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Cuts in science funding attacked

The Astronomer Royal, Professor Arnold Wolfendale, yesterday launched an outspoken attack on the Government's administration of science. He warned that Britain might have to withdraw from membership of the European Space Agency and called on William Waldegrave, the Minister for Science, to meet the cost of Britain's responsibilities under international agreements.

Professor Wolfendale's outburst interrupted proceedings at a press conference in London to publish the annual report of the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC).

The SERC has been caught in a double bind as a result of Britain's exit from the ERM on Black Wednesday. It now has to pay its subscriptions to international organisations in devalued pounds, whereas the organisations require payment in comparatively hard currencies such as French or Swiss francs. In addition, Black Wednesday has forced cutbacks in government expenditure, meaning that the SERC will have fewer pounds with which to pay the subscriptions.

The SERC will receive about pounds 2.3m less than it had been told to expect for 1993/94 as a result of public expenditure cuts, and has been told to start contingency planning for cuts of up to 6 per cent in its budgets thereafter. 'It makes no sense. I'm really flabbergasted. I really can't understand it at the moment,' Professor Wolfendale said.

Out of the SERC's budget for 1991-92 of just over pounds 450m it had to pay nearly pounds 100m in subscriptions to CERN, the European Laboratory for Particle Physics; the European Space Agency and the Institute Laue Langevin in Grenoble. If the full devaluation of 15 per cent were reflected in next year's subscriptions it would have to cut 'domestic science' severely to find the money.

If more money is not found, Britain's astronomers would have to give up participation in the X- ray Multi-Mirror space mission even though, 'the UK has acknowledged world expertise' in this difficult area of observational astronomy. Since the XMM is one of the main planks of British scientific participation in the ESA, pulling out of the XMM would make nugatory further participation in ESA and mean the council would be wasting the pounds 25m which it pays ESA each year.

Professor Wolfendale's complaint is that these subscriptions have to be paid under the terms of inter-governmental agreements. He wants the Office of Science and Technology headed by Mr Waldegrave, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, to accept responsibility for meeting the payments due under agreements signed by government ministers.

Sir Mark Richmond, SERC's chairman, warned that so much money was being paid out in international subscriptions that SERC was close to the position where there would not be enough left in the domestic budget to take advantage of the fact that it had paid its subscriptions.