Where will they draw the line?

The UK's Science & Technology Facilities Council funding saga continues. We've had the Gemini Hokey Cokey (in, out, in, out, shake it all about). We've heard about the sudden £80 million (~USD 160 million) 'black hole' in STFC's budget for the next three years and their plan to make cuts of £120 million to cover it. There was the STFC Delivery Plan which listed things that were safe and some of the things that are under threat. We've had House of Commons Select Committee interrogations of the key players. So much for the "good news story" that Mr Ian Pearson MP was expecting.

To make the £120 million cuts, the STFC has been having a Programmatic Review. The aim was to sort every STFC-funded astronomy and particle physics project in order of priority. I don't know how objective this process is but once it is complete the powers-that-be at the STFC will draw a line on the list and everything below it will have its funding cut. Gulp! There will be an STFC Town Meeting tomorrow afternoon in The Cumberland Hotel, London where the current status of the Programmatic Review will be announced.

Last Friday evening STFC started contacting projects to let them know that they were under threat, following their evaluation by the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear (PPAN) advisory committee. At the moment these are rumours/leaks/speculation as the final decisions will take place near the end of the month.

One astronomy project that I hear is on tomorrow's threat list is e-MERLIN; a fibre optic upgrade to the UK's MERLIN National Facility. MERLIN links together radio telescopes across England and Wales as an interferometer. The large physical size of this array gives it a resolution at radio wavelengths equivalent to the Hubble Space Telescope. The upgrade is designed to increase the sensitivity of the array by up to 30 times. I would have thought that e-MERLIN ticked all the right boxes as it is based in the UK, it produces world class science, and studies 'high priority' science areas for STFC. Will the STFC cut funding to a project which is only just about to be commissioned (after an expensive upgrade) and is at the point where it will start to produce scientific output? A few months ago all this would have been almost unthinkable.

If e-MERLIN's funding is cut there could be more consequences. Apart from the loss of potential excellent science this could put Jodrell Bank Observatory in a very tricky situation as much of its research income comes from MERLIN, it is already facing 'belt-tightening' within the University of Manchester, and future projects such as the SKA and ALMA are not due to be operational for several years yet. Although the observatory has had a long history of funding crises over the past half century, the current crisis does seem to be the most serious since perhaps the 1970s.

I'm sure several other good projects - I say good because they had all been previously considered worthy of funding - will be threatened and we will probably hear official announcements from them tomorrow. We shouldn't forget the huge number of job cuts threatened at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh either. Nowhere is safe. Well, apart from some places.

Over the past few months the people at the top of STFC and DIUS have come across as apathetic at best and malicious at worst. They don't seem to have any passion for the science they fund unless it produces widgets. I find this a very depressing state of affairs especially as we are trying to build up to the International Year of Astronomy in 2009.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Sunday 02nd Mar 2008 (19:07 GMT) | Permalink
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