Archive for April 19, 2009

Budget Boost?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on April 19, 2009 by telescoper

This Wednesday (22nd April 2009) the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, will deliver the UK government’s budget for this year. The background is of course the economic recession and the consequent collapse of our public finances. The government will have to borrow an estimated £175 billion over the next year, and it likely that taxes will eventually have to rise considerably to balance the books in the longer term.

Rumours are abounding about what will be in the budget and what won’t. According to today’s Observer, the centrepiece is likely to be a £50 billion scheme to revitalize the housing market.  If this is the case then I think it’s a mistake. Our economy has been run for too long on the basis of money raised from inflated property valuations, and we need to take this opportunity to change to a more sustainable way of running the country. Other schemes that may emerge include a £2 billion scheme to help unemployed young people which is a better idea, but much of it would probably be wasted in bureaucracy rather than doing real good.

My own attention will be focussed on whether there is anything in Alistair Darling’s speech that indicates some help for science, particularly fundamental science like physics and astronomy. In yesterday’s Guardian the Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees argued  for an injection of cash to stimulate science and innovation. About a month ago the BBC reported on efforts by Ministers to convince the treasury of the benefit of a £1 billion stimulus package for science along these lines. However, even if the powers that be listen to this argument (which is, in my view, unlikely), any increase in science funding would not necessarily be directed towards fundamental physics. I think if there isn’t anything for those of us working in astronomy in this budget, then we’re completely screwed.

I believe the funding crisis at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was precipitated by a conscious government decision to move funds away from blue skies research and into more applied, technology driven areas.  The 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review was extremely tough on STFC but quite generous to some other agencies.  Moreover, within STFC itself there seems to be a shift from science-driven to technology-driven projects,  signalled by the cancellation of projects such as Clover to save a couple of million, and the allocation of funds to projects such as Moonlite which is devoid of any scientific interest and which could end up costing as much as £150 million over the next five years or so.

The true depth of the ongoing STFC crisis is only gradually becoming apparent. It was bad enough to start with, but has been exacerbated by the fall in value of sterling against the euro since 2007 which has meant that the cost of subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO have risen dramatically (by about 40%). These form such a large part of STFC’s expenditure – the CERN subscription alone is £70m out of a total budget of around £800m – that it cannot absorb the increased cost and it is now looking to make swingeing cuts on top of the 25% cut in research grants already implemented.

News emerged last week that STFC has abandoned plans to fund any R&D grants for ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme, and there are dark rumours circulating that it is considering cancelling all astronomy grants this year as well as clawing back money already given to universities in previous rounds. I hope these are not true, but I fear the worst.

Cuts on this scale would be devastating, demoralising, and I honestly think would destroy the United Kingdom as a place to do astronomy. They would also signal a complete breakdown of trust between scientists and the research council that is supposed to support them, if that hadn’t happened already.

Incidentally it is noticeable that STFC hasn’t bothered to report any of these matters publically through its website. Instead, the lead story on the STFC news page is about a visit by Prince Andrew to the Rutherford Appleton Lab. No sign yet, then, of the promised improvement in communication between the STFC Executive and its community.

The way I see it, the urgent issue is not whether we get a stimulus package , but whether we even get the bit of sticking plaster that is needed to  saves physics and astronomy from utter ruin. The cost would be a small fraction of the billions lavished on profligate bankers, but I’m not at all sure that the government either appreciates or cares about the scale of the problem.

Anyway, coincidentally, next week sees the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM), which is this year held jointly with the European Astronomical Society’s JENAM at the University of Hertfordshire. I won’t be going because it has unfortunately been organized in term time apparently because European astronomers refuse to attend meetings in the vacations, at least if they’re in places like Hatfield.  STFC representatives  have been invited; it remains to be seen what, if anything, they will have to say.

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