LONDON—A decision this month by Education and Science Secretary Kenneth Baker on how to allocate the additional 24 million pounds ($34 million) that the British government has promised to spend on science research is expected to push the country closer to dropping out of CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) and ending its support of particle physics.
The Advisory Board for the Research Councils met late last month to advise Baker on solutions to the crisis facing academic science. Its members failed to recommend an immediate withdrawal from the nuclear facility, but reportedly told Baker in a private letter that they “would have no option” but to recommend withdrawal at some future time unless Britain's contribution could be reduced substantially.
CERN, which straddles the Franco-Swiss frontier near Geneva, is the outstanding example of European collaboration in science. In 1984 Carlo Rubbia and Simon van der Meer shared a Nobel Prize for leading the team that discovered the W and Z particles. But the facility is expensive to operate: its cost in 1984 was 680 million Swiss francs ($400 million), of which Britain pays roughly 12 percent.
Britain's Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) spends more than one-fifth of its 300 million-pound ($425 million) budget on such international subscriptions, of which CERN is the biggest single item. The Council's problem is that those fees fluctuate while its budget is fixed. A sharp drop in the value of sterling against Swiss and French francs this year has raised its international costs by 20 million pounds, 15 million pounds for CERN alone.
The Treasury refuses to compensate for these currency fluctuations. But the Council needs the approval of the British government, which signed the 1953 Paris Convention that established CERN, before it can pull out. In the meantime, the Council is expected to cancel one of its three rounds of peer-reviewed academic research grants to “small science”—some 500 awards that would have gone to biology, chemistry, physics and archeology—to balance its budget by the end of the current fiscal year.
Baker is expected to follow the Advisory Board's advice to give to the Council almost all the 24 million-pound increase won this fall from the government. Such a decision is expected to anger further the four other councils—covering agriculture, environment, medicine and the social sciences—already upset that the Science and Engineering Council receives nearly one-half of the 638 million-pound national science budget.
The decision, which may be delayed past mid-month due to Baker's involvement in a protracted pay dispute with the nation's elementary and secondary school teachers, is expected to renew calls for Britain to leave CERN or re
duce its costs.
Stevenson is deputy editor of the journal Chemistry in Britain.