Critical Mass for Scottish Physics
Professor John Chapman of the University of Glasgow explains why an alliance between six Scottish physics departments is such a good idea. "If we are going to continue to make an impact we need critical mass." That’s the opinion of Professor John Chapman, Head of the Department of Physics and Astromony at the University of Glasgow, one of the six Scottish physics departments that are banding together as SUPA, the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance.…
With a well established reputation for world class physics in Scotland, the Alliance will allow the Scottish Universities to compete with Oxford, Cambridge and Imperial College London at a time when funding policies favour large departments with high research ratings.
The super-department discussion involves Edinburgh, Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, Paisley, St Andrews and Strathclyde. As well as attracting funding to improve the overall quality of physics research in Scotland, the other main ambition is to set up a graduate school that will be open to all Scottish post-graduate students of physics.
Collaboration between the universities already demonstrates the health of physics in Scotland and SUPA will provide opportunities for more. "There is always a limited amount of money available, so it makes fine economic sense to share equipment, data, and resources across the universities."
"Initially we are not planning to branch out into new areas of expertise; rather SUPA will allow us to concentrate resources on five areas of physics where Scotland is already doing important work. It was necessary although not easy to focus in this way, as there is a wealth of excellent work going on across the board. Ultimately the themes picked themselves and the SUPA initiative has homed in on particle physics, astronomy and astrophysics, nuclear and plasma physics, condensed matter and materials physics, and photonics as the areas of strength."
The groundwork for collaboration is already in place and new links are planned. For example, Glasgow is the home of the Institute of Gravitional Research, where there is an interest in building advanced detection equipment. This interest is shared with the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UK ATC), which is located at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh. Within the first five years of its inception in 1998 the UK ATC delivered novel and state-ofthe art instruments for the Gemini Observatory, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope (all in Hawaii), and the William Herschel Telescope on La Palma. The Institute of Gravitational Research has contributed sensitive detection equipment to GEO 600, the Laser Interferometer Gravitational Wave Observatory in the USA. By working together the two organisations contribute different approaches and skills to a common area of interest and will open up opportunities for more detection equipment to be built here.
Another example of collaboration is in the area of photonics. Important applications in the area of biomedical innovation are resulting from work taking place between the Universities of Glasgow, Heriot-Watt, St Andrews and Strathclyde.
With the funding in place key appointments can be made to strengthen the work that is already developing. In addition, the plans for the combined Graduate School are designed to underpin the quality of research on a long-term basis. Formal training is becoming increasingly important for graduate students, and it will be possible to provide a programme that can be accessed by all Scottish postgrads. There are plans for graduate teaching rooms with broadband video links so that students can attend or participate at a distance. A distinguished visitor programme will build on the already successful physics summer schools that take place in Scotland.
With SHEFC having approved the pooling approach in principle, a distinguished international panel met in August to consider whether the new alliance was viable. The panel, which included the chief executive of PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) and heads of laboratories around the world, offered strong support for SUPA. Final ratification then came from SHEFC at the end of November 2004.
SUPA will have a Chief Executive, an executive committee that is advised by an external advisory committee and will operate a single pan-Scottish Graduate School. Professor Chapman is looking forward to the well-conceived alliance plans being implemented early in 2005. "There is a lot of excitement about this project. It represents an opportunity to take physics in Scotland to a new level." "
SUPA will act as an effective shop window for physics at every level. As well as attracting key funding in the UK and expertise from around the world, it provides a focus for working with industry and for making physics more accessible to everyone."