The Shape of Things to Come..

The implications of this week’s budget for astronomy are gradually becoming clearer although a full picture is yet to emerge.

The following statement appeared on the webpages of the Science and Technology Facilities Council:

STFC’s budget of £491 million for 2009-10 is evidence of the Government’s commitment to investing in science in a period of severe national and global economic uncertainty.

STFC’s Chief Executive Officer, Professor Keith Mason, said: “Our budget represents a major investment in science at a time of increasing pressure on public spending, and will allow us to fund a wide array of world leading science delivering significant impact for the UK.”

“The budget confirms the Government’s commitment to, and acknowledgement of, investment in curiosity driven and application led research as essential elements to support the country’s economic growth in the short, medium and longer term.”

Professor Mason said the near cash* budget of £491 million was more than the Council’s allocation in the Comprehensice Spending Review (CSR07), thanks to assistance from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) in the form of a loan and compensation for foreign exchange exposure. This outcome follows extensive consultation between DIUS and the Research Councils to ameliorate the effect of the fall of the pound. However, it will unfortunately not allow STFC to fund the full science programme planned under its Programmatic Review.

Professor Mason said STFC would now consult on reprioritising its programme across the remainder of the CSR period. This consultation will cover both the short-term items required for 2009-10, and a longer term process to ensure stable platform for planning in the medium to longer term. Council will discuss options for 2009-10 at its meeting on the 28th April.

“For its part STFC has already imposed a series of internal savings, including on travel and severe restrictions on external recruitment. We will seek to identify further savings in order to concentrate resources on funding our core research programme,” Professor Mason said.

It appears, then, that there is to be short-term assistance from the effects of currency fluctuations but this will be in the form of a loan that will eventually have to be paid back from savings found within the programme. I suppose something’s better than nothing, despite the bland language, it is quite clear that we are heading for big cuts in the STFC programme and astronomy will not be immune.

The Times Higher has also covered the budget settlement for science and higher education generally in very downbeat terms. Echoing what I put in my previous post:

Although the Budget maintains an existing commitment to ring-fence the science budget, DIUS had reportedly sought a £1 billion increase in funding for scientific research as part of a stimulus package designed to use science to boost the economy.

Instead of this, research councils will be required to make £106 million in savings, which will then be reinvested elsewhere intheir portfolio “to support key areas of economic potential”.

We await details of where these “savings” will be made. My current understanding is that the STFC needs to find about £10 million immediately although whether this is on top of or including its share of the overall “efficiency savings”, I don’t know. In any case it is clear that this money will be taken from pure science programmes and spent instead on areas deemed to have “economic potential”. It looks like we’re all going to have to hone our bullshitting skills over the next few years.

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8 Responses to “The Shape of Things to Come..”

  1. I think that astronomy will be far from immune. Other STFC activities can be more directly linked to the issues that government wants addressed. If I had been a ‘traditional’ astronomer listening to Lord Drayson’s speech on Monday I would not have been very happy.

  2. telescoper Says:

    I didn’t hear Lord Drayson’s speech, but I can imagine you’re right. I think STFC intends to use this to push forward Keith Mason’s Trekkie agenda and take money from science to invest in silly space gadgetry. I think the ground-based astronomy programme will therefore bear the brunt.

  3. FYI, a transcript of Drayson’s speech can be viewed here.

    He did not stop for a Q and A session (that allegedly had been his idea) and in fact bolted out of the wings. His travelling entouraged then all jumped up and hastly exited. It was quite bizarre though I suppose the organisers knew what was going on.

    By the way, at the risk of poking at open sores, are there any issues surrounding the closure of CLOVER and the continuing interest in LISA (pathfinder) or are their aims sufficiently different to justify the larger spend that is likely with the latter (acknowledging , of course, our commitment to ESA)?

  4. telescoper Says:

    Kav

    I can only speak personally about it, but I think LISA is a must-do experiment from the point of view of fundamental physics. Since it relies on as-yet unproven technology, some of which is to be tested with LISA Pathfinder, I don’t object to that at all.

    The more general question concerns the cost-benefit issue. Space is expensive, but some things can only be done from space so if you want to do them you have no choice but to pay the cost. But how do you measure the benefit? There’s no doubt in my mind that some of the “exploration” missions are very weak on science but we pay for them anyway.

    What I object to is being forced to cancel excellent ground-based science while space-based non-science gets preferential treatment.

    Peter

  5. Thanks.

    Sadly with the emphasis on space and STFC’s seeming fixation that economic impact = technology development I feel you may be objecting more. We shall see.

  6. Steve Eales Says:

    Hi Peter,

    I got a slightly less bleak spin on this from conversations over coffee. Apparently, as our GDP has shot down from the effect of the currency fall,
    we will pay lower international subscriptions next time they are assessed.
    Therefore, it seems plausible that STFC will be able to pay back the loan
    from savings on the subscriptions next time they are assessed. However, there is still a black hole in STFC’s budget for several other reasons, so
    savings will have to be made. My take on the outcome of the budget is that
    it was not a catastrophe, merely the same old disaster that started at the
    last comprehensive spending review.

    Steve

    • telescoper Says:

      What a clever piece of political planning. Wrecking our entire economy in order to reduce the CERN subscription!

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    George Monbiot has written about the reprioritising of research spending towards economic impact:
    http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/2009/may/11/science-research-business

    This is the first mainstream journalistic comment I have seen on the issue so far.

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