What the STFC UK?

I've been putting off writing about this for a few days because it has been too painful: the UK is ending the International Year of Astronomy with a war on physics.

In the beginning

The story begins back in February 2007 when I first discovered that UK research councils PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) and CCLRC (Central Laboratory of the Research Councils) were being merged along with the nuclear physics part of EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council). The claim was that these "big physics" areas made use of large facilities so it made sense to put them together. The Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) said that it would "increase the competitiveness and the scientific and economic impact of UK science by funding the best research within its grant-giving remit". At the time the DTI also assured everyone that the funding would remain equal to the sum of the parts. There were concerns in the community that smaller research areas would lose out to huge projects and I was also concerned about its continued commitment to explaining its science through education and engagement.

The new research council - the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) - was brought into being on April 1st 2007. I remember being in a session at the National Astronomy Meeting 2007 where concerns were voiced about this new body. There was a worry that the new council did not contain the word "Research" in its title unlike the three bodies from which its constituent parts were taken. As it turned out, these concerns were not as foolish as they may have seemed.

The cracks begin to appear

In November 2007 we heard that STFC had announced the UK's withdrawal from the Gemini telescopes to save £4 million per year. This was a shock announcment to the entire astronomical community and gave the first hints of the complete and utter mess that STFC's finances were in. It was soon pointed out that leaving our contract with Gemini early would incur a financial penalty so STFC managed to incite international outrage at our nation's behaviour and not actually do anything to help the financial problems.

As we moved into December 2007 it became clearer that the problem was much bigger than £4 million per year. As was discussed on the Today Programme by (then Dr) Brian Cox, STFC seemed to be missing as much as £80 million. This was around 12% of their annual budget of £678 million. The reason for the short fall has never been fully clear or even admitted. Government could rightly claim that they had increased "science" spending in their 10 years of office and had increased STFC's budget for the 3 years of the Comprehensive Spending Review period starting in 2007. Although true, several other factors meant that in reality STFC had less money to fund what it was already funding. The factors included (but were not limited to): inflation; increasing costs of subscriptions to international facilities such as ESA, CERN and ESO; exchange rate fluctuations of those subscriptions; spending overruns on projects such as Diamond (mostly denied by STFC); and a mysterious thing called full-economic costing which had been imposed by the Treasury.

The Science Minister at the time (Ian Pearson MP) and his boss - the head of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS which later became BIS) - both claimed that there was no problem and that they'd increased STFC's budget. STFC also claimed that everything was fine while also preparing the physics community for cuts of 10-25%. We all wondered why such large cuts were required if everything was fine.

What level of excellence do we cut?

We went into 2008 feeling deeply depressed about the impending doom. An STFC representative told MPs that astronomers and particle physicists should stop complaining and perhaps retrain as stockbrokers. The year was spent having what seemed like endless reviews to rank and re-rank the entire research programme. I should point out that there was very little "flab" in the programme and everything that was funded had previously been ranked as excellent.

STFC borrowed some money from their own future (the 2010-2011 budget) to plug some of the holes temporarily. In 2008-9 STFC axed projects such as CLOVER that had almost been built and were soon to start taking data. At Jodrell Bank, STFC negotiated "continued" funding of e-MERLIN which actually meant that they would reduce the funding over the following 2 years so that there would be no more funding from 2011 onwards. I suspect that the rather quiet sale of protected radio astronomy band Channel 38 (606 - 614 MHz) may have helped in this deal as Ofcom were looking for spectrum real-estate in time for the Olympics in 2012. STFC made a small saving and Ofcom were probably laughing all the way to the bank.

The day of doom

On Wednesday this week, we finally reached the point when the full level of the cuts were announced and the borrowed money from the future had to be paid back. Peter Coles does an excellent job of describing the day that has caused even more widespread depression amongst physicists around the UK. There are significant cuts across the board. Many projects have been cut entirely and the list of "saved" projects includes many that will have no funding from 2011/2 onwards. Nuclear physics has been savaged with perhaps 50% cuts. It is claimed that the outreach budget will continue but it isn't clear if this is at the greatly reduced 2009 rate or level of previous years. The cuts would have been worse if other research councils hadn't "donated" £14 million although this does come with some strings; a "refocussing" of STFC's priority on to the life sciences rather than astronomy, particle and nuclear physics.

This wanton destruction of physics is even more confusing when the amounts are small, the physics has been consistently classed as excellent, and the financial problems seem due to an accounting blunder or funding council incompetance rather than because of inefficient science projects. The comparison with the very different way the banking system has been treated is particularly stark.

To make the situation even more painful, the spokesmen for STFC have consistently framed their statements in language that makes it look as though there is no problem ("There has been no reduction in support" - Keith Mason) or even as if things are looking good. The big list of cuts was described as "re-prioritisation" during "a short term blip" (Keith Mason). They claimed that scientists themselves chose what to cut giving the implication that we were merely removing the chaff rather than being told to make a choice of which of your children will be allowed to live. There has also been the claim that this exercise merely removed old, outdated experiments that have served their time. While true for some things, they cut plenty of experiments which hadn't even started working yet but had had money invested to build them. Such a waste.

The depression doesn't end. Despite what the STFC CEO might try to claim, this week's announcement mostly pre-dates the global economic crisis. The cuts due to that crisis (the upcoming £600 million reduction in spending on universities and research) means that the future is going to get a whole lot worse before it gets better.

A generation will be lost

As Dame Jocelyn Bell rightly points out, the "greatest shame" of this announcement is the 25% reduction in studentships and fellowships. This cut hits young scientists specifically. This seems particularly unfair as younger researchers are not well represented amongst the powers that be who all have very safe jobs and very reasonable salaries. Our own funding council has told my generation that we aren't valued and that we should leave the country if we want to continue in the field we are passionate about. This is already happening. Several of my friends and colleagues have lost their funding and/or moved overseas in the past couple of years. Countries such as Australia and the Netherlands seem much more enlightened and attractive than the UK right now.

Does it matter?

In economic times like these, should scientists be complaining or should they be pretending that STFC are doing a great job as Keith Mason and friends would like us to? It is true that the public sector is to face cuts and it can be difficult to justify why scientific researchers shouldn't be part of this. At the same time, scientific research makes vital contributions to our society and underpins a rather large fraction of the economy. All this despite the surprisingly small fraction of our GDP that we spend on it.

At the same time as physics will be devasted for want of around £100 million, a new part of the public sector is demanding an extra £1500 million in bonuses as a reward for almost destroying our entire economy.

Anger

Although my particular funding is "safe" (although it may get a 10-15% cut anyway) I'm angry that my friends have lost their jobs. I'm angry that my passions have been smashed into pieces by an indifferent funding agency. I'm angry that I spend much of my time telling people about great STFC funded science only for the same body to axe it. I'm angry at STFC's constant double-speak. I'm angry at the Government for standing by and watching this mess. I can't help but feel that the Government may have been hoping for this outcome all along. I'm angry that Keith Mason could very well be "rewarded" for all this by being made head of the future UK space agency.

What's next?

The current Science Minister Lord Drayson now admits that having research budgets compete ("tensioned") against large fixed facility costs may not be such a good idea. He implies that STFC may be changed at some point in 2010. Whilst life without STFC might sound great, it isn't that simple. Paul Crowther rightly says that this option isn't without problems. Do we really want to repeat what happened last time by entering the next CSR with new agencies that can't (or won't) fight their case?

We need the STFC Executive to change or at least take equivalent cuts in their own salaries to show solidarity. We need Government to step in an show leadership by fixing the financial mess.

Right now though, I need some small glimmer of hope to keep me going. Can anyone provide some? Please?

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 20th Dec 2009 (15:12 GMT) | 4 Comments | Permalink

Comments: What the STFC UK?

As painful as it is, British astronomers can do what many other Britons have done, emigrate to the United States and work there. People like Michael Foale (astronaut) have made very successful careers here on this side of the pond.

Posted by Matthew Ota on Wednesday 23rd Dec 2009 (23:19 UTC)

Could a black hole? Be a vaccuum in space. Held open by the gravity of all matter around it.

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