Archive for October 20, 2010

The Great Escape? Not yet.

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by telescoper

I expected to wake up this morning with the blues all round my bed, about the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review about to be announced today, but news appearing in the Guardian and the BBC websites last night suggested that the UK Science budget may, repeat may, be spared the worst of the cuts.

This news has been greeted with euphoria in the science community, as we were expecting much worse than the settlement suggested by the news. The RCUK budget, it seems, will be fixed in cash terms around £3.5 billion per annum for four years, as will the approximately £1bn distributed for research through HEFCE’s QR mechanism. This translates into a real terms cut that depends on what figure you pick for inflation over this period. The Treasury suggests it will corresponding to a 10% reduction figured that way, but inflation has defied predictions and remained higher than expected over the past three years so things could be different. Also important to note is that this budget (amounting to around £4.6 billion) is to be ring-fenced within RCUK.

So why the apparent change of heart? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think the Science is Vital campaign played a very big part in this. Huge congratulations are due to Jenny Rohn and the rest of the team for doing such a fantastic job. The Guardian makes this clear, stating that science is usually a non-issue for the Treasury, but this time it was

high on the political radar because strong representations have been made by the scientific community about what they have described as “long term and irreversible” damage to the UK economy if there are deep cuts to research funding.

That means everyone who wrote to their MP or lobbied or went on the demo really did make a difference. Give yourselves a collective pat on the back!

BUT (and it’s a very big BUT) we’re by no means out of the woods yet, at least not those of us who work in astronomy and particle physics. As the BBC article makes clear, the level cash settlement for RCUK comes with an instruction that “wealth creation” be prioritised. The budget for RCUK covers all the research councils, who will now have to make their pitch to RCUK for a share of the pie. It’s unlikely that it will be flat cash for everyone. There will be winners and losers, and there’s no prize for guessing who the likely losers are.

The performance of the STFC Executive during the last CSR should also be born in mind. STFC did very poorly then at a time when the overall funding allocation for science was relatively generous, and precipitated a financial crisis that STFC’s management still hasn’t properly come to grips with. The track-record doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Moreover, at a town meeting in London in December 2007 at which the Chief Executive of STFC presented a so-called delivery plan to deal with the crisis he led his organisation into, he confidently predicted a similarly poor settlement in the next CSR. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s hope they get their act together better this time.

Taking all this together it remains by no means improbable that the STFC budget could be squeezed until the pips squeak in order to liberate funds 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 cards.

As we all know, STFC’s budget is dominated by large fixed items so its science programme is especially vulnerable. As the BBC puts it

So any cut in [STFC’s] budget will be greatly magnified and it is expected that it will have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.

We could have to wait until December to find out the STFC budget, so the anxiety is by no means over. However, the ring-fencing of RCUK’s budget within BIS may bring that forward a bit as it would appear to suggest one level of negotations could be skipped. We might learn our fate sooner than we thought.

Overall, this is a good result in the circumstances. Although it’s a sad state of affairs when a >10% real terms cut is presented as a success, it’s far less bad than many of us had expected. But I think STFC science remains in grave danger. It’s not an escape, just a stay of execution.

But there is one important lesson to be learned from this. When the STFC crisis broke three years ago, reaction amongst scientists was muted. Fearful of rocking the boat, we sat on our hands as the crisis worsened. I hope that the success of the Science is Vital campaign has convinced you that keeping quiet and not making a fuss is exactly the wrong thing to do.

If only we’d been braver three years ago.