Das Kapital

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.


5 Responses to “Das Kapital”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    Peter has posted an extraordinarily pessimistic article here. The trouble for me is that I think he is spot on.

    David Willetts was interviewed on Radio Four’s Material World programme last week. He confirmed that there would be very large cuts to the capital spending on science. The frozen budget for science announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review statement last week appears not to include capital spending, as I understand things.

    Readers of this blog might care to consider what could happen if there were a 30% cut to the capital spending budget of the S.T.F.C.

    Peter posted details of the S.T.F.C. budget here a fortnight ago (also available here in P.D.F. format. The capital spending of the S.T.F.C. for 2010-2011 is given there as 97 million pounds. Try yourself cutting programmes to save 30 million pounds per annum from the capital spending. There are two obvious ways to do it: leave CERN, or combine leaving ESO with hefty spending cuts to other programmes. Should the United Kingdom abandon experimental particle physics, or should it abandon competitive ground-based astronomy apart from some niche areas (which do not require large aperture)? (We might assume here that the loss of access to ALMA would raise questions about the long-term future of mainstream radio astronomy.)

    Who would keep Vista were the U.K. to withdraw from ESO? Presumably ESO.

    Perhaps something could emerge to save the situation, such as switching the bulk of the ESO subscription to near-cash expenditure. But that would require slashing some other major programme. A choice between ESO or ISIS perhaps?

    Britain has withdrawn (or is withdrawing) from many excellent astronomical observatories (including the Anglo-Australian Observatory, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope and U.K.I.R.T.). Nearly all our eggs have been put in one basket. We may now find that we lose that basket. The situation is grave.

  2. Nick Cross Says:

    VISTA is not undergoing performance verification. It has been accepted by ESO and is currenly taking survey data (at a much higher data rate than all the other ESO telescopes put together). However, I am not sure if ESO have decided whether it will claim back money for late fees. I am told that ESO put the particular deadline on VISTA, to make sure that it was ready in time to work with VST, which was supposed to be ready earlier than VISTA.


  3. Bryn – I don’t think losing ALMA – though abhorrent – would mean the end of mainstream UK radio astronomy. That used to be said of losing MERLIN. Losing SKA – now that would be a total disaster for UK radio astronomy..

    I have to ask – why don’t ESO, ISIS, CERN and ALMA get dots? 🙂

    Peter – I can’t help thinking that getting into the game of “PPAN’s getting a 30 % cut – tell us what you want to keep and we’ll do that” is a dangerous one. War against engineers is also dangerous. Is there a third way e.g. banging the drum/protesting again??

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    Perhaps I was being a little pessimistic about the knock-on effects of losing access to ALMA on the future of radio astronomy in Britain in general, but I fear the loss of ALMA would mean Britain would be deprived of a continuity in expertise that could be put into the S.K.A. The loss of that expertise might be used as an excuse to prune radio astronomy in the next astronomy funding crisis but three.

    I decided to defy the standard practice of leaving full stops out of acronyms when commenting here, making some reference to historical practice. I therefore chose to use the full stops (periods) when an acronym is commonly pronounced as the individual letters, but left them out when the acronym is read as a word. I therefore used ESO because it is generally pronounced “Eeeso” (not “Eee-esss-oh”), ALMA because it is always called “Alma” (not “Aay-ell-emm-aay”). I may have got U.K.I.R.T. wrong. S.T.F.C. got full stops because it is pronounced “Ess-tee-eff-see”, even though pronouncing it as “Stuffukk” might be more appropriate in current circumstances.

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