeeping error has disastrous implications. There is a possibility that very severe cuts will be made in the grants awarded to UK research groups.

“These grants are the lifeblood of our research effort; cutting them will hurt young researchers and cause enormous damage both to British science and to our international reputation. They could well lead to several physics departments closing.”

The threat to university physics departments has most angered Hawking and his fellow theoretical physicists. Neil Turok, professor of mathematical physics at Cambridge and a close colleague of Hawking, has already decided to quit Britain to become director of the Perimeter Institute in Ontario, Canada, this autumn.

“Experiments at the cutting edge of physics are designed to test theories, so theory is essential to their interpretation,” said Turok. “What the government is doing by cutting theory is consigning the UK to funding but not benefiting from these big experiments. It really is a dumb policy.”

Brian Cox, professor of particle physics at Manchester University, who is closely involved with the large hadron collider project at Cern, said he supported Hawking’s comments.

“The notion that scientists will make a more valuable contribution to the economic and social wellbeing of the world if their research is closely directed by politicians is the most astonishing piece of nonsense I have had the misfortune to come across in a long time,” Cox said.

Pearson has written to Hawking rejecting most such criticisms and has suggested the creation of the STFC has been a success. He said in a statement: “There was no deficit at the time of the merger; nor were there arithmetical errors. I can quite understand how those whose work is not funded may well question those who gave it a lower priority.”

For Hawking such battles may soon seem remote. He expects to spend more time abroad in future, partly in California and partly with Turok in Ontario.

Original here

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