Archive for Science is Vital

End of Term Report: David Willetts

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on July 15, 2014 by telescoper

News broke yesterday that the Minister responsible for Universities and Science within the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills, David Willetts, had stepped down from his role and would be leaving Parliament at the next election.

Willetts’ departure isn’t particularly surprising in itself, but its announcement came along with a host of other sackings and resignations in a pre-Election cabinet reshuffle that was much wider in its scope than most expected. It seems to me that Prime Minster David Cameron has decided to play to the gallery again. After almost four years in which his Cabinet has been dominated by white males, most of them nondescript timeserving political hacks without beards, he has culled some of them at random to try to pretend that he does after all care about equality and diversity. Actually, I don’t think David Cameron cares for very much at all apart from his own political future and this is just a cynical attempt to win back some votes before the next Polling Day, presumably in May 2015. Rumour has it that one of the new Cabinet ministers may even have facial hair. Such progress.


David Willetts was planning to step down at the next General Election anyway so his departure now was pretty much inevitable. I never agreed with his politics, but have to admit that he was a Minister who at least understood some things about Higher Education. In particular he knew the value of science and secured a flat cash settlement for the science budget at a time when other Whitehall budgets were suffering drastic cuts. He was by no means all bad. He even had the good taste – so I’m told – to read this blog from time to time….

The campaigning organization Science is Vital has expressed its sadness at his departure:

We’re sorry to see David Willetts moved from the Science Minister role. He listened, in person, to our arguments for increasing public funding for science, and we appreciated the support he showed for science within the government.

We look forward to renewed dialogue with his successor, in order to continue to press the case that science is vital for the UK.

Now that he has gone, my main worry is that the commitments he gave to ring-fence the science budget will go with him. I don’t know anything about his replacement, Greg Clark, though I hope he follows his predecessor at least in this regard.

Other aspects of Willetts’ tenure of the Higher Education office are much less positive. He has provided over an ideologically-driven rush to force the University sector into an era of chaos and instability, driven by a rigged quasi-market propelled by an unsustainable system of tuition fees funded by student loans, a large fraction of which will never be repaid.

Another of Willetts’ notable failures relates to Open Access. Although apparently grasping the argument and make all the right noises about breaking the stranglehold exerted on academia by outmoded forms of publication, he sadly allowed the agenda to be hijacked by vested interests in the academic publishing lobby. Fortunately, there’s still a very strong chance that academics can take this particular issue into their own hands instead of relying on the politicians who time and time again prove themselves to be in the pockets of big business.

My biggest fear for Higher Education at the moment is that the new Minister will turn out to be far worse and that if the Conservatives win the next election (which is far from unlikely), Science is Vital will have to return to Whitehall to protest against the inevitable cuts. If that happens, it may well be that David Willetts is remembered not as the man who saved British science, but the man who gave it a stay of execution.

The Great Escape? Not yet.

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by telescoper

I expected to wake up this morning with the blues all round my bed, about the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review about to be announced today, but news appearing in the Guardian and the BBC websites last night suggested that the UK Science budget may, repeat may, be spared the worst of the cuts.

This news has been greeted with euphoria in the science community, as we were expecting much worse than the settlement suggested by the news. The RCUK budget, it seems, will be fixed in cash terms around £3.5 billion per annum for four years, as will the approximately £1bn distributed for research through HEFCE’s QR mechanism. This translates into a real terms cut that depends on what figure you pick for inflation over this period. The Treasury suggests it will corresponding to a 10% reduction figured that way, but inflation has defied predictions and remained higher than expected over the past three years so things could be different. Also important to note is that this budget (amounting to around £4.6 billion) is to be ring-fenced within RCUK.

So why the apparent change of heart? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think the Science is Vital campaign played a very big part in this. Huge congratulations are due to Jenny Rohn and the rest of the team for doing such a fantastic job. The Guardian makes this clear, stating that science is usually a non-issue for the Treasury, but this time it was

high on the political radar because strong representations have been made by the scientific community about what they have described as “long term and irreversible” damage to the UK economy if there are deep cuts to research funding.

That means everyone who wrote to their MP or lobbied or went on the demo really did make a difference. Give yourselves a collective pat on the back!

BUT (and it’s a very big BUT) we’re by no means out of the woods yet, at least not those of us who work in astronomy and particle physics. As the BBC article makes clear, the level cash settlement for RCUK comes with an instruction that “wealth creation” be prioritised. The budget for RCUK covers all the research councils, who will now have to make their pitch to RCUK for a share of the pie. It’s unlikely that it will be flat cash for everyone. There will be winners and losers, and there’s no prize for guessing who the likely losers are.

The performance of the STFC Executive during the last CSR should also be born in mind. STFC did very poorly then at a time when the overall funding allocation for science was relatively generous, and precipitated a financial crisis that STFC’s management still hasn’t properly come to grips with. The track-record doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Moreover, at a town meeting in London in December 2007 at which the Chief Executive of STFC presented a so-called delivery plan to deal with the crisis he led his organisation into, he confidently predicted a similarly poor settlement in the next CSR. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s hope they get their act together better this time.

Taking all this together it remains by no means improbable that the STFC budget could be squeezed until the pips squeak in order to liberate funds to spend elsewhere within RCUK on things that look more likely to generate profits quickly. The nightmare scenario I mentioned a few days ago is still on the cards.

As we all know, STFC’s budget is dominated by large fixed items so its science programme is especially vulnerable. As the BBC puts it

So any cut in [STFC's] budget will be greatly magnified and it is expected that it will have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.

We could have to wait until December to find out the STFC budget, so the anxiety is by no means over. However, the ring-fencing of RCUK’s budget within BIS may bring that forward a bit as it would appear to suggest one level of negotations could be skipped. We might learn our fate sooner than we thought.

Overall, this is a good result in the circumstances. Although it’s a sad state of affairs when a >10% real terms cut is presented as a success, it’s far less bad than many of us had expected. But I think STFC science remains in grave danger. It’s not an escape, just a stay of execution.

But there is one important lesson to be learned from this. When the STFC crisis broke three years ago, reaction amongst scientists was muted. Fearful of rocking the boat, we sat on our hands as the crisis worsened. I hope that the success of the Science is Vital campaign has convinced you that keeping quiet and not making a fuss is exactly the wrong thing to do.

If only we’d been braver three years ago.


Science is Vital – the Video

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags on October 18, 2010 by telescoper

A comment on my earlier post about the Science is Vital rally on 9th October included this video of the occasion. Actually it’s more a series of stills than a proper video, but if you look very closely around 39 seconds in you’ll see me lurking among the ill-disciplined rabble well-behaved demonstrators seeking to overthrow the state argue the case for science and bring about the collapse of global capitalism and try to dissuade the Treasury from huge cuts to the budget for research.


Has your MP signed EDM 767?

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , on October 15, 2010 by telescoper

One of the interesting curiosities of the British parliamentary system is the Early Day Motion (EDM), which is a brief motion to be debated at an unspecified date in the future. Few of them ever get debated and they remain open for signature throughout a parliamentary session.

Early Day Motion 767 relates to the Science is Vital Campaign. It was tabled on 16th September 2010 and the text is as follows:

That this House notes the UK’s proud history of excellence in science and engineering, whereby it produces over 10 per cent. of global scientific output with just one per cent. of global population; believes that continued investment in research is vital in order to meet the technological and social challenges of the 21st century, and to continue to attract high-tech industries to invest in the UK; further believes that large cuts to science funding are a false economy, due to evidence that research investment fuels economic growth; further notes the increased investment in science by the UK’s international competitors, such as the USA, France and Germany; further believes that investment in research and development is vital to help rebalancethe economy towards hi-tech manufacturing and away from over-reliance on financial services; recognises the work of the Science is Vital coalition and the Campaign for Science and Engineering in arguing that the UK should seek to retain its role as a world leader in these fields; and calls on the Government to safeguard the UK’s scientific excellence by providing a research investment strategy which builds on the success of UK science and engineering.

(The rules require that at EDM be a single sentence, but often, as in this case, the sentences are somewhat lengthy.)

It was tabled by Julian Hippert, and has so far attracted 81 signatures, which is good going for such things.  The following MPs have signed EDM 767.

Is yours among them?

If not, I think you know what to do….

Huppert, Julian
Onwurah, Chi
Morris, David
Bottomley, Peter
Wright, Simon
Mulholland, Greg
Sanders, Adrian
Smith, Robert
Hughes, Simon
Jackson, Glenda
Jamieson, Cathy
Kaufman, Gerald
Kennedy, Charles
Lucas, Caroline
Cunningham, Jim
Cunningham, Tony
Dobbin, Jim
Doherty, Pat
Field, Frank
Foster, Don
Gapes, Mike
George, Andrew
Abbott, Diane
Hamilton, Fabian
Twigg, Stephen
Anderson, David
Hodgson, Sharon
Burt, Lorely
Johnson, Diana R
Leech, John
Soulsby, Peter
McGovern, Jim
Morden, Jessica
Williams, Stephen
Gilmore, Sheila
Hames, Duncan
Alexander, Heidi
Berger, Luciana
Henderson, Gordon
Hunt, Tristram
Lloyd, Stephen
McKinnell, Catherine
Mearns, Ian
Metcalfe, Stephen
Fovargue, Yvonne
Morrice, Graeme
Mowat, David
Murray, Ian
Reid, Alan
Hopkins, Kelvin
Osborne, Sandra
Brennan, Kevin
Campbell, Menzies
Caton, Martin
Clarke, Tom
Connarty, Michael
Donaldson, Jeffrey
Francis, Hywel
Hancock, Mike
Beith, Alan
Watson, Tom
Williams, Roger
Slaughter, Andy
Green, Kate
Creasy, Stella
Swales, Ian
Lazarowicz, Mark
McCrea, Dr William
Campbell, Ronnie
Corbyn, Jeremy
Ellman, Louise
Flynn, Paul
Vaz, Keith
Williams, Hywel
Banks, Gordon
Horwood, Martin
Sharma, Virendra
Chapman, Jenny
Blenkinsop, Tom
Dromey, Jack
Morris, Grahame M

UPDATE: The following 11 have signed since yesterday:

Meale, Alan
Brake, Tom
Brooke, Annette
Brown, Russell
Dowd, Jim
Main, Anne
O’Donnell, Fiona
Blomfield, Paul
Sarwar, Anas
Vaz, Valerie
Dakin, Nic


Science (still) is Vital

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on October 9, 2010 by telescoper

Just back from the Science is Vital rally in Whitehall, which was attended by an estimated 2000 people. I’m actually pretty tired after a late night in town following yesterday’s Royal Astronomical Society meeting and dinner at the Athenaeum after that, not to mention later events…

Anyway, I’m going to catch up with some quality Columbo time so I’ll just post a few snaps to prove I was there!

Just before the rally

A fellow astronomer, whose name I didn’t catch!

Rather unfortunate pose by Dr Evan Harris; he’s not a Nazi, honest!

Ben Goldacre, complete with anorak…

And here’s me in mid-tweet on the left of the picture, in front of the Treasury building and facing the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (to the right).

Picture taken by Paul Crowther


Many congratulations to those who organized the rally at such short notice, especially Jenny Rohn. The only thing I’d say here is that, although this was a truly inspiring and enjoyable occasion, if the campaign is going to make any lasting difference this must be the start not the finish…


Number Crunching

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on October 6, 2010 by telescoper

Only time for a (very) brief post this evening, as I’ve been in London all day and got back much later than expected.

In this morning’s Guardian there was a story about how the UK’s banks intend to pay out a whopping £7bn in bonuses this year. Banks. Remember them? They’re the organisations whose behaviour almost brought this country’s economy to its knees a few years ago and needed to be baled out by the taxpayer, at enormous cost to the public purse.

Meanwhile, the Science is Vital campaign is gearing up for Saturday’s rally. An article over on cosmic variance has raised the profile of this increasingly vocal campaign to stave off cuts which threaten to destroy Britain’s position as a leading scientific nation. The petition has now been signed by over 17,000 people (including the winners of this year’s Nobel Prize for Physics, announced yesterday).

It’s worth emphasizing the numbers behind this story too.  The annual UK science budget, before the next round of cuts, stands at £3.2billion. That’s everything – particle physics, astronomy, chemistry, biosciences, and countless other things.

I need hardly point out the irony. The amount we’re waging an increasingly desperate fight to protect is less than half the amount to be spent on yachts and fancy cars by the people who got us into this mess in the first place. Some of us hoped the financial sector would show some contrition after the disaster of 2007. Fat chance!  Their rescue by the taxpayer has probably just convinced them that however they behave they can always rely on Joe Public to get them out of trouble. It seems they’ve reverted to type.

So let’s have no more of the specious arguments about having to cut science in order to avoid having to cut, say, the National Health Service. Science isn’t as expensive as some people would have us believe, and it’s not a luxury either. It’s vital to our economic and cultural well-being. Each pound spend on science is worth a lot more to this country than  two disappearing into a banker’s offshore tax haven.

In any case the government should just tax the greedy bankers’ bonus payments and use the money to increase the science budget. Better still, put pressure on the banks to themselves invest in science, alongside other areas of innovation, which we know will generate healthy profits for those brave enough to take a calculated risk, rather than going back to the old game of playing around with dodgy property-based financial speculations, which have a good chance of taking us down the plughole for good.

“Game Over” for Science? Not yet, I hope..

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , on September 28, 2010 by telescoper

Just a quick update on the Science is Vital campaign against proposed cuts in the UK research budget that I blogged about (briefly) last week. The impact of these cuts could be devastating, not just for scientists and their own careers but also for the economical (and, yes, cultural) health of this country. I saw an apt comment on Twitter yesterday to the effect that cutting the science budget to save money was like trying to lose weight by blowing your own brains out.

The petition has now attracted well over 5000 signatures, and I’m sure it will get still larger in the next few days. The march, planned for Saturday 9th October in London is going ahead. I’m hoping to take part, as there is an interesting meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society the day before, which will give me an excuse to stay over so I can attend this event. Perhaps I’ll even meet in real life some people I know only through the blogosphere!

However, at least one blogger has suggested that the campaign might already be too late. An article in the Financial Times (probably hidden by a paywall for most of you) suggested that a decision has been taken to cut research by £960 million per year, close to the 20% level that the Royal Society regards as meaning “game over” for British science.

It is thought that the Comprehensive Spending Review may announce its allocation to BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) as early as next week (i.e. before the planned demonstration), but that doesn’t mean that it is too late. Only after the BIS budget is announced will it decide how much of the cut will be handed down to RCUK, the body that controls the Research Councils. However, RCUK’s budget is only a relatively small fraction of the BIS cake – £2.8 billion out of approximately £22 billion. Maintaining pressure may just convince BIS to go easy on research, so there’s still a lot to play for.

If that doesn’t work, and the research councils do receive a cut of 20% (or even more) then it won’t be at all pretty. It will then be left to individual councils to argue their case within RCUK, a situation likely to generate ever-decreasing circles of desperation as different disciplines are forced to battle it out for the scraps. Allocations to individual councils probably aren’t going to be known until December. Then, in STFC (for example), the particle physicists and astronomers may be put in a situation where they have to go head-to-head against each other, at which point there are unlikely to be any real winners.

I have to admit that three years’ experience of the STFC crisis haven’t left me feeling terribly confident about the next few months. However, unless we make some sort of a stand now, things will get unimagineably worse. The only way the go forward is to show some solidarity, and resist the forces that that would have us turn on each other.

These next few weeks could be crucial to the survival of British science. So stand up and be counted. Action is the antidote to despair.



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