Further to my gloomy prognosis about the implications of the Budget for astronomy research, I’ve managed to glean the following interpretation of the outcome for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC).
Just to remind you that the situation before the budget settlement was announced last week was truly dire, with falling exchange rates leading to rises in the cost of subscriptions putting pressure on an already overstretched STFC budget. In fact, STFC actually underspent last year but was not allowed to carry the underspend forward into the tax year beginning this April so that has done nothing to help the imminent financial meltdown. The overall shortfall for 2009-10 was estimated pre-budget to be about £80 million, meaning that £80 million of current commitments would have to be ditched if nothing was done.
First, the good news. After the budget it has emerged that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) has taken steps to “lend” STFC money to plug the shortfall arising from exchange rate fluctuations. This means the actual shortfall is not going to be as large as the previous estimate.
Now the bad news. There is no new money for STFC, and there is consequently still a serious gap in the finances. There will have to be about £20 million savings this financial year (against current commitment) and about £30 million next year. Not as bad as £80 million, but still very tough.
At this moment the powers that be are dusting off the Programmatic Review which involved the prioritisation of missions and facilities within the STFC remit. There is also yet another review of ground-based astronomy which is meant to be a long-term thing, but will presumably inform the decision-making process in the short term too.
A line had previously drawn as far down the list of priorities as funding would permit. Now the available funds are less the line will have to rise and some astronomical projects that thought they were safe will have to be ditched after all. This also depends on whether STFC saves money in other ways, such as from the grants line or by internal savings within its own administration.
It will be a nervous wait for many of us to see where and the axe will fall next…