Archive for October 29, 2010

Das Kapital

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on October 29, 2010 by telescoper

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 increasing about what might lie in store for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

It appears the “near-cash” funding for RCUK, the umbrella organisation that sits above the seven Research Councils will be fixed over the period of the CSR but, within that overall pot, the Medical Research Council (MRC) will have its funding stream protected in real terms, meaning the others will be have to be reduced in real terms. How the pie will be divided up remains to be seen, but I believe there is some pretty tough negotiating going on behind the scenes right now. RCUK chief Adrian Smith has apparently been given detailed instructions by the Treasury on how to carry out the budget allocations, but I haven’t seen the manual…

However, this is only part of the story. The other part, as the e-astronomer has already pointed out, is rather scary. As well as “near-cash” funding, the Research Councils also receive funds marked “capital”. I’m not an accounting expert, but I’m told this is all pretty normal practice for large organisations. What has emerged recently is that the capital part of the RCUK budget is to be cut by a whopping 44%. A rumour is spreading that STFC has been told to expect at least a 30% cut in capital funding and instructed to budget accordingly.

This 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 its budget is tied up in the capital stream. In fact it’s even worse than you might imagine because large international subscriptions, including CERN and ESO, are currently paid for, at least in part, out of STFC’s capital budget. According to the journal Nature,

That money pays for everything from radio telescopes to Antarctic research stations. In particular, the cuts will hit the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds particle physics and astronomy. The council, which has struggled financially for years, has been told to prepare for its capital funding to fall by a third, according to documents seen by Nature. That could jeopardize Britain’s participation in organizations such as the European Southern Observatory.

Another factor that adds to the vulnerability of our ESO membership is the longrunning saga of the VISTA telescope. When the UK joined ESO (in 2002), this telescope – which hadn’t been built then – was put up as an “in kind” contribution to the UK’s joining fee. However, VISTA wasn’t actually handed over to ESO until December 2009, significantly behind schedule and it is still undergoing performance verification. In principle, ESO could require the UK to pay a substantial fine for the late delivery and it is STFC that would have to find the funds. I don’t know what the precise fine would be, but I’ve heard figures from £16M to about twice that.

Although Science Minister David Willetts is on record as saying that he was not planning to withdraw from any European collaborations, including ESO, the VISTA debacle may force his hand if it means the cost of continuing membership exceeds the penalties for withdrawal.

Withdrawing from ESO would destroy a huge part of the UK’s ground-based astronomy activity, as we have already withdrawn from (or are planning to withdraw from) most other facilities we used to have access to. It would also damage our credibility as international scientific partners in a more general sense. But if it isn’t ESO that gets chopped it will be something else. It’s difficult to see how STFC can cope with this cut without something going to the wall.

The Royal Astronomical Society has written to Fellows requesting that they write to their MPs to point out the consequences of drastic cuts to STFC’s budget, citing withdrawal from ESO as one possible outcome.

There’s no doubt about it, it’s brown trousers time.