“Game Over” for Science? Not yet, I hope..

Just a quick update on the Science is Vital campaign against proposed cuts in the UK research budget that I blogged about (briefly) last week. The impact of these cuts could be devastating, not just for scientists and their own careers but also for the economical (and, yes, cultural) health of this country. I saw an apt comment on Twitter yesterday to the effect that cutting the science budget to save money was like trying to lose weight by blowing your own brains out.

The petition has now attracted well over 5000 signatures, and I’m sure it will get still larger in the next few days. The march, planned for Saturday 9th October in London is going ahead. I’m hoping to take part, as there is an interesting meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society the day before, which will give me an excuse to stay over so I can attend this event. Perhaps I’ll even meet in real life some people I know only through the blogosphere!

However, at least one blogger has suggested that the campaign might already be too late. An article in the Financial Times (probably hidden by a paywall for most of you) suggested that a decision has been taken to cut research by £960 million per year, close to the 20% level that the Royal Society regards as meaning “game over” for British science.

It is thought that the Comprehensive Spending Review may announce its allocation to BIS (the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills) as early as next week (i.e. before the planned demonstration), but that doesn’t mean that it is too late. Only after the BIS budget is announced will it decide how much of the cut will be handed down to RCUK, the body that controls the Research Councils. However, RCUK’s budget is only a relatively small fraction of the BIS cake – £2.8 billion out of approximately £22 billion. Maintaining pressure may just convince BIS to go easy on research, so there’s still a lot to play for.

If that doesn’t work, and the research councils do receive a cut of 20% (or even more) then it won’t be at all pretty. It will then be left to individual councils to argue their case within RCUK, a situation likely to generate ever-decreasing circles of desperation as different disciplines are forced to battle it out for the scraps. Allocations to individual councils probably aren’t going to be known until December. Then, in STFC (for example), the particle physicists and astronomers may be put in a situation where they have to go head-to-head against each other, at which point there are unlikely to be any real winners.

I have to admit that three years’ experience of the STFC crisis haven’t left me feeling terribly confident about the next few months. However, unless we make some sort of a stand now, things will get unimagineably worse. The only way the go forward is to show some solidarity, and resist the forces that that would have us turn on each other.

These next few weeks could be crucial to the survival of British science. So stand up and be counted. Action is the antidote to despair.


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16 Responses to ““Game Over” for Science? Not yet, I hope..”

  1. I’m working in astronomy and would hate to see huge cuts to funding, not least because the personal cost to people’s jobs and careers. So – at least on that basis – I’m 100% behind the Science is Vital campaign.

    But I’d love to have some more quantitative arguments – can anyone point me to some? For example, why would cutting science to 80% of its current level be “game over” and “crisis” rather than leaving us as world leaders, but producing 8% rather than 10% of global scientific output? What is the right percentage of GDP a country should devote to science? And – thought experiment – supposing current funding was 125% of what it actually is, and the government proposed 20% cuts: would we accept that without a similar fight, or would we be talking about “crisis” and “game over” in just the same way?

    I feel almost guilty for asking those questions, as it makes me seem “anti-science”. I’m not, but those questions are nagging at me, and I’m sure it would strengthen our cause to tackle those questions head-on. And probably someone has already done so somewhere…?

  2. For quantitative and tightly argued briefings on the impact of research cuts, see e.g.

    http://www.sciencecampaign.org.uk/

    You may also want to read the Royal Society’s submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review, here:

    http://royalsociety.org/Royal-Society-makes-case-for-investment-in-science/

    The effect of the cuts is unlikely to be a simple reduction in capacity such as you suggest. I think what will happen is the best people will just leave. Moreover, most of our research labs rely on attracting excellent staff from abroad, and they will stop coming. Meanwhile our competitors are increasing their science spending. We could be in for a very steep decline.

    The problem is particularly bad for astronomy, because such a large fraction of STFC’s costs are fixed. A 20% cut in the overall budget would therefore lead to a much larger cut in research grants, which are the bread and butter of active scientists.

  3. I agree with Peter that it is very late to lobby for the importance of science at this stage in the comprehensive spending review.

    There will be supporters of most parts of the public sector who will argue that their favourite areas are special cases. However, the situation regarding basic science, particularly in physics and astronomy, is genuinely precarious at present.

    A central problem is that the human aspect of research policy has been squeezed for 30 years. There have been continual attempts to increase financial efficiency by reducing the costs of employing people. This has led to large numbers of Ph.D. studentships – because they provide research workers at modest cost. It has produced a situation where a large part of the research community is employed on short-term contracts, most of whom have no hope of a long-term career in academia, while there is no parallel career structure in industry for many researchers working in basic science. There are large numbers of people hanging on in research employment today, despite their low status in the workplace, despite the need for hard work and to work long hours. Yet they have skills and experience that are vital for the continuation of British science. The situation was intolerable several years ago. It is even worse in astronomy, space science, particle physics and nuclear physics following the STFC funding crisis over the past 3 years.

    Any further cuts, however limited, may break the system. The message may get out into the general population about the hopeless career situation in basic science, something that has not been properly appreciated to date. This may mean young people in schools associating science with poor career prospects. This will lead to young people choosing not to study science – basic or applied – at school or university. This will see the numbers of physics and chemistry undergraduates fall. Physics and chemistry departments in universities, unable to fill student places and with their research income cut due to research council cuts, will close.

    However, I doubt whether this is understood in central government departments.

    • Woken Postdoc Says:

      Yes, career conditions are abominable. I am afraid that if there are further cuts then the powers-that-be will (again) prefer to save equipment and missions, instead of the scientists who actually do the research and conceive the ideas. So, science careers may soon become a *lot* harder and unfairer.

      I think that two of the most objectionable aspects of our vocation (apart from menace of cuts) are (1) the apartheid system in universities, and (2) the awareness of particular, irreversible lapses of meritocracy.

      (1) Scientists in permanent positions may tend to slip into a panglossian view (and bend departmental rules to suit themselves) until the whole system breaks. The postdocs who are actually being ground to a pulp can’t represent themselves, and may come under direct orders to avoid “rocking the boat.” We’re dismissable as young whiners.

      (2) Nationwide, it isn’t hard to name (a minority of) people who don’t deserve the security of their permanent jobs (compared to postdocs and students nearby). Some of them were elevated in reward for project-management roles (and are only capable of lecturing token soft-subjects). Some enjoy posts secretly customised for them by a professor-patron or -lover (with the acquiescence of exhausted colleagues).

      Anyone who is promoted quickly enough gains papers (and illusory productivity) thanks to a pyramid of dependents and collaborators. This provides circular, retrospective justification for the promotion. “Affirmative action” (or nepotism) in science is effective at creating (apparent) individual successes out of thin air. :-/

      I suggest an amusing exercise, to be performed under the veil of anonymity. Score everyone in your department with X = # of first-author papers, and Y = # of single-author papers. Print a scatter-plot. Can you distinguish the distributions for postdocs and permanent staff? The separation is insignificant in some groups.

    • I think the message is already leaking into the general population.

      I recall recently a primary school teacher friend of mine was reading my copy of Physics World and commented that a job advert at the back had no hope of attracting anyone of the calibre they were asking for at the salary in the advert. She was horrified when I said that is a standard salary for a world class scientist…..and my friends are continually perplexed as to why I am working continually on short term contracts ( this is not normal in most other professional careers as far as I know).

      To some extent in particle physics anyway the lack of permanent jobs has been circumvented via use of rolling grants. There seem to be mixed messages about what will happen to these – older people have told me pretty much everyone has been trying to get these scrapped (except particle physicsists I suppose) for many years, so it is only a matter of time before an attack on this is successful.
      I hope the people who have told me this are wrong…..though it may be academic after the CSR if we get big cuts because then anyway we won’t have money to employ many scientists (what fraction of STFC is locked into CERN/ESO/Diamond/ISIS?)

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The Woken Postdoc makes some good points.

      It is very likely that further cuts will target research positions, although I would argue that cutting the number of Ph.D. studentships, and not postdoctoral positions, would be a rational strategy, to scale down the size of the research community in the longer run.

      I would be reluctant to look for people in permanent academic positions in British universities who are not fully of the required standard. My experience is that virtually everyone in permanent positions in science in research-intensive universities has the necessary talent. The trouble is that for every one person in a permanent academic position, there are a few other people of similar ability on short-term contracts who have no opportunity to continue in university careers, and for people working in basic science there is no alternative career path once they have acquired substantial postdoctoral experience. There are many random factors that determine who does succeed in obtaining a permanent position, and who is forced out of academia. Among these is senior academics preferring certain candidates, but much of the time this is because the preferred candidates work in research fields very close to the senior academics: the academics wish to strengthen those particular areas in their departments through recruitment policies. That is a random factor but one that has some rational basis. That factor applies to appointments to lectureships, but it applies equally to departments choosing which candidates to support in applications for fixed-term fellowships, the winning of which can make or break a person’s career. Similarly, access to new data from research projects is often granted through a system of patronage.

      Rolling grants in astronomy in British universities are operated differently from department to department. Some do use them to achive medium-term stability for some researchers, others do not. Many research groups do not have rolling grants, and therefore no medium-term continuity.

      Answering Mark’s question about the breakdown of STFC funding between various facilities and employing people to exploit them is a little difficult. The STFC does publish its accounts: a PDF version of the 2008-2009 accounts is available here (in the second half of the brochure). But it is difficult to extract the relevant information for the funding of people to do research directly (the figure presented for research grants look to me to include some significant funding for facilities and hardware).

    • Broken postdoc Says:

      Things already seem pretty bad as it is, the general lack of money in the system and scarcity of permanent positions does appear to have created a competitive and ruthless environment. This could only get worse with spending cuts. Looking back, I wish I had been issued with a serious health warning about pursing a career in academia before I even started my phd.

      Having spent a few years as a postdoc in a high-profile psychology department, I have witnessed acts of favouritism which have left me in disbelief. For example, I was passed over for appointment to a career development position in favour of a colleague who was no more deserving of the job than myself. What is particularly galling is that when the post first fell vacant, myself and another postdoc had to fullfill part of the duties of the post without getting paid, in order to keep this post afloat for about *six months* until the prefered candidate had finished their phd, and was ready to move onto the post! By which time, I had already been a postdoc for two years! The prefered person has also had several grants lined up for her to work on by the head of lab, without having to contribute to the writing of those grants. (I would like to note that I co-wrote the grant I worked on, though I did not receive much credit for doing so.) My former boss seems hellbent on keeping this person in work, which has been at the expense of his other staff.

      Myself, since having a grant application rejected last year, I have been out of work for about nine months and reduced to living off housing benefit in order to have time available to prepare a backlog of data for publication and submit job applications. I am finding it incredibly difficult to get an academic post in the UK, even though I am not particularly fussed about working at a prestigious institution. If I had been given the chance to work on the career development position, I might have already been able to find myself work. Though, it does seem that advertised positions have often already been lined up for prefered candidates.

      I am currently toying with the idea of quiting academia, because I now understand just how tough and ruthless it can get, and I don’t think I can cope with the potential instability in my finances and living arrangements.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I have to express my sympathies to the Broken Postdoc, who has had some very unfair experiences. It is profoundly regrettable that a talented researcher is now out of work, and I really hope that the future brings deserved, very considerable, success.

      [Admittedly, I have experienced much worse than that myself over the years.]

      My feeling is that the central problem is that the research and academic system is over-competitive, with too many talented researchers chasing a small number of long-term jobs.

      There is also the “apartheid” that the Woken Postdoc wrote about a few comments above: that academics in permanent jobs are fully able to initiate projects and compete for funding, but people on fixed-term contracts are prevented from full participation in research activities, at least unless they have the strong patronage or support from a permanent academic. Having the patronage of a permanent academic can mean access to new fixed-term contracts funded by grants won by the academic. It means ready access to funding to attend conferences, where the fixed-term researcher can give presentations that attract the attention of the wider research community, helping future career opportunities. A permanent academic can act as the principal applicant on grant applications largely written by the fixed-term researcher, which if successful could create a new fixed-term job for the researcher. Patronage can grant access to excellent new data or results. It can grant opportunities to carry out activities that extend the experience of the researcher, such as more responsible teaching (perhaps taking a small part of a lecture module), or performing committee work. In contrast, without patronage, it can be very difficult for highly talented researchers to obtain the experience or visibility within the research community necessary to further their careers.

      And this was the intolerable situation before the spending cuts. Things may get a lot worse soon.

  4. Peter – thanks for those links, very helpful.

    It seems that the existing commitments have a huge effect, so that a 20% cut would effectively be a much larger cut to the other areas of the budget.

    • It’s worth adding that what appears on paper to have been a relatively modest shortfall in the STFC budget has led to a 40% cut in astronomy research grants in the last 3 years.

  5. Other commentators have made the crucial points with regard to the situation and its effects excellently, so I won’t add to them except to say “right on”.

    Basically, the question is how much public money should be spent on science. As was pointed out, everyone sees himself as a special case, so special pleading probably won’t get anyone anywhere.

    One aspect of the problem is the general feeling among many people that taxes are too high, too much public money is spent, government should be lean and mean etc. In this climate of budget cuts essentially for their own sake (yes, reducing taxes and public spending have, in this crazy neoliberal world, become a goal in themselves, needing no external justification), science will get cut not because someone doesn’t particularly like it or think it is important, but just as a side effect of everything else getting cut.

    Many countries have a goal of reducing the amount of GDP spent by the state to below some threshold etc, just for its own sake, as if this would actually improve something. However, countries like Sweden spend a large fraction of GDP via public money (with corresponding high taxes—not so much higher rates as taxing all varieties of income and having less tax evasion due to a more transparent system) without being fiscally and economically worse off than other countries and, partly as a result of this, spend a larger fraction on science, with good returns. (Sweden tends to concentrate on biology and medicine rather than physical sciences, but even in the physical sciences the output of a country with a population less than Greater London is quite good. The astronomy output is also reasonable, keeping in mind that there is only a handful of institutes.

    So, at the end of the day, it is a) a political decision and b) the easiest route to achieving the goal of more science spending by the government might be to combat the idea that lower taxes and less public spending should be a goal in and of themselves.

    What is not a good solution is for famous astronomers to leave the UK and make a big deal out of it. If they get a job elsewhere, they will get a job which otherwise would have gone to someone slightly less famous but deserving it in a country which does spend enough on astronomy. Also, such a public demonstration wouldn’t have much effect anyway.

    While personally I think that stuff like astronomy should be funded publicly, perhaps one has to think about alternatives. This is now common in football, with stadiums being named after sponsors, and even some theatres have sponsors for their productions, complete with advertisements between acts.

    What about getting, say, Brian May to endow a chair? Or, thinking bigger, Richard Branson? 100 million would be enough to perpetually fund quite a large astronomical institute from low-risk interest. A lot of money to the common man, but peanuts to some. This would definitely have a short-term advantage. In the long term, however, it could suggest that public funding is not needed.

    • Steve Jones Says:

      With regards a bit of commercial fund raising for astronomy I have always thought it was a huge own goal that star names are not legitimately for sale by a recognised international body ( it would be the International Astronomical Union).

      This is already a multi million dollar market apparently – there are plenty of companies that do it unofficially (just type “name a star” into google!)

      This is the IAU take on the subject –

      http://www.iau.org/public/buying_star_names/

      It seems like such a win win issue.
      -There are more than enough stars to go around. You could even back-name them for everyone in your family tree
      – the star will last longer as a memorial than any grave stone or memorial plaque by a billion years or so
      – as you would rapidly run out of visual magnitude stars to sell, it would encourage the sale of telescopes or the attendance at star parties etc to see the “your” star, interest in what “your” star is, how far away it is and interest in astronomy in general. Which might be the beginning of a bit of a positive feedback loop.

      Engage the public with astronomy whilst at the same time selling a virtually infinite free resource, the money from which then gets ploughed back into astronomy. I genuinely don’t see who loses?

    • I think the star-naming, as it exists now, is extremely bad, as is selling real estate on the Moon. It is basically fraud. Many people who buy star names do so for deceased loved ones, and are disappointed when they learn that no-one uses the names in any real context. I agree with the IAU’s take on this.

      Whether things would be different if the IAU itself sold the names, I don’t know, but the entire field has such a bad reputation that it probably wouldn’t be a good PR move for the IAU to do this. Even if they did, the IAU couldn’t offer more than is now offered by the fraudsters.

  6. […] a rally in Westminster and a lobby of MPs have been organised which it is hoped will be able to alleviate the impending cuts by showing the government how essential scientific research is to the economic welfare of the […]

  7. […] about the threat to British science for quite some time now. Both have recent posts (Jaffe, Coles) which describe the Science is Vital effort and the motivations behind […]

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