Budget Boost?

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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14 Responses to “Budget Boost?”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    I’m currently reading the book “Sex, science and profits” by Terence Kealey, an ex-Cambridge biochemist who is now Vice-Chancellor of the private/free University of Buckingham. In the spirit of Jared Diamond it is a fascinating history of the relation between technology, economics and society from the Stone Age to the present. Kealey argues against the model “pure science –> technology –> wealth”. He says the correct model is “need for a technological solution to a societal problem + a sufficiently free and stable society –> technology –> pure science [as a hobby of pure scientists]”.

    As a lover of the beauty of physical law I still blink at this claim even after more than a decade outside the university system, and I expect many insiders who pride themselves on their rationality will argue against it without considering that they might be self-interested. But the thesis is well argued and the book is packed with examples from world history. Certainly it explains why most pure science research is correct but useless, a fact painfully obvious to anybody who has done the thankless task of refereeing research papers for journals. With the current recession/depression, this model certainly has a future…

    Anton

  2. telescoper Says:

    I’m by no means convinced myself that spending money on pure science is a way to generate wealth but then I also believe that pure science is more important than that. If our civilization means anything at all other than a squalid orgy of money-grabbing then its meaning lies in our willingness to do “useless” things for the sake of curiosity. This is what makes us what we are and I hope that it is what our society will be remembered for after it passes away.

    The following passage from Plato’s Republic illustrates my point of view.

    Socrates: Shall we set down astronomy among the subjects of study?

    Glaucon: I think so, to know something about the seasons, the months and the years is of use for military purposes, as well as for agriculture and for navigation.

    Socrates: It amuses me to see how afraid you are, lest the common herd of people should accuse you of recommending useless studies.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    I too think pure science is important. The grey area between us is why it is important.
    Anton

  4. […] UKIRT is guaranteed at the very least to finish UKIDSS. Now the feeling of crisis looms again. As Peter C has described, STFC’s problems have deepened because of exchange rate problems, and we are all waiting for […]

  5. Peter, in reference to the ‘dark rumours’: how likely do you think it is that post-doc grants will be scrapped for the next year (or two, or three)?

    I understand it has happened before. What sort of effect did it have upon UK astronomy last time?

  6. telescoper Says:

    Brendan,

    It’s impossible to be sure what’s likely to happen. All I can say is I wouldn’t be at all surprised if this came about if there’s no help forthcoming pretty quickly from DIUS.

    If I remember correctly, the last time such a thing happened was when we had biannual grant rounds so when one round was cancelled there was a chance to go in again six months later. Nowadays we only have one deadline so there will be at least a year’s delay if they decide to do it.

    Peter

  7. […] Budget Boost? – In the Dark  The UK budget is set for this week, but what money will get allocated to science in this recession.  […]

  8. This article has been added to the Astronomy Link List.

  9. Adrian Burd Says:

    Peter,

    It’s interesting that the UK and the US governments appear to have different philosophies on this matter. In the latest stimulus package over here, the National Science Foundation (NSF) got a substantial stimulus. It was touch and go – first it was in the plan, then out, then in, then out, then in – and of course, it goes some way to offset the real cuts in science funding that occurred here over the past 8 years. The details are still being worked on, but grants from these funds will come with strings attached, but that might be a small price to pay.

    Adrian

  10. Funding is always an issue for science research and education. Perhaps it is because science is introduced to children as something that they “have to do” as opposed to something that can be fun, exciting and educational. Funding issues may not be so dire in the future if more kids were encouraged to have meaningful and engaging experiences with science early on in their education, such as by participating in science fairs.

  11. Bryn Jones Says:

    It is good to read, for once, the cultural case for funding basic science being put. It is something that we encounter far too infrequently.

    However, we must be clear about the economic case for funding basic science. Some branches of basic science are close to applied science and technology: the economic impact is clear. The economic significance of other branches may not be immediately obvious to everyone, but we know that applied science and technology critically depend on the foundations provided by basic science.

    Even the sciences furthest removed from immediate economic impact, such as astronomy, particle physics and fundamental theoretical physics, have a very strong, though very indirect, positive economic effect. This, of course, is through their high profiles inspiring the public in general about science. These basic sciences interest school students in science, and persuade them to choose scientific options at school, which then feeds into university applications for science, technology, engineering or mathematics courses and ultimately to considerable numbers of STEM graduates to drive forward the economy.

    We need to be confident about the positive effect that astronomical research in Britain has on the economy. And we need to be accurate in our claims (and none of the research council nonsense about the importance of people with PhDs in astronomy to the economy: it is people with A levels and degrees in STEM subjects that matter, not astronomical PhDs). Astronomical research does attract students to study STEM subjects, and therefore does have a real, positive impact on the economy.

    Whether the Chancellor of the Exchequer realises this is anybody’s guess. I wouldn’t bet on it.

  12. […] in the details of the Chancellor’s Budget speech. I was hoping to find some evidence of a boost for science that might filter down as a rescue package for STFC and might dispel the rumours of savage cuts in […]

  13. […] News, Bad News Further to my gloomy prognosis about the implications of the Budget for astronomy research, I’ve managed to glean the […]

  14. […] the recent furore over LCROSS, the current STFC funding debacle and much recent discussion of manned spaceflight, I was reminded of this wonderful image showing […]

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