WORLD-leading research at the North-East's only university physics department is under threat because of a funding crisis.

The Physics Department at Durham University says its work in particle physics and astronomy, involving almost 100 research scientists, is being put at risk by an £80m research budget deficit.

Professors also fear the department's outreach work in schools may have to be axed.

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They have written to John Denham, the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills, to express concern at an expected shortfall for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (SFTC) funding body.

The letter says: "It is very difficult for our scientific community to understand the rationale behind the current de facto cuts to the STFC's operating budget.

"Such cuts will hit the university sector particularly hard, leading to the loss of highly trained staff and placing more physics departments at risk of closure."

Professor James Stirling, a fellow of the Royal Society and pro-vice-chancellor for research, said: "We have in Durham some of the world's leading particle physicists and astronomers and some of the best research facilities, as a result of having invested heavily in our research programmes in recent years.

"We don't want this work or our investment to go to waste.

"The type of work we do with schoolchildren, such as telling them how the universe began, how galaxies and stars were formed, and what everything is made of, arouses their interest in science and contributes to developing our next generation of scientists."

Durham University's physics department was recently ranked fourth in the country in two league tables.

More than half of its research grant income comes from the STFC.

A spokesman for the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, said the STFC budget would rise by 13.6 per cent and that it was for the facilities council to decide how the money was used.

However, Mr Denham has asked an expert panel to review physics in the UK. The panel is due to report in the spring.