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Zoe Louise Matthews | ASY-EOS | UK

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Dark days for science: STFC to drop UK involvement with ALICE

I have, in the last 48 hours, returned to the UK from my 18 month attachment at CERN. It feels great to be home again. My time there has been incredible and life-changing, but it also demonstrated that no matter how much you love a place and love your work, no matter how much you settle in, make friends, enjoy yourself, if it isn’t home then homesickness will still torment you. I missed those close to me so much it hurt. I would daydream wistfully about fish and chips. When it rained in Geneva I felt nostalgic for Birmingham. Sometimes, home is home is home and logic doesn’t come into it. I made the decision that in the long term, I want to be in the UK. Unfortunately, a consequence of this decision is that my career prospects now seem quite uncertain.

As Suzanne says, it really has been an incredible 2009, and especially so for ALICE. The year seems to be ending perfectly – early collisions brought about our first physics paper, and the data we have taken since is showing beautiful results. Our detectors are working well, and the physics we have been waiting so long for is finally happening. The year to come promises great things. This should be a happy time.

For the ALICE CTP group in Birmingham, as well as many other UK physics research groups, the mood has turned quite sour. Funding cuts to science this year have had disasterous impact on nuclear and particle physics. As a result, the Science and Technology Facilities Council have made the decision to cut completely the UK’s involvement with many international projects, including the ALICE experiment. Much of the UK’s research in nuclear and particle physics has been entirely dropped, which is highly damaging and makes long term prospects pretty grim. What I find hard to swallow is that many of these contributions were small, yet they were vital as investment for the future of the field in the UK.

The brutal way in which the cuts have been made seems to have left the worst possible dent in the field, which is unfortunately something I am not surprised by. During the funding crisis following STFC’s £80m shortfall, the UK’s part in the International Linear Collider was lost, and ALICE was already on dangerous ground (see my concerned letter to the Times). The Birmingham University group is the only one in the UK involved in ALICE, yet its impact is vital to the experiment. Not only are we working on important analysis areas (myself included!) but we are the group responsible for the Central Trigger Processor, without which the detector could not take data. We have been given until at least the next grant’s round in 2011 before the group will be dropped, and during that time we will be fighting the decision. Others were not so lucky and will be gone by Spring. The sheer scale of the loss for the particle and nuclear fields is hard to express.

I am very busy with work at the moment (there is quite alot to be done before the LHC restarts again next year) so I must stop here for now. I hope everyone is having a Merry Christmas. Those feeling the damage of the science cuts may be struggling to find festive cheer this year. I will be spending mine in Manchester with my boyfriend and family, so despite the terrible news I think I will find it hard not to be cheerful.

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3 responses to “Dark days for science: STFC to drop UK involvement with ALICE”

  1. Michael says:

    Dear Zoe,

    the British contributions to particle physics at CERN have been essential, and I can think of several British colleagues whom I admire very much. Such brutal cuts as are planned are terrible for the field, and disastrous for the HEP effort in the UK. An international response to the earlier decision by Austria to withdraw from CERN was helpful to Austrian physicists. Is there any plan to elicit and enunciate such a response to the UK disaster? If so, be sure to make it broadly known…

    good luck,
    Michael

  2. Zoe Louise Matthews says:

    Michael,

    I have heard (but not from an official source as yet) that the nuclear community plans to protest for ALICE as well as its other cut programmes. I’ll blog as soon as I know more. Thanks for your message.

  3. susanne says:

    These funding cuts are really a shame, I hope things can still be turned around!