Astronomy Cuts Rumour Mill

Following on from my recent post of the STFC budget, and the comments thereon, I thought it might be useful to make the discussion a bit more prominent as the scale of the cuts is revealed this week and people feel the consequent need to work off nervous energy.

To get things started I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing some of  Paul Crowther‘s comments (in italics):


More or less 20% of the total STFC budget shifts across to UKSA from April 2011. This means the STFC budget will reduce from around £570m to around £455m even if the settlement is flat-cash. Grants for space science exploitation remain the responsibility of STFC even after the transfer of the other space activity to UKSA.

George Osborne has announced that ‘infrastructure’ cash from LFCF (Capital Fund) will go towards an upgrade of the Diamond light source. This is a different pot of money from individual Research Councils, but still part of the overall RCUK budget. The Drayson plan for STFC was always to separate Harwell operations (Diamond, ISIS, CLF) from the rest of STFC programmes, so support for Diamond upgrade is likely to come with operations cash too.

Putting these two items together, the STFC allocation will shrink and some of the remaining cash is going to be ring-fenced for Diamond operations. Assuming that the overall RCUK budget falls by  20%  in near-cash terms and 50% in capital on Wednesday 20th and STFC not do worse than “average” across the RCUK portfolio, the cash+capital for the rest of the non-UKSA programme at STFC would fall by 25% or so, i.e. approx £100 million pounds less to spend per annum than at present.

In practice this might mean..

…Mothballing ISIS + CLF (£35m)  AND withdrawing from ESO (£30m) AND cancelling all PP grants (£24m) AND stopping all accelerator R& D (£8m)…

… or some other equally hideous combination of items  in the spreadsheet.


In other words this really would be  “game over” for large parts of STFC science. Even if the cuts are at the level of 15%, which is apparently what the word on the street is saying, then there are still going to be extremely hard choices.

One nightmare possibility is that STFC not only cuts back on new research grants – as it has already done by approximately 40% over the past three years – but actually decides to claw back grants it has already issued. If this happens at the same time as the Treasury slashes HEFCE’s support for research through the QR element then many physics departments will go under very quickly, as they will no longer be even remotely viable financially.

We’re on the brink…


23 Responses to “Astronomy Cuts Rumour Mill”

  1. Terry O'Connor Says:

    Peter, rescinding grants is something all Research Councils are trying very hard to avoid, and my personal view is that the prospect did help our arguments to avoid the worst case scenario (if we have indeed done so). It may still have to be an option for some Councils, especially if as the public sector has been told there is no money for “restructuring” (in other words, making staff redundant). Can’t say yet, as we don’t yet have an allocation obviously, whether that would have to be option for STFC. We and EPSRC held joint meeting at IoP on Friday, and one topic was the need to consider the impact of the entire cuts (RCs plus QR plus HEFCE etc) on physics depts so as to avoid if possible further closures. But an outstanding question is “what does the government mean by ‘research concentration'”?

    • telescoper Says:


      I’m absolutely sure nobody wants to take that route, but we can only wait and see whether the savings required can be made without such steps. Past raids on the grants line don’t fill me with confidence.
      I’d rather see cuts in the programme than cuts in grants. I know people say I would say that because I’m a theorist, but I don’t see the point in funding large observatory facilities if we don’t have the personnel to turn the raw data into science.


  2. Hi Peter,

    I don’t disagree with your strong desire to protect grants, but the problem for an observer like myself in withdrawing from ESO is that post-2012 the UK effectively has no direct access to any ground-based optical/IR facilities. The cuts under the previous regime removed Gemini and UKIRT, and left great uncertainty over la Palma post-2012 (I’m still muddled as to what the position is there). We were told that ESO is the highest priority and the community, reluctantly or otherwise, sacrificed Gemini et al. for that. With no direct access to ground-based facilities we would be reliant on the largess of other nations’ TACs. But I bet the PATT travel grants would also disappear. So in effect cutting ESO would mean I am been told to leave the UK or leave astronomy.

    The grants have already been considerably paired down. So here’s an alternative view. Saving the last ground-based facility may well mean cutting grants further, probably guaranteeing many of us would not have a postdoc for years. But at least we’d have direct access to a world-class facility, to work with the data ourselves and/or with students, until such time as funding may improve, or alternatives sources can be tapped (EU, Leverhulme etc).

    And losing ESO would quite possibly mean losing ELT, losing instrumentation contracts and groups, closure of ROE. PC also points out there’d be large penalty clauses, so cost-effective? Still, hasn’t ever stopped politicians I suppose…

    I hope we’re all getting ahead of ourselves and the final picture is not so bad, but the last few years of STFC madness have left me utterly disillusioned and I’m sure I’m not the only one.


    • telescoper Says:


      Don’t think for one minute that I’m actually advocating withdrawal from ESO. I think that would be very bad indeed. There are also issues with the penalty clause which would appear to make early withdrawal unfeasable, but possible fines arising from the late delivery of VISTA may also play a role in the decision.

      I’m just saying that I think it becomes unsustainable we have membership but no funding for exploitation. It’s not just a question of PDRA support. It’s no staff time, no estates costs, no bugger all. University physics rely on research grants just to break even. Up and down the country V-Cs will look at the ballooning deficits being generated by their physics and astronomy departments and decide that enough is enough….

      Let’s hope it doesn’t come to that.

      While I’m at it, I’d like to put in a word for poor theorists. UK astrophysical theory has been world leading for many decades. Usually funded on a fraction of a shoestring, this country’s theorists have consistently been in the world’s scientific vanguard yet they are immensely vulnerable to squeezes in the grant line. When I was chair of the old theory panel (TRAP) years ago, members of the Swindon office consistently referred to it as the “baby” as it was so much smaller (in money terms) than the others. But we know what happens to babies when the bathwater is thrown out.


  3. John Peacock Says:


    In the previous post on this topic, I believe Terry O’connor floated a scenario that I suppose one has to label “optimistic” – i.e. of cuts that are 15% in *real terms*, which interpreted with some standard deflator could amount to a cut of “only” 5% in cash terms total over the next 4 years. It would be good to clarify if this is what is meant, as it gives some shred of hope. For example, I’m assuming that university pay scales will not go up at all in this period – hardly good news at a personal level, but helping to close the gap on a 5% cash cut.

    Things will be worse than 5%, of course, because of the old cash/non-cash con trick. The 69M capital injection into our beloved Diamond will, as with previous bungs in that direction, have to be repaid: so STFC’s non-cash allocation will go up by 4-5M p.a., and cash we can actually spend will decline correspondingly further. If you think we’re in hock for 100M, this hardly matters. But if the problem is “only” 20M p.a. relative to flat cash, then this could be the straw that breaks the camel’s back.

    Recall that, when we got into ESO, we were told we had to give up some of our own facilities to demonstrate commitment. Well, we did; and the remaining ones are running into the ground. So ESO withdrawal would leave us with what exactly? Maybe the ROE should reopen its 36-inch…

    • telescoper Says:


      There’s a lot of uncertainty, not least about what figure the Treasury is going to use for inflation when it works out what the cash budgets will be. Could it pencil in a high figure for inflation so that apparently big real terms cuts send the right message to the bond markets while keeping the cash cuts small. Or am I grasping at straws?

      Moreover the 15% figure probably applies to BIS as a whole, or perhaps RCUK. So how will STFC fare relative to that level? The £100M figure came from Paul Crowther’s comment. I don’t think things are likely to be as bad as that, but it’s far from an implausible calculation. If that does happen, though, I think you know the answer: the end of ground-based astronomy in the UK (part from Jodrell Bank).


  4. Albert Zijlstra Says:

    If we loose access to ESO, the impact would be very bad. We would still have access to a few 2m telescopes (plenty of those around) but optical astronomy in the UK would not be competitive. (And we would also loose ALMA.) Access to ESO means access to its current facilities: loss of the ELT would not be such a disaster.

    Physics departments depend on grant income (thanks to the FEC regime for that), so loss of PDRAs has a bigger impact than might be expected. Without a grants line. quite a few groups would need to fund themselves from fee-paying students. Are universities willing to take that risk?

    Sacrificing grants to facilities could loose us the departments. sacrificing facilities to the grants will loose us the science and the scientists.


  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    The commitment to Diamond was made by George Osborne in an interview on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show.

    The BBC earlier today reported very briefly that nearly all government departments had agreed their budgets with the Treasury, and mentioned that Business, Innovation and Skills was one of those few that had not because of remaining discussions over science funding. Therefore, if the BBC was right, the level of research funding was still open to some extent, at least it was earlier today.

    My fear is that the people in the Treasury have no idea how tightly squeezed budgets have been for years, or how tight is the economic case for physics and chemistry within many universities. Any significant cut in the HEFCE research funding or the research council grant line could kill some (many?) departments. That would remove thousands of potential science graduates over the next decade and more who might otherwise go into industry.

    And if we left ESO, we would cut off access to the facilities needed for ground-based observational astronomy today and, critically, the facilities needed for the next 20-30 years (ALMA, ELT, etc.).

    We’ll know the broad picture on Wednesday, with the details over the coming week or two. Let’s hope that the game is not over.

    • John Womersley Says:

      Just a reminder that it’s not at all clear what we will learn on Wednesday. If there is no specific announcement about the Science and Research budget, we won’t actually know much more than we do now. The overall BIS budget contains many other programmes, some we know will be cut (RDA’s axed, reductions for HEFCE?) and some appear to be favoured (TSB). So one should not assume that an overall % reduction in BIS means anything in particular for the science and research budget. Also, it will likely take a couple of months, rather than a couple of weeks, for individual research council budgets to be set.

    • telescoper Says:


      Yes, I think we all know that. However, I think it would be a reasonable inference to take the overall BIS cut announced on Wednesday as a lower limit on what STFC is likely to receive..


    • John Womersley Says:

      Yes, of course. But I suspect the BIS budget will be cut quite heavily. Scientists should not panic if that happens.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think you misunderstood me. I was trying to say that if the BIS budget is cut by 25%, there’s every reason to expect that the STFC budget will be cut by at least that amount, and probably more. I cite the evidence of the last CSR.

  6. […] rooms are are swimming in gossip, angst, and bitterness. Peter Coles has captured the mood in his latest post, including a long embedded analysis from the ever reliable Paul […]

  7. ESO membership (and associated ELT activities) was the highest priority item in the FUAP report.

    To try to ensure we can fund our ESO membership we have withdrawn (or are withdrawing) from pretty much all other telescopes… so losing ESO as well would be the end for ground-based optical/NIR astronomy in the UK. This would be an unmitigated disaster for some of the most internationally competitive parts of the UK astronomy community (including technology development). If it really is on the cards, then all other options need to be considered.

    • Losing ESO would also mean losing ALMA, so we’d also end up without any mm/submm astronomy from the ground once JCMT closes.

      With the exception of radio, that would be it, then, for *all* UK ground based astronomy and the technology development that goes with it, technology that later feeds into space missions and into industry.

      I’m really not sure we could have any serious astronomical research at all in the UK if this were to happen.

  8. Dave Carter Says:


    FUAP’s Critical Priority number 1 was protecting grants, studentships and fellowships. Of these my view is that the fellowships are key. There is no point in having any number of telescopes, or international subscriptions, if we are not developing the capability to use them productively.

  9. […] Coles has a post summarizing the current swarm of rumours, and Andy Lawrence has a poll where you can pick your poison cuts-wise. At this late stage the […]

  10. Chris Watson Says:

    Folks, I’m sat here with the sounds of the student protests outside resonating around my office, a letter from the USS pensions lying open on my desk saying “sorry”, an internet full of tales of doom and gloom, and a small pile of Relativity tutorials to mark.

    This got me thinking, maybe Relativity could shed some beacon of real-life on this surreal situation we find ourselves in. I therefore decided to calculate how fast the Tory/Lib Dem goverment would have to travel at in order to reduce the budget by 25% through Lorentz-Fitzgerald contraction.

    It turns out that it is 0.66c. ….. pooh.

    (And I’ll be soo annoyed if someone responds saying I got that wrong!)

    • You clearly have too much time on your hands. I must have a word with your Head of Dept. Oh wait a minute…..

  11. Does anyone else think George looks like MJ

    Shame neither is, or was, an astronomer.

  12. telescoper Says:

    NEWS JUST IN: An unconfirmed story in the Guardian suggests that Science may have dodged the axe:

    also echoed by the BBC

    Suggests a better-than-hoped-for outcome of flat cash for RCUK over the CSR period, which probably translates into a real-terms cut around 10% (perhaps a bit more).

    I’ll only believe this when I see it officially announced tomorrow, but it may make a few of us sleep easier in our beds tonight.

  13. […] to spend elsewhere within RCUK on things that look more likely to generate profits quickly. The nightmare scenario I mentioned a few days ago is still on the […]

  14. […] could herald a return of the nightmare scenario I blogged about not long ago. The point is that, owing to the nature of STFC, a very large part of […]

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