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Blog

Promoting nuclear physics

By Michael Banks

If you asked the general public what comes to mind when you say “nuclear physics”, you might hear about “nuclear power” or “atomic bombs”. However, you might not get a reply saying how research into nuclear physics allows us to destroy cancer cells more effectively or improves security and safety by designing better methods to detect dirty bombs or radioactive waste.

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To help promote the benefits of research into nuclear physics and to shake off some of the old stereotypes the subject has, the Institute of Physics today launched a new report, Nuclear Physics and Technology – Inside the Atom, outlining how basic research into nuclear physics is being used in a variety of applications from medical physics to fusion research.

The report comes at a difficult time for the subject in the UK. Nuclear physicists were up in arms after deep budget cuts to the subject were handed out in late December as the UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC announced the country would pull out of a number of nuclear physics projects, mostly at laboratories abroad, to help balance its budget for 2011.

Basic research into nuclear physics was firmly in the cross-hairs as the STFC announced the UK would pull out of the AGATA and PANDA experiments at the GSI heavy-ion lab in Darmstadt and also at ALICE at the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. The only experiment in nuclear physics that is still to be funded is NUSTAR at GSI.

Many nuclear physicists have lamented the state of the subject in the UK, which they say is now funded much less than in other countries such as Germany or Japan. Nuclear physicist Guenther Roser from the University of Glasgow called the UK’s spending on nuclear physics “appallingly low” and that “the balance is not right” compared with how much the UK spends on particle physics (mostly in subscriptions to CERN) or astronomy.

John Womersley, director of science programmes at the STFC, who spoke at the launch of the report noted that nuclear physics had been “severely affected” by the cuts but warned that physics as a whole will have to “make better arguments” in terms of its impact on society to get enough funding “just to stay still”.

I caught up with William Gelletly from the University of Surrey, who chaired the launch of the report, to ask him what could be done to reverse the trend of low funding for nuclear physics. He said that the community has to get the message across that nuclear physics underpins a lot of different areas, be it in helping to train nuclear physicists or helping medical physicist use the latest proton therapy machines.”You need nuclear physicists to teach the next batch of nuclear engineers,” says Gelletly. “At Surrey, we train over 100 MSc students in nuclear physics across four different courses, of which about half are UK students.”

So what can be done to reverse the decline? Gelletly says that making the government aware how important nuclear physics is would be a good start. He advises that a review of the subject – undertaken not by nuclear physicists but by “independent” experts – should be set up to show the government how important the subject is to the country.

The applications of nuclear physics were perhaps brought home most effectively by Gelletly’s Surrey colleague Jim Al-Khalili. In a wide-ranging talk on nuclear physics he also told the audience that his wife is currently undergoing a three week course of radiotherapy battling against breast cancer. He said that techniques in proton and carbon therapy – developed by nuclear physicists – have allowed for all the energy of the ion beam to be deposited in a very small area thus not damaging the remaining healthy tissue meaning it is more effective than chemotherapy.

Indeed, with the report mentioning that at least 1 in 6 of the UK population will require radiotherapy at some part of their lives, it is hard to think of a more powerful reason why the UK should do more to fund nuclear physics.

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One comment to Promoting nuclear physics

  1. A few months ago I attended a debate in Oxford about government support for science. A number of leading particle physicists and astronomers defended the importance of this kind of fundamental science because of its impacts – things like the ability to attract students into STEM subjects, the development of MRI, the world wide web, and the impact of scientists on the financial sector (well, that seemed a good argument at the time).
    These impacts on society are critical outputs of what we do and do indeed form a strong justification for it. However, these same scientists all expressed suspicion about what they feel is a growing expectation by government that they should be judged by and expected to increase those kinds of impacts. Any yet if that is such an important benefit of the science, how can it be so bad to ask for more of it?
    I think the underlying issue is that the reason most scientists do science is not the same reason that society funds it. If we are honest, most of us carry out our research because we enjoy it – we find understanding the universe deeply fulfilling, revelatory even, and it taps into something basic in the human psyche. This kind of cultural enrichment certainly deserves support, just as society supports music or ballet. Scientists, however, have successfully made the case that our enterprises are far more important to society, and merit far greater financial support, than music or ballet. I think that is true. The key challenges of this century – climate, aging, third world food shortages, HIV – clearly require scientific advances if they are to be addressed. These global challenges form a strong and compelling case for the continuing importance of science, and it is a case that we should make with enthusiasm.
    If government and society want to see relevant impacts from our science, we should embrace that challenge, and not recoil from it. To give just one example, if we say – as we often do – that an important impact of astronomy is attracting and training students who then go on to have an impact in industry, then we need to be sure our value system no longer implies that getting a postdoctoral post and then a faculty job is the best measure of success. Deep down inside, the societal and economic impact of our science may not be why we do it, but it is a large part of what we promise society in return for support, and that support not unreasonably comes with an expectation that we’ll deliver.

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