The Great Escape? Not yet.

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.


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17 Responses to “The Great Escape? Not yet.”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Colin Stuart, Megan, Megan, Karen Masters, Tom Hartley and others. Tom Hartley said: RT @skyponderer: RT @Paul_Crowther: Great outcome for science, but not for all RT @telescoper The Great Escape? Not yet http://wp.me/pko9D-1ZH […]

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    Astronomy and particle physics should tell the truth: “Minister, we do not directly create wealth or assist defence. But we create minds who can create wealth (since few PhD students go on to spend all their working lives in academia) and we believe that we help to make the country worth defending. Please also compare the UK’s proportion of GNP that does into these areas with those of other advanced countries facing recession, and please consider that cuts to international projects makes the UK look mean and silly.”

  3. Am I right that last round of major cuts was caused by “flat cash” – in which case this is in fact not good news at all?

    • though perhaps it still “good” in that we could have been hit much, much harder.

      But as you say its not clear whether all RC’s get this flat cash or if some get something much worse to increase funding in other priority areas.

      I also have no idea what this 50% cut in large facilities refers to. STCF manages large facilities, but possibly other bits of BIS also manage other science facilities. Anyone have some idea about this?

  4. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: flat cash would be much better than feared if that means constant numbers of pounds going into science in total. But there are two ways in which the “protection” of science could harm us, both of which reflect the fact that this will be a zero-sum game inside BIS. The first worry is whether capital spend is also protected: Richard Wade’s comment on Andy Lawrence’s blog seems to imply that it’s not. Since STFC has used capital spend for things you might have thought were cash (e.g. ESO sub), this would be a problem (and not helped by the fact that Diamond explicitly got to the head of the queue for capital; so is there anything left in that pot even if it doesn’t decline?). The other zero-sum issue is that this makes it more likely that BIS will bash the (English) universities very badly indeed over teaching. As academic scientists, we should value the research and teaching sides of our lives equally – so it’s not much cause for celebration if we save one at the expense of the other.

    • telescoper Says:

      Agreed.

      As Richard Wade pointed out, cuts in capital expenditure could have a worse effect on STFC than other elements of RCUK. There’s also the issue of subscriptions, the possibility that UKSA will prosper at the expense of what gets left behind, and the likelihood that other RC chiefs will be bidding for increases that can only come by taking things from elsewhere.

      The teaching issue is also important; the main question in my mind is what happens if the budget cuts HEFCE’s contribution heavily, but the new fee system isn’t configured to replace the lost cash.

    • telescoper Says:

      As predicted, in England the HE budget will be cut by 40% by 2014 and only STEM subjects will attract state funding. Arts and Humanities well and truly shafted.

  5. Here is the official text from the spending review document. Note the real-terms protection for MRC, which will cut into the “flat cash” available to support the other research councils.

    “2.48 To support long term growth the Government will prioritise support for world class science, maintaining resource spending in cash terms. The Government will also increase the efficiency of the science budget, saving £324 million a year by 2014-15. These efficiency savings will be reinvested in science. The Government will also take measures to increase the focus on excellence, and will spend £4.6 billion in each of the Spending Review years. A ring-fence will be maintained by BIS to ensure continuity of investment in science and research. The cutting-edge Diamond Synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire will receive £69 million of public funding over the Spending Review period in partnership with the Wellcome Trust.

    2.49 The Department of Health will increase spending on health research in real terms. Within this, additional funding will be made available to support the translation of research into practical applications, including the development of new medicines and therapies. To complement this, BIS will ensure that Medical Research Council expenditure is maintained in real terms. In addition, £220 million of capital funding from the Department of Health has been allocated for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation, subject to approval of the final business case.”

  6. Bryn Jones Says:

    The Treasury’s webpage about the Comprehensive Spending Review is here and the PDF version of the document is here (2.2 MBytes).

    My attempt at copying and pasting the section about science from page 23 of the document gives this text:

    Science

    1.35
    To support long term growth, the Government will prioritise support for world class science maintaining spending in cash terms. The Government will also increase the efficiency of the science budget, saving £324 million a year by 2014-15. These efficiency savings will be reinvested in science. A ring-fence will be maintained to ensure continuity of investment in science and research. In addition, £220 million will be invested in the construction of the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation at St Pancras. The cutting edge Diamond Synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire will receive £69 million of public funding over the Spending Review period in partnership with the Wellcome Trust.

    1.36
    The Government will seek to drive commercial investment in scientific knowledge by reforming the Higher Education Innovation Fund.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      The 324 million pounds of “efficiency” means cuts to some parts of the research budget. This will allow significant sums to be moved around between projects, and even between research councils.

      And some more from the Report, which doesn’t add that much to what is given above:

      Supporting long term growth

      2.48
      To support long term growth the Government will prioritise support for world class science, maintaining resource spending in cash terms. The Government will also increase the efficiency of the science budget, saving £324 million a year by 2014-15. These efficiency savings will be reinvested in science. The Government will also take measures to increase the focus on excellence, and will spend £4.6 billion in each of the Spending Review years. A ring-fence will be maintained by BIS to ensure continuity of investment in science and research. The cutting-edge Diamond Synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire will receive £69 million of public funding over the Spending Reviewperiod in partnership with the Wellcome Trust.

  7. telescoper Says:

    This, I think, makes it clear that RCUK will prioritize MRC relative to other Research Councils, hence these will do worse than flat-cash.
    How much worse isn’t clear. A 20% cut in cash for STFC is by no means off the agenda.

    Note also confirmation of big cuts in capital expenditure, from £1.8bn now to £0.8 bn by 2014. This will also hit STFC very hard.

  8. John Peacock Says:

    According to the BBC, BIS faces cuts of 7.1% per year. Anyone know if this is in real terms or cash? And is there an official source for the deflator figures that are used e.g. to translate flat cash for science into a 10% real cut?

  9. telescoper Says:

    The full CSR document is available here in easy-to-read form

    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/spend_sr2010_easyread.htm

    On page 10 there is a table showing each allocation and the net real terms change. It looks like the deflator is consistently about 10% over 4 years. I think this is the result of using the Treasury’s standard GDP deflator described at:

    http://www.hm-treasury.gov.uk/data_gdp_guide.htm

    According to the same table, the BIS budget overall declines by 25% in real terms over the CSR period.

  10. telescoper Says:

    Ominous final paras in the Independent:

    http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/academics-celebrate-as-science-budget-frozen-2111748.html

    One casualty could be “Big Science”, overseen by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

    The STFC funds large facilities such as the Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility in Oxfordshire, astronomy programmes, and Britain’s involvement in the Large Hadron Collider (LHC).

  11. […] After a short-lived burst of optimism following the announcement of the better-than-expected results of the Comprehensive Spending Review for science funding, it seems levels of nervousness are again […]

  12. […] sigh of relief we all breathed when the flat-cash settlement for UK science funding was announced last October is […]

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