Review of Nuclear
Physics and Nuclear
Institute of Physics response to a joint
EPSRC and STFC review
A full list of the Institute’s submissions to
consultations and inquiries can be viewed at
7 December 2009
7 December 2009
Dr Amanda Chmura
North Star Avenue
Swindon SN2 1ET
Review of Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Engineering
The Institute of Physics is a scientific charity devoted to increasing the practice,
understanding and application of physics. It has a worldwide membership of over
36,000 and is a leading communicator of physics-related science to all audiences,
from specialists through to government and the general public. Its publishing
company, IOP Publishing, is a world leader in scientific publishing and the electronic
dissemination of physics.
The Institute welcomes the opportunity to respond to the joint EPSRC and STFC
Review of Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Engineering.
The attached annex details comments we have received from our Nuclear and
Particle Physics Division, the Nuclear Physics Group, and the Medical Physics
If you need any further information on the points raised, please do not hesitate to
Tajinder Panesor MInstP
Manager, Science Policy
Review of Nuclear Physics and Nuclear Engineering
The Institute welcomes the report of the joint review undertaken by EPSRC and
STFC into a subject area that is strategically vital to the UK. We hope that the
recommendations are given the due consideration they deserve by all relevant
stakeholders (particularly government departments and the research councils) as the
issues raised in the report will have important consequences for not only the UK’s
plans for new nuclear build, but also for the UK’s healthcare sector, the environment,
and matters of national security.
Understandably, the main focus of the report is on new nuclear build, but we are
disappointed that more attention wasn’t given to the benefits that can accrue from
pursuing curiosity-driven nuclear physics research. We are of the view that the focus
of the report is too narrow and that the UK will miss out on the exciting opportunities
in nuclear physics research that other leading European nations, such as Germany
and France, are supporting and engaged in. A good example is the Facility for
Antiproton and Ion Research (FAIR), which is a major facility that will be sited in
Darmstadt, Germany and which will use intense, high-energy beams of ions and
antiprotons to explore a broad spectrum of scientific areas from the structure of
matter to the evolution of the Universe.
It is important for the UK to invest/participate in FAIR at a significant level, as it will be
an important facility worldwide up to and beyond 2030 and is high on the ESFRI and
the NuPECC roadmaps.
However, due to the ongoing STFC financial situation, there is a genuine concern
that STFC may be unable to collaborate in international nuclear physics ventures. UK
physicists have already put considerable effort into designing and developing ideas
and equipment for FAIR, which will allow them access to a facility where one can
answer such questions as the origin of the mass and spin of the nucleon, the limits of
existence of nuclear species and the origins of the chemical elements. In addition to
providing a real focus for nuclear physics, it will also present opportunities in atomic
physics, plasma physics and in laser inertial confinement.
Failure to invest in frontline facilities will not only limit what UK nuclear physicists can
do coupled with their influence on the future direction of the research area, but also
limit the size of the community and hence the number of skilled people they can train
in an area where there is already a skills shortage. In addition, exciting, leading-edge
areas of research, such as nuclear physics, are the ones most likely to attract the
best students to study science-based undergraduate degrees, especially physics. At
a time when the UK’s economy needs more scientifically-trained graduates in both
the public and private sectors, any further reduction in support for nuclear physics will
send out a negative message to prospective students.
The current state of funding for academic nuclear physics research
The report mentions the quality and level of funding for nuclear physics research.
The quality was judged on the basis of recent national and international reviews to be
excellent. However, the funding provided is an order of magnitude lower than in
comparator countries with large nuclear industries such as France, Germany, Japan
and the US.
The report points out that any further reduction in funding could prove terminal and
states that STFC needs to examine: “…whether operating support for nuclear
physics research at a level significantly below international OECD norms is
strategically justified.” It was clarified in discussion by Professor James Stirling at a
recent town meeting (organised by STFC at Daresbury on 25 November 2009) that
this rather ambiguous wording actually meant that the review panel considered the
funding to be anomalously low. The Institute strongly endorses the view that funding
for nuclear physics research in the UK is dangerously low (of STFC’s PPAN annual
budget of around £300m, only 3% or so is allocated to nuclear physics) and needs to
be increased very significantly over the next few years to re-establish a reasonable
level to support and underpin a vibrant and resurgent nuclear industry; any delay or
hesitancy over this will lead to the further haemorrhaging of the UK’s nuclear skills
Training (MSc and PhD level)
The need to support and expand the provision of taught courses in nuclear
technology was highlighted in the report. This included increasing provision for MSc
taught courses as well as CPD courses for staff already working in industry.
Currently, there is no funding mechanism to support MSc courses and a solution to
this problem needs to be found urgently.
We understand that the research councils are working towards a solution to this
problem by the spring of 2010, and we support their efforts, as a funding mechanism
needs to be in place by then in order to ensure support for candidates entering
courses in the summer of next year. There is already interest in expanding provision
(e.g. a new MSc course is being planned by the Scottish Universities Physics
Alliance and the University of Surrey is considering new provision in nuclear
engineering to sit alongside its suite of MSc courses based on nuclear physics) but
decisions are being held back pending a solution to the current financial situation.
The report states that the UK’s university nuclear physics community is well placed to
provide the teaching of MSc and CPD courses, but somewhat curiously mentions
that they need not be taught by subject experts. We disagree with this statement, as
much of the material beyond undergraduate study is specialised. There is also a
known correlation between quality of university teaching and quality of research;
students are more stimulated by those who are actively engaged at the forefront of a
subject area. Thus, the strong view of the Institute is that any courses at MSc or PhD
level do need to be presented by staff who are experts in nuclear physics and that
such expertise can only be maintained at UK universities through a properly funded
nuclear physics research programme.
In addition, the skills highlighted in the report relating to applications in the healthcare
sector (i.e. new detectors, medical techniques, operation of medical radiation
facilities and radiobiology), are all currently taught at MSc level to trainee medical
physicists. Engagement with the medical physics community would provide access to
both existing academic modules and the experts to teach these subject areas.
As previously mentioned, curiosity-driven research in nuclear physics is known to be
one of the topic areas that inspire young people to study physics at degree level, and
is thus crucial in providing a flow of skills to industry. The report recommends the
introduction of: “…more nuclear-specific modules to undergraduate courses”. We
wish to point out that the Institute provides accreditation for physics degree
programmes in the UK. Each programme is required to adhere to a set of core topics
that already includes basic nuclear physics and radioactivity. Any change to the
topics covered in the ‘core’ should involve discussion with the Institute’s staff
responsible for Degree Accreditation who will be able to advise on the development
of appropriate options.
The need for better links between the nuclear physics and nuclear engineering
communities was highlighted in the report. At the recent town meeting Professor
John Womersley, STFC’s Director of Science Programmes, stated that funding to
establish such links would be available via STFC’s Knowledge Exchange
programme. He also stated that STFC would be happy to finance travel for
exploratory meetings, before the stage of applying for Knowledge Exchange grants,
from research grants even though this was not a specified objective of the grants.
This operational flexibility is very much welcomed and should be formally
incorporated into STFC policy.
The report also recommended that the nuclear physics community puts more effort
into applied research. This is clearly a priority but is difficult at present given the
critically small size of the community. The Institute believes that an expansion of
applied nuclear physics research will be more easily achieved if there is a significant
increase in the numbers of UK academics working in nuclear physics and a targeted
increase in funding provided by the research councils.
In order to facilitate any expansion in the number of UK academics working in
nuclear physics a clear statement of support from STFC is required. A positive
endorsement of the report’s proposed high-level national strategy for nuclear is
needed to give universities the confidence to appoint new staff to work in nuclear
physics and reassure them that their research will be supported by the research
councils. It is therefore vital that this report, which recommends a marked change in
direction for nuclear physics, is formally announced with a large amount of publicity.
This would be most appropriate at the launch of the EPSRC/STFC joint action plan in
Applied research tends to fall in the gap between EPSRC and STFC, a situation that
is partly caused by each council jealously guarding its claims to the economic impact
of its own research funding. For example, EPSRC’s Knowledge Transfer scheme
(equivalent to STFC’s Knowledge Exchange programme) is only open to people who
can point to EPSRC-funded research grants and generally closed to nuclear
physicists, even though they may be trying to do something in the applied nuclear
area. Furthermore, there is an inefficient replication of technology transfer schemes
where both EPSRC and STFC are funding nuclear energy schemes without any
coordination. This silo mentality is not an acceptable way to run the UK’s science and
engineering base. It is vital in this, and other areas, that the boundaries between the
research councils are invisible to the outside world. Thus, it would be more efficient if
STFC concentrated on funding basic science and EPSRC ran the spin-outs,
industrial engagement, knowledge and technology transfer activities, and science
application schemes – as it does with the cross-council Energy Programme.
Furthermore, the split of support for nuclear research between EPSRC and STFC
has not been helpful in encouraging the sort of dialogue between the various
communities. We strongly encourage the research councils to develop a cross-
council strategy that benefits the user communities, and also endorse the
recommendations for the research councils to be proactive in exploring means of
increasing engagement with industry.
In this respect, the professional bodies and industry both also have a responsibility.
For instance, the Institute has recently been exploring how it can better support the
needs of physicists working in the nuclear industry. Furthermore, the links should not
just be between nuclear physics and nuclear engineering, but rather between all the
technical disciplines supporting a wider range of skills and services. Major
programmes such as new nuclear build will be led and funded, to no small part, by
industry and the pace of development will be limited by the weakest link in the
availability of technical services. These requirements go far beyond nuclear physics
and nuclear engineering and extend into more general physics and engineering,
chemistry, safety and environmental services and risk and project management. We
will need to ensure that these are all available in the required numbers for such
programmes to succeed.
In addition, with regards to seizing opportunities for research in medicine and
healthcare, engagement with the medical physics community, both academic and
clinical, will also be crucial to identify challenges in diagnostic imaging and
therapeutics, and to formulate appropriate strategies to ‘bring these to market’. This
engagement would strengthen the quality of developments in these areas and
provide a larger critical mass of physicists, whether nuclear or medical, working in
The report’s recommendations amount to the statement of a new policy on nuclear
physics for the research councils. However, some specific recommendations are
addressed to other bodies, including UK universities and major players in industry.
These very wide recommendations need to be implemented coherently and the
Institute believes this is the greatest challenge of the review.
At the research council level, there needs to be coherent action from EPSRC and
STFC and it is imperative that a joint body is set-up to implement the
recommendations which fall within the areas looked after by both research councils.
As many of the recommendations are long-term in nature, it is important that
progress is reviewed on a regular basis (the report suggests biennially or triennially)
and a mechanism to ensure this arrangement must be set in place.
As far as the recommendations addressed to outside bodies are concerned, there
needs to be concerted action by EPSRC and STFC to publicise them and share
ownership with a wider stakeholder community including the government, universities
and industry. Here the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills and other
government departments have a key role to play and they need to be included in any
action plan arising from the report. The Institute could also assume a role in fostering
collaboration in the wider scientific and industrial community.
The report was discussed at the recent town meeting, where it was stated that the
recommendations had been accepted by STFC’s Council and that an action plan
would be developed, together with EPSRC, in January 2010.
There was some discussion as to how implementing the review’s findings would
mesh with the current research prioritisation exercise being undertaken by STFC to
balance its budget. It was stated that the report would also be circulated to STFC’s
PPAN, PALS and Science Board, so that they were aware of its recommendations.
Nevertheless, the overwhelming opinion expressed at the town meeting was that the
mechanisms for ensuring that the recommendations were taken into account in the
prioritisation process were woefully inadequate and there was a grave danger that
actions taken by the prioritisation process could be detrimental to the
recommendations, which have been accepted by STFC’s Council. The Institute
shares this concern.
The Institute of Physics is a scientific charity devoted to increasing the
practice, understanding and application of physics. It has a worldwide
membership of over 36,000 and is a leading communicator of physics-
related science to all audiences, from specialists through to government
and the general public. Its publishing company, IOP Publishing, is a
world leader in scientific publishing and the electronic dissemination of
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