A gloomy future?

Considering that the weather has perked up since the rather wet weekend, in the world of UK astronomy research things are certainly looking gloomy today. Firstly, Andy - the e-Astronomer - informs us that the UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) have been asking universities, informally, if they could cope with a 25% (or even 40%) cut in the funding of their existing grants. STFC have a total annual budget of £678 million and are short by £80 million. This was featured on the Today Programme (check out listen again today and find 07:20 am) this morning and I have transcribed it below.

Interviewer: University physics departments are facing such big cuts in funding, they say research projects will have to be abandoned and jobs will be lost. The Science and Technologies Facilities Council, which allocates science funding, is short by £80m. It'll say today which universities are to lose out. The shortage appears to be down to the fact that the council didn't ask the government for enough money. Dr Brian Cox is from the department of physics [actually School of Physics and Astronomy] at Manchester University. Good Morning.
Brian Cox: Good Morning.
Interviewer: Is that the reason for the problem?
BC: Well, we do believe that this is err some kind of mistake somewhere in government. I mean, just to set the scene, STFC's the council that funds fundamental physics - big physics. You know, so when you hear these stories about extra-solar planets - life on other planets we're looking for around other stars - or the Large Hadron Collider at CERN that'll recreate the conditions just after the big bang. All these big important research projects - they're funded by STFC - and there seems to have been some problem. I would say it was a mistake somewhere. So I don't believe for one minute that the government intends to hit physics. I mean, they've been quite a friend to science in general over the last 10 years and we've had no hint of any change in that attitude. So it seems to be that a mistake has been made and the minister - Ian Pearson is the minister - who has the ultimate responsibility for this, will hopefully have to step forward and rectify it.
Interviewer: Well, I'll be speaking to him in just a moment. But let's be clear. This council, this part of government that was only set up this year to oversee funding, is £80m short. Which means what?
BC: Well that appears to be true and so it could mean a whole swathe of things. There are big facilities like the Diamond Light Source - flagship facilities in Oxford that allow people to, you know, peer into the heart of living cells. So that kind of physics. It could be an attack on that. But what we've heard is that the attack will fall on what I suppose is the soft target which is physics departments. You see, STFC not only fund research but they also fund the people who teach physics in these big [university] departments. Now the government has recognised that physics departments are vital to the economy. So it really, this is where the cuts lie. And it's 25% remember - that's a huge cut for anyone to bear.
Interviewer: Right
BC: And we think it'll affect physics more broadly in the UK.
Interviewer: Dr Brian Cox thank you. Well, Ian Pearson is the Science Minister. Good morning.
IP: Moring Sarah.
Interviewer: Can you step in and help out with 80 million?
IP: Well let me put this in context first Sarah. What we've seen is significant investment in science, by the government, over the last 10 years. And the science budget is actually going up over the next 3 years.
Interviewer: But they're short 80 million. Can you help them out?
IP: Well, as I say, the science budget is going up from 3.4 billion [pounds] this year to 4 billion in 2010/11. And the budget for the STFC is actually going up as well by 13.6% over the next three years.
Interviewer: So you're not going to help them out with the extra 80 million?
IP: Well, we're, we have concerns about err the STFC's budgetary proposals. Erm we've been discussing that with them over the last errr few days and weeks. And, there clearly are problems and it's one of the reasons why, although we don't get interfering with the detail - because we respect what's called the Haldane principle which has been in place for many years. I think in the light of this, the delivery plans that are going to be outlined by all the research councils today. I've asked Ian Diamond, Chair of RCUK to review support for physics. Err. Which is a key part of our agenda on [talked over]
Interviewer: So you're going to review support with, to what end? You will be able to help them out with the 80 million shortfall, or not?
IP: Well, let's put this in context again. The STFC...
Interviewer: Please, I know we... forgive me Mr Pearson. We have heard that. We've also heard that a lot of physicists across the country and university departments er are going to be affected. They'll lose their jobs. Departments are going to lose 25% of their budgets. Er. So I'm just looking for some sort of answer from you as to whether you are going to help them out such that that will not happen.
IP: Well, I'm concerned about that Sarah. The STFC's got a budget of [£678 million annually] 1.9 billion pounds over...
Interviewer: So 80 million is relatively small. Will you help them out?
IP: ...over the next three years. Well, we will have to see what the review says. Because certainly the health of the different disciplines - physics in particular - is something of concern to us. That's why Ian Diamond...
Interviewer: So you'll do what you can to help them out and get the extra money?
IP: Well, nobody wants to see err physics hit hard Sarah. And this government has invested a lot in our STEM agenda. We've invested a lot in...
Interviewer: Sure. I'm just trying to understand if that means there isn't any more, or there will be - you'll find that extra bit.
IP: Well, who can predict what the future of the review will come up with Sarah. Urm you know let's let's just get this into overall perspective. Science spending is going to up to 4 billion [pounds] by 2011 - a big increase.
Interviewer: Ian Pearson, thank you very much.

Andy has some things to say about this interview. On very related news, Chris Lintott has already told us about funding problems that the shortfall is going to cause for Gemini but now tells us that the UK Infra-red Telescope (UKIRT) is in trouble too.

Since I started writing this post Chris has an update about what is unsafe in STFC's current plan. That doesn't make for nice reading. Potentially on the chopping block are UKIRT (just got started on great work), MERLIN (just about to work better than ever after an expensive fibre optic upgrade), the Liverpool Telescope (the RINGO instrument just won an award!), UK participation in the Dark Energy Survey (future), post-launch support for ESA projects (Planck and Herschel?) to be cut by 30% (this is where it gets personal for me), the Boulby mine experiment (dark matter), ClOVER etc. Instruments that are safe include our membership of ESO, SKA and ELTs, JCMT and ExoMars. Not a bright future. I guess the STFC logo probably was a sunset - rather than sunrise - on British science after all.

Still, I'll try to remain cheerful.

Update 14:30 GMT: It appears that the Liverpool Telescope, MERLIN and UKIRT were all up for "programmatic reviews" so nothing has changed for them yet. A big hit to astronomy that I didn't include was an acceleration of the closure of the Issac Newton group of telescopes. Another big hit - this time to particle physics - is the UK's withdrawl from the International Linear Collider which is the experiment planned for after the Large Hadron Collider.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 11th Dec 2007 (14:14 GMT) | Permalink
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