Cherwell can reveal that government cuts to scientific research are causing a brain drain in Oxford, as leading Physics professors are increasingly taking up better funded posts abroad.
Brian Foster, Professor of Experimental Physics, confirmed that he is currently negotiating the terms of a “very generous offer” to take up a research post at Hamburg University. “My decision is based on prospects for funding; Oxford cannot financially compete with national schemes of this magnitude.”
Prof Foster was approached by the Humboldt Foundation, who are funded by the German government, earlier this year. They offered him one million euros per annum to carry out his research, plus a generous salary on top of this. Foster said that this sum is approximately half of what he gets in Oxford to run his entire department.
Armin Reichold, a Tutorial Fellow and Reader in Physics at Balliol, revealed, “In the last two years, at least three post doctorates from the Physics Faculty at Oxford have left the country for departments and funding elsewhere, in places like the US, Spain and China.
“Other countries such as Germany, France, Japan are making huge investments in research and achieving more.”
David Urner, a Physics department lecturer, told Cherwell, “Many people are actively looking for new positions elsewhere; it’s not just the professors who are leaving but the departmental leturers as well. One of my colleagues left a few weeks ago. He liked it here, but he reluctantly accepted a position in France as it was an opportunity for him to continue his work there.”
In the seven years that Professor Foster has been at Oxford, he said that the funding has dropped by approximately 50%, and the size of his department is now about half what is was when he arrived in terms of support staff and technicians.
Foster said, “If I accept the new research post, the centre of gravity of my research will move to Hamburg, so it will be a loss to Oxford from that point of view”.
Professor Foster is the European Director of The International Linear Collider, which had its funding withdrawn in 2008. Major elements of the research for the this project were based in Oxford, but Urner told how the cuts meant that Oxford’s “involvement with this project has been practically taken away.”
Foster said, “There is certainly a tendency for specialists to be attracted elsewhere due to better funding opportunities in other countries. This will affect the university as well, as it will mean that leading subjects in Oxford will become weaker.”
Armin Reichold said, “When we look at the work of scientists in departments elsewhere, there is a sense that they’ve achieved a lot more because of the better funding. Unlike our projects, they have facilities dedicated to their own research.”
Reichold explained how although Oxford has not made any official redundancies, extensions on contracts have been withdrawn and people have left prematurely.
“We do our research very efficiently, but with these cuts there comes a point when you can no longer do what you need to do”, he said.
Reichold’s own project was recently brought to a halt as a result of reduced funding. He has now been “forced” to work with better financed industrial science projects.
David Urner, a department lecturer, told Cherwell that his time at Oxford has come to a “disappointing end”, after he learnt that his contract will not be renewed, and he will be leaving the University permanently later this month.
Urner said, “My line of work has essentially been discontinued here as there was not enough money available to continue employing everyone in the department. The people without permanent contracts are the first to go.
“Core research should be pushing the boundaries of technology, but now we are reliant on money from commercialisation, which puts constraints on our research. Once the commercial interest dries up, everything stops.”
Of Professor Foster’s post offer at Hamburg University, Urner said, “Brian Foster was offered a very prestigious position; him leaving would be a very big loss for the department.”
Professor Foster is a Fellow of the Royal Society, as well as Chair of the European Committee for Future Accelerators, and European Regional Director for Linear Colliders Global Design Effort.
Joe Phillips, a third year Physicist from Hertford, said, “If the leading experts leave to conduct their research elsewhere, this will have a massive effect on Physics at Oxford, as one of the main attractions is that you are taught by the best in the field.
“Oxford is known as having one of the best Physics departments in the country, if not the world, and it would be terrible to lose this reputation through a lack of funding.”
A spokesperson from the University Press Office said, “The University’s commitment to supporting the Department of Physics is as strong as ever. Oxford University’s world leading research position is in robust health.”
The origin of the cuts can be traced back to December 2007 when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced that it had an £80m budget deficit.
It is thought that the deficit emerged through an accounting mistake that was made when the STFC was created by merging two existing councils.