Don't worry. Decimation is good for you.

I must be getting old. I never would have thought that I would have an evening's entertainment listening to a House of Commons Select Committee meeting. It is even more bizarre when I consider that the meeting in question was about Science Budget Allocations. Surely there should be nothing more boring?

The proceedings felt like high drama with our scientifically inclined elected Members of Parliament questioning the heads of prestigious learned science societies (the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society) before moving on to the Head of the Science & Technology Facilities Council and the Chair of Research Councils UK. Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson (RAS) and the man from the IoP both put the case (so did the Royal Society) for why the Government's recent increase in overall science funding has resulted in a funding crisis for particle physics and astronomy. They were very restrained and polite in pointing out that this doesn't seem to be deliberate on the Government's side but an "unintended consequence". It was also pointed out that "if the economy does well we have to do less science" due to the way funding for our international experiment subscriptions are set up. That is not a very logical or sensible situation to be in.

Despite the repeated claims of budget increases, the bottom line is that STFC have to cut £80 million over three years. They chose to save this by hitting many experiments and reducing grants to university physics departments by around 25%. The UK physics and astronomy community is severely depressed by all this with threats of huge job cuts. During the meeting the figures quoted by the Research Council officials were 200 job losses at Harwell and Rutherford, up to 350 job losses at Daresbury (current staff 490), and up to 60 job losses at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh (current staff around 100). Those are huge cuts and will no doubt affect the UK's ability to exploit the science from the great facilities that the STFC has.

Keith Mason went on to say that "the number of astronomy PDRAs [post doctoral researchers] will be some 10% down on what they were in 2005 not 25%". He more or less says that cutting the number of researchers in astronomy is a good thing and "we need to talk about it in a calm and collected way". I agree that this should be talked about in a calm way but announcing huge imminent cuts and job losses doesn't help to keep people calm. A suggestion from the Research Council representatives was for astronomers and particle physicists to stop complaining about losing their jobs and just to retrain in other fields. One MP responded by saying: "You cannot be serious that the solution to wrecked careers is [for particle physicists and astronomers] to become stockbrokers". However, on a positive note, the Research Council representatives do suggest that it would not be against the Haldane Principle for the Government to provide the missing £80 million (over three years) and fix the problem.

In related news the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities, and Skills Ian Pearson has now sent a very badly written response to a letter from 550 young physicists. The letter has serious cut-and-paste issues implying little care was taken to proof read it before sending it. One postgraduate student has commented that "many students are frustrated that the MP seems content to skim overnumbers which appear to be increasing year-to-year and conclude thateverything must be fine...A couple of students have spoken up to note that the MP cannot expect to use statistics `bamboozle’ a group of physicists".

Why should anyone care about all this? Well, as pointed out on the Today Programme by Brian Cox, physics underpins a surprisingly large amountof our economy given how much we spend on it. Pure physics andastronomy research has also given us plenty of unexpected benefits asare so well described by Phil Bull and physics student Leo. Astronomy and particle physics are also hugely exciting and attract young people into all the sciences. Rather frustratingly it is young researchers that may very well be the ones to lose out here given that they rely on the PDRA jobs once they qualify.

This dire situation appears to be unintended by everyone and could be solved easily for the cost of about a third of a Eurofighter per year. If you care, read Paul Crowther's excellent background information and please help to save astronomy and particle physics in the UK.

Save Astronomy

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 21st Jan 2008 (23:25 GMT) | Permalink
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