News & Events

Statement on the Cancellation of the CLOVER Project

6th April 2009


The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) recently announced that it is cancelling CLOVER, a microwave background polarisation experiment.

The CLOVER team is exceedingly disappointed that the STFC is withdrawing its support after so much effort, technical expertise, and money have been expended, and with the project within sight of deployment. The team is grateful for the financial and administrative support that the STFC has provided throughout the life of the project, but now find it very difficult to understand the decision. The experiment is widely regarded as being competitive with the best in the world, and would have delivered world-class results.

The cancellation will prevent the UK from undertaking pioneering science having the objective of discovering gravity waves in the earliest moments of the creation of the Universe. The role of gravity waves has been studied theoretically, by the international community, and they are known to be intimately related to the origin and structure of space-time itself. The experimental observation of the moment when the Universe was much less than a billionth of a billionth of a second old would not only be of immense scientific importance, it would have profound cultural significance, and would have provided one of the most iconic images of our time.

It is disappointing the UK will not now be able to maintain its international profile in this rich area of science. The first discovery of the presence of gravity waves will lead to the emergence of a new area of physics, which will mature over some 10-15 years. In anticipation of this new science, the CLOVER team has established a technical capability in the UK that is second to none. Within the life of the project, the team has developed some of the world's most sensitive far-infrared superconducting cameras, it has pioneered the design of new long-wavelength optical systems, it has developed multi-axis telescopes and control systems, and it has created sophisticated computer models of the physics it is seeking to understand. It has also secured a site in the Atacama Desert in Chile, which is one of the world's most sought after locations for astronomy. We strongly believe that this project had in abundance the key elements of a pioneering experiment: in particular the development of innovative and fundamental new technology for the purpose of exploring the physical mechanisms that were at work when the Universe began.

The CLOVER team would like the following operational details to be known: CLOVER was funded in 2004 at the level of 4.78M pounds, under the old pre-FEC system of funding. Two factors have served to increase the cost. First, the original grant did not include the costs of setting up a site, which was to be provided by overseas collaborators. When this option fell through, the site costs of approximately 0.8M pounds had to be absorbed by the project. This was a known risk at the time of funding, and it was clear then that this cost was outside the scope of the initial contingency, and that it would require an uplift. Second, there have been delays due to the large amount of technical development that has been required, which is inherent in a cutting-edge project. We stress, however, that this investment has enabled the UK to become world leading in technologies that are need to underpin this new area of physics. The additional funding that is now sought, 2.55M pounds, has been calculated using the new FEC formula in which staff costs are very much higher, hence the apparent large increase in cost to completion to 7.54M. In like-for-like terms the increase in resources required is around 20%.

The CLOVER team recognises that the STFC is struggling with financial problems at the present time, but is concerned that this decision does not only mean that an important instrument will be lost, but that the UK will be locked out of a profoundly important area of science for many years to come. The loss of the technology and science base that has been accrued in the context of CLOVER will be very difficult to replace when it has gone. Above all, the CLOVER team is acutely aware that many, young gifted scientists have worked on CLOVER for a number of years, and the cancellation of the project will do nothing to encourage talented young people to seek careers in physics and engineering.

The statement made by STFC to the project team is as follows:

"As you know, STFC Council considered the action to be taken on Clover at its meeting this week. Council was assured that the science to be addressed by Clover remained first rate, that technical progress was good, and that the project remained timely, but that additional funding was needed. The Chair of Science Board discussed the consideration of Clover at PPAN and at Science Board. Council was asked to make a clear decision, given the uncertainty that has surrounded the future of the project. Council decided, regretfully, that additional funds could not be made available in the current financial situation and therefore Clover should be cancelled.

I realise that this is not a decision that you or the project team will be happy with, but I hope it finally brings some certainty, albeit a disappointing outcome. I would like to emphasise that this is in no way a reflection of Clover’s science goals or of the ability of the project team, and I understand the high level of personal frustration involved. "

Contact in Manchester

Prof. Phil Diamond

0161 2754214