LONDON — Britain's scientific genius, which discovered gravity, split the atom and gave birth to the world's first test-tube baby, has fallen on hard times.
About 600 top-rated medical and scientific research projects emerging from British universities each year are being rejected because of government cutbacks.
Britain's contribution to international scientific journals and its share of U.S.-granted patents have fallen off sharply in the past decade, a survey shows.
With the British pound hitting new lows almost daily and the cost of telescopes, satellites and atom smashers soaring, it is becoming harder for Britain to pursue knowledge in partnership with its Western allies.
Thatcher Denied Degree
In a country whose currency bears the image of Sir Isaac Newton, discoverer of gravity, the squeeze on science resulted in an outcry that climaxed in January when Oxford University denied an honorary degree to Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.
Thatcher's Conservative government says it is maintaining the high standard of British research but has to restrain university spending, which has risen uncontrolled since World War II.
Britain, whose 62 Nobel Prizes in the sciences are second only to the United States, is still producing top research at a rate disproportionate to its size and wealth, Education Undersecretary Peter Brooke said in an interview.
But many eminent scientists and doctors are wondering how long that can last, given a 25% to 30% cutback in funding for university research projects.
One example cited by scientists of how the cuts are biting is the $55-million Spallation Neutron Source, which was opened in December at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory near Oxford, after 10 years of preliminary work.
The giant machine is the world's biggest source of neutrons and was to be used for pioneering work in molecular and materials science. But the scientists say they do not have enough money to buy the instruments needed to keep the machine operating.
"To run the world's best machine in this half-cocked way with inadequate financing, for want of a few million (dollars) extra, seems to me not the way to proceed," said one of the lab's researchers, Alan Leadbetter. "It's like building Concorde and then rowing it across the Atlantic."
Meanwhile, Britain is considering withdrawing from the European Organization for Nuclear Research in Geneva where particle accelerators probe the structure of matter. A decision is expected this spring.
Pulling out of the prestigious organization would effectively end Britain's research into high-energy physics, which as the science journal "Nature" noted, would be acutely galling for a country where geniuses like Ernest Rutherford pioneered the whole field of nuclear physics during the early part of this century.
Research money is distributed to Britain's 46 universities by five research councils. Universities propose projects and those deemed to have the most promise are awarded an "alpha" rating.
The government's Advisory Board for the Research Councils said in a January report that the number of alpha-rated projects denied funding has risen from about 300 a year in 1979-80--when the cuts were first imposed--to twice that level in each of the past three fiscal years.
The Medical Research Council, with a budget the equivalent of $130 million, says its funding of alpha-rated applications has fallen from 87% in 1982-83 to 53% in 1983-84.
Among rejected alpha projects were research into strokes and how to rehabilitate stroke victims, blindness in children, multiple sclerosis, dementia and low birth weight in babies.
In a recent editorial, the British Medical Journal said the government seemed "obsessively concerned with the present and almost recklessly unconcerned with the future.
"Nowhere is this more apparent than in its attitude to higher education and to scientific research, which are being treated as fringe luxuries unaffordable by a poor country."
The government recently announced an increase in the science budget from 550 million pounds ($605 million) for the fiscal year 1984-85 to 584 million pounds ($643 million) for 1985-86.
But the proportion of the science budget available for research has been eroded by 5% inflation, a 23% drop in the value of the pound over the past year, and a corresponding rise in the cost of sophisticated scientific equipment.
Ironically, a big chunk of the budget is going toward paying off researchers whose units are being closed by the government's economy drive.
Parents Pay More
Undersecretary Brooke noted that the government recently came up with an extra 51 million pounds ($56.1 million) for science by forcing high-income parents to pay a greater share of their children's higher education.
"We took an extremely unpopular decision . . . because we wanted to make sure that the stress and strain which is being felt on the science budget could be alleviated," he said.