Philip Ball is perplexed by the EPSRC’s decision to cut surface science funding

In the lastest announcement from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) regarding its ‘Shaping capability’ initiative, surface science is to receive reduced funding in future. This is just one of several controversial aspects of the direction that the EPSRC is taking but when you look at the topic-by-topic ratings made by the council (each is designated ‘maintain’, ‘grow’ or ‘reduce’), it is hard not to feel a little sympathy. Almost every subject is earmarked to receive the current level of support, or more. And among the latter category are many well motivated choices, such as energy storage and photonics. But obviously not every subject can enjoy this privilege. Hard decisions must be made and whatever it ‘reduces’, the EPSRC is bound to incur criticism from those affected. The decision to reduce synthetic organic chemistry naturally provoked dismay among RSC members. All the same, compromising surface science seems especially short-sighted given the apparent desire to focus on subjects that might boost economic growth.

It’s true that one of the most industrially important aspects of surface science - catalysis - is covered by a separate category that will not suffer the same fate. But there’s plenty more to the subject that deserves strong support. As Peter Knight, president of the Institute of Physics, said in response to the announcement, ‘surface science is an area of interdisciplinary research, often the most fertile source of new scientific breakthroughs’.

The EPSRC argues that it doesn’t regard the importance of surface science as having declined, but rather, that it is becoming assimilated into other topics. The funding cut is intended to accelerate this transition. It would seem that in making itself so pervasive, the topic has become a victim of its own success.

The council says that ‘we would expect future surface science research to make significant contributions to other disciplines and key societal challenges’,  giving nanotechnology and microelectronic engineering as examples. Some surface scientists have already suggested that ‘rebadging’ into such areas will rescue them.

But can applications like these be severed from the wellspring of basic science that makes them possible? Take the development of scanning probe microscopes in the 1980s, pioneered at IBM’s laboratories in Zurich. These tools, now fundamental to nanoscience and biophysics, were devised purely as a means of high-resolution surface imaging, although their potential for nanoscale manipulation of matter, probing surface forces, and exploring quantum phenomena quickly became apparent. IBM has emphasised these fundamental aspects of the methodology ever since, most recently by demonstrating that charge distributions of single molecules can be imaged directly - an advance that could conceivably offer new insights into chemical bond formation.

This is just one example of how the development of new techniques in surface science is rarely problem-specific. Whether it is low-energy electron diffraction, surface-enhanced Raman spectroscopy, scanning optical microscopy or countless other methods, these techniques are hungrily adopted by other fields. In fairness, the EPSRC says a priority ‘in the reduced environment is the development of novel and sophisticated tools and techniques’. But how can that objective avoid seeming diminished by its ‘reduced environment’?

And furthermore, can the core of surface science really be just methodological? I doubt it. The conceptual foundations, laid down by the likes of Johannes van der Waals and Irving Langmuir, lie with notions of surface free energy, intermolecular forces, adsorption, wetting and two-dimensional phases that are of undiminished relevance today, whether one is talking about chemical vapour deposition or biomolecular hydration. There is an intellectual unity to the discipline that transcends its rich variety of techniques. 

This raises an almost philosophical question of whether or not a discipline can exist and perhaps even thrive when largely divorced from an over-arching label. At the very least, it’s a gamble. But what seems most alarming is the message that this sends out at a time when the study of surfaces and interfaces is looking ever more vital to so many areas of science and technology. The days when surface science meant looking at single molecular phases on perfect crystal faces in high vacuum are disappearing. Now we are getting to grips with interfaces in all their scary - as Wolfgang Pauli saw it, diabolical - complexity. Real surface processes are often dominated by impurities and mixed phases, by roughness, curvature, charge accumulation and defects. Understanding these will tell us important things about cell and molecular biology, corrosion, atmospheric aerosols and cloud microphysics, nanoelectronics, biomaterials and much more.

That seems to be understood elsewhere. A new initiative for ‘solvation science’ in Germany, for example, recognises the cross-cutting features of studying interfaces. And despite excelling in this area, the UK lacks a dedicated body like the Surface Science Society of Japan. Such considerations suggest that it would be more opportune to strengthen our foundations rather than chip away at them.

Philip Ball is a science writer based in London, UK