Archive for April 22, 2009

Economic Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on April 22, 2009 by telescoper

Like many of my colleagues I’ve been looking nervously through the lengthy documents  produced by HM Treasury to fill 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 the Astronomy programme. Unfortunately I didn’t find any.

No real details about the science programme are given in the lengthy budget report, at least not that I could find this afternoon. There are, however, a couple of worrying pointers that things might be going from bad to worse.

The Chancellor has decided to cut public spending overall by about £15 billion (largely by “efficiency savings”) in order to control the UK’s ballooning public debt. The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) which sits above the Research Councils in the hierarchy of research management is mentioned twice in the document, in the following passages talking about savings:

£118 million through increasing the effectiveness of research activities funded by the Research Councils by reducing administration costs and refocusing spend on new research priorities;


An additional £106 million of savings delivered by the Research Councils within the science and research budget to be re-invested within that budget to support key areas of economic potential.

Both of these look to me like indications that money will be diverted from pure science into technology-driven areas. Far from there being a boost for astronomy, it looks like we face the opposite with money being squeezed from us and re-allocated to areas that can make a stronger case for economic potential.

Another indication of this phase change, which has been in the air for some time, appeared yesterday on the STFC website.  The whole item can be found here, but the salient points are included in the following excerpt

Applicants for STFC rolling and standard grants will now be required to produce an impact plan, identifying the potential economic impacts of their proposal. The change takes effect from 21 April 2009 and will affect grants rounds from autumn 2009 onward.

The change follows a 2006 Research Councils UK project, and subsequent Excellence with Impact report, into the efficiency and value for money of Research Council peer review processes. The report recommended the Research Councils improve guidance to applicants and peer reviewers to ensure a shared understanding about the value of identifying the potential economic impact of research, and that the new requirements be supported in electronic application systems and guidelines.

More details of the spending priorities of DIUS within its overall budget will no doubt emerge in due course and they may yet reveal a tonic of some sort for STFC. What seems more likely, however, is that any such funds will be aimed at space gadgetry rather than at science. I have a feeling that the impact of the economic downturn on UK Astronomy is going to turn out to be dire.