Copyright: Frantisek Gela

Utrecht staff and students say no to physics cuts

Bright and early on 3 January 2011, 140 physics lecturers, students and other staff at Utrecht University in the Netherlands made their way from the physics department to the offices of the university administration. The purpose of the demonstration was to submit a petition objecting to proposed cutbacks, and to the removal of department head Casper Erkelens after he refused to sign a document agreeing to the reforms.

Utrecht physics students and staff protest budget cuts. The placard reads “Stop the demolition of physics and astronomy

Physics department board member Henk Dijkstra, who is a professor at the Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, said that the decision to take action was made by an email discussion with the professors of the department. The proposed reforms include reducing the budget of the physics department by 44% compared to 2006, in comparison with the reductions proposed for other departments within the faculty, which are in the range of 13-24%.

“Preparedness for actions and demonstrations don’t fit in my daily vocabulary”, said Nobel laureate Gerard ‘t Hooft as he handed over the petition, highlighting the unusual situation. The petition called for Erkelens’ reinstatement, inclusion of the physics department in discussions about cuts, and drastic reduction of the proposed cutbacks. The first two of these demands have since been met.

Scientists and organisations such as Euroscience (read statement on cuts here) have called for continuing support for science during the recession, advocating a knowledge-based economy as the best way forward.

Demonstrations such as the Science is Vital rally in the UK, and a protest by scientists in Bulgaria, along with student protests in several countries, show increasing tension around this matter. Accepting the petition, President of the Executive Board Yvonne van Rooy pointed the finger at the Dutch government, urging staff and students to attend a national protest later this month. A 2010 report by the Netherlands Observatory for Science and Technology (NOWT) showed that, while overall science funding in the Netherlands is high, government spending on university science research in the Netherlands lags behind that of many of its competitors.

“I’m glad I’m externally funded”, said one physics PhD student in response to the demonstration. “At least it means I’m safe”. Here’s hoping that he is right.

The petition called for Erkelens’ reinstatement, inclusion of the physics department in discussions about cuts, and drastic reduction of the proposed cutbacks. The first two of these demands have since been met.

Featured image credit: Frantisek Gela via Shutterstock

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Jessica Stanley
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