Archive for BIS

Big Cuts to UK Science Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on March 4, 2016 by telescoper

I have been off sick today, but felt a whole lot sicker when I saw that the government had unveiled its plans for UK research spending over the next few years.

At first sight the picture looks encouraging. For example, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) sees a modest increase on cash terms from 16/17 to the end of the budget period. However that picture soon changes when you note that the allocation to STFC this year (15/16) was £400M. The allocation for (16/17) is £388M, so there’s an immediate reduction of £12M in available resource corresponding to a 3% cash cut.

This is  a truly terrible result for the STFC community. It may not seem like a big cut, but so much of the STFC budget is locked up in subscriptions that cash cuts have a disproportionately damaging effect. I fear for grant funding in particular; that’s always what takes the hit when immediate savings are needed.

It seems clear to me that a deliberate decision was made in BIS to exclude the current year’s figures from their document in a cynical attempt to present a misleading picture of the settlement. It’s a shocking betrayal.

Here is a response from the Royal Astronomical Society.

The unwillingness of our own government to fund scientific research property demonstrates how vitally important it is for us to have access to European Union funding and will strengthen the determination of UK scientists to keep us in the EU.

Your Chance to Influence UK Government Investment in Science

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 4, 2014 by telescoper

A recent piece of bloggery by esteemed Professor Jon Butterworth 0f the Grauniad reminded me that an important government consultation has just opened. In fact it opened on 25th April, but I neglected to post about it then as I was on my Easter break. I’m now passing it on to you via this blog, by way of a sort of community service.

Anyway, the consultation, which is being adminstered through the Department of Business Innovation and Skills, can be found here; there’s a large (110 page) document as well as information on how to respond. Basically about £5.8 billion in capital expenditure has been set aside for science research, and the government is asking how it should be divvied up. Such funds could be used to build big ticket items such as new telescopes, particle accelerators, lasers or other infrastructure including new laboratory buildings. It has to be capital, though, which means it can’t be used on staffing for such facilities that are funded. You might argue that this is a weakness (because ultimately science is done by people not by facilities) but, on the other hand if the government stumps up additional money for capital that might free up funds for more people to be employed.

Anyway, do read the consultation document and submit your responses. You could do a lot worse than reading Jon Butterworth’s commentary on it too. The deadline is some way off, July 4th to be exact, but this is very important so you should all get your thinking caps on right away.

One thing I’ll be including in my response concerns funding for university laboratories. The funding body responsible for English universities, the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), is currently underfunding STEM subjects across the country. I’ve blogged about this before so I won’t repeat the argument in detail, but severe reductions in the unit of resource applied to laboratory-based subjects have meant that the new tuition fee regime does not provide anything like sufficient income to cover the costs of, say, physics undergraduate teaching. All students pay a flat-rate fee of £9K across all disciplines (including arts, humanities and science subjects) but science subjects only get £1.4K per student on top of this. The withdrawal of capital allowances has also made it very difficult for universities to invest in teaching laboratory space.

The cost of educating a physics student is actually about twice that of educating a student of, say, English, so this differential acts as a deterrent for universities to expand  STEM disciplines. Shortage of teaching laboratory space is a major factor limiting the intake of students in these areas, whereas other disciplines are able to grow without restriction.

So my vote will go for a sizeable chunk of the £5.8 billion capital  to be allocated to improving, refurbishing, expanding and building new teaching laboratories across all STEM disciplines to train the next generation of scientists and engineers that will be vital to sustain the UK’s economic recovery.

I’d be interested in people’s views about other aspects of the consultation (e.g. what big new facilities should be prioritized). Please therefore feel free to use the comment box, but not as a substitute for participating in the actual consultation.

Over to you!


More Cuts to University Funding

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2014 by telescoper

Grim news arrived yesterday with the announcement by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills of further deep cuts in funding for Higher Education in England. This announcement has been delayed due to internal wrangling over the allocation of funds but in the end the grant letter to HEFCE makes little attempt to sugar the pill:

The settlement will mean reductions in HEFCE funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

The science budget is, of course, “ring-fenced” which means that recurrent funding for that is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14. This has, for example, translated into the expected flat cash settlement for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), although there has been some rejigging of the way this money is allocated within STFC, and an apparent increase in funds available for international subscriptions. At least this should unblock the numerous programmes in STFC and elsewhere in the Research Councils that have been on hold pending the final budget allocations.

That said, the overall picture looks very bleak for Higher Education. The really important figure for HEFCE is buried in Annex 2 of the latest grant letter, which reveals that, including the ring-fenced funds, HEFCE will have just £4,091 million to allocate in 2014/15. The corresponding figure for the current year, 2013/14, was £5,014 million. That’s a cut in cash terms of an eye-watering 18.4%.

The scale of the cuts makes it even more likely that if they continue there will be very little money available for HEFCE to allocate as a result of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which case the vast expenditure across the sector preparing for that exercise may will have been wasted too.

For the time being, however, it seems that research has been spared the axe. The bulk of the cuts will therefore fall on teaching grants. HEFCE has been instructed to try to protect STEM subjects as it cuts expenditure on teaching, but will it be able to? The extra funds that have previously supplemented tuition fees have been steadily whittled away anyway, so expensive subjects like Physics only get about £1000 per year more than Arts subjects. There is already a strong incentive in the current funding model for universities to expand cheap subjects. That pressure will only increase with this new settlement.

The last paragraph of the grant letter says:

We recognise that our universities are one of our most valuable national assets. Higher education transforms people’s lives through excellent teaching and transforms society through research and the application of knowledge. The Government’s reforms have laid the foundations for a more securely funded, stronger, more confident and more responsive higher education sector. We will continue to work with the Council and the sector to communicate the enduring value of higher education to potential students and the wider world.

I’m sure readers of this blog will forgive me if I suggest that these words are rendered meaningless by the scale of the cuts announced in the grant letter. If the government really regarded our universities as “valuable national assets” it would be increasing investment in them, not cutting it. What worries me most is that these cuts will never be reversed, whatever the complexion of the next government as there seems to be more enthusiasm across the political spectrum for continued cuts than for investment in the future education of our young people. I’m increasingly ashamed of the legacy being left by my own generation.

Fifty Years of the UK in Space

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on April 12, 2012 by telescoper

I got an email just now advertising this event which I hadn’t heard about before today, so I thought I’d put my community service hat on and spread the word via the medium of this blog by passing on the content of the email with a minimum of edits. Unfortunately I won’t be going to the thing myself as I’ll be teaching on 26th April…

On 26 April 1962, Britain became the third space-faring nation with the launch of Ariel-1, the first satellite to be developed and operated by the UK. Fifty years on, the UK space sector is a world leader in space science, innovative technology and applications development helping Planet Earth.

To commemorate the launch of Ariel-1 and to celebrate the continued excellence of UK space activities, on the anniversary of the launch, 26 April 2012, the UK Space Agency and the Science Museum are co-hosting a two-day conference celebrating 50 years of the UK in space. It will bring together those who started the UK on the road to being a world-renowned centre for space technology and research with the scientists and engineers of the next fifty years. The Director of Science and Robotic Exploration at the European Space Agency will make the keynote speech and there will exciting announcements and memorable moments to enjoy at the evening reception hosted by the UK Space Agency on the 26th April. Come along, mingle with friends old and new and look forward to the next chapter of the UK in space. Admission is free.

More information can be found here, and at the conference website here. You can download a PDF of the conference programme here.


Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on February 16, 2012 by telescoper

Moaning about science politics, especially with regard to funding, is one of the recurring themes on this blog. The UK government administers science policy through the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (better known as BIS). Unfortunately I can’t think of that name without harking back to the good old days of the Innovations Catalogue (shown left). I was shocked to discover that this met its demise as long ago as 2003 but in its time it was comedy gold. Packed full of palpably useless gadgets – who could possibly forget the vibrating fur-lined golf club cover? – it was all the more hysterical for  that fact that it was clearly deadly serious. When I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue tried to lampoon the Innovations Catalogue,  the results struggled to be as funny as the real thing, although I do remember Willie Rushton’s combined cigarette lighter and nasal hair remover…

It seems that the Innovations people made one big mistake that cost them their business: the stuff they sold was dirt cheap. Subsequent experience has taught us that if you want to persuade people to buy useless gadgets, you have to make them expensive. No tat sells like expensive tat…

Anyway, having thus established the theme of Innovation, let me now explore a variation. Websites.

Over the past few weeks I’ve noticed a number of changes to websites I use. Last week I noticed that Twitter had been revamped. The first impression I got was that all my tweets were on the right hand side of the screen instead of the left. Not a drastic alteration, though as a man who is fully in touch with his inner Luddite I find even that level of change hard to cope with. More perturbingly I later saw that the button for searching for mentions of your username (for those of you who aren’t twits twats twerps tweeters, this was marked “@” because all twitter names begin with that character) is no longer labelled “mentions” but “connect”. Huh? Connect with what or whom? Likewise the “activity” tag is now called “discover”. Why it was decided to change the names from something descriptive to something non-descriptive is beyond me, but it’s probably what passes as “innovative” in the world of web designers.

I’ve got nothing against web designers in general, and I think some websites are absolutely wonderful in both content and style. This one, for example. However, there are some who seem to have been put together by people on a mission to the make the design so impenetrable that it’s impossible for anyone to find any content at all.

A major leap in this direction has recently been made by the BBC. A while ago they introduced a new home page, which has virtually no information on it, but lots of graphics. After vociferously negative responses from users of the BBC Website, i.e. the public, the person in charge responded by saying that the changes were needed in order to make the site more distinctive. I freely admit that it is distinctive, but its main distinction is that it is poor.

Now I’ll grant that page layout and style is a matter for personal taste so there will be others out there who like the new BBC Webshite. That’s fine. What’s less forgivable is that the quality of service has also deteriorated and that is an objective fact. Here’s an example.

On the old BBC website you could set your location, with the result that the homepage would give access to local news, local TV and radio listings, and so on. You also automatically got weather information for your chosen location. Now you can still set your location on the homepage, but if you click on the new “weather” page your location is automatically set to London. Every time you log on, and want to check the weather, you have to type in your location by hand. Unless you live in London, of course, which is presumably why the web hacks didn’t worry about this.

I’m no expert, but it shouldn’t have been beyond the wit of even the most lowly web designer to pass information about location from one page to another within the same site. But who cares about whether the service is better for the user, as long as it’s distinctive….

I suppose the point of this post – if there is one – is that we shouldn’t be too respectful towards innovation for innovation’s sake. Not all innovation is good.

You might think that adage applies also to what goes on in BIS, but I couldn’t possibly comment.

A Shared Disservice

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 5, 2012 by telescoper

If you’ve never heard of the Shared Services Centre then you’re a very lucky person. If you have heard of it, and especially if you’ve had any dealings with it, then the following excerpt  from the SSC website description of itself will make you either laugh or cry:

The UK’s seven Research Councils, working together as Research Councils UK (RCUK), set up a shared services centre to reduce spend on administration. Sharing and standardising processes simply frees more funds for keeping the UK at the forefront of research and innovation.

Each year the Research Councils invest around £2.8 billion in research into understanding and improving the world around us. They’re involved in everything from tackling superbugs or studying social trends to analysing the geo-climate of the Antarctic. So, operating efficiently benefits our whole society.

What is more, sharing services does not mean compromising quality. The RCUK Shared Services Centre Ltd (SSC) is dedicated to providing exceptional standards of service in Human Resources, Finance, Procurement, IT IS and Grants administration. Our people achieve this by sharing their skills, knowledge and our vision:

‘Professional people working together, delivering quality services for the benefit of the research community’

The italics are mine. I added them  to sections that made me laugh out loud.  In fact almost all the above description of the SSC is complete tripe. The organization is a  fiasco. It has cost more than twice its original budget to implement and since its inception the quality of research administration has deteriorated beyond all recognition. The only thing I’ll say about the statement quoted above is that George Orwell would have been very proud.

This has serious consequences for those dependent for funding on the Research Councils, including the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which has been forced to use the Shockingly Shambolic Catastrophe to administer the grants it issues.  The time taken to process and issue grants is now far longer than it was previously, when such tasks were done by people who actually knew (and cared about) what they were doing.

I’m told by reliable sources that the whole SSC debacle is such an embarrassment that staff employed by the Research Councils have been forbidden to say negative things about it and have instead to pretend everything is just hunky-dory lest the mess damages the reputations of their political masters in BIS.  The result of this strategy is that BIS now think the SSC is doing a fabulous job and are going to expand its activities across other departments. If nobody blows the whistle on it, the SSC behemoth will gradually take over the entire government and turn everything into crap. Or perhaps that has already happened?

Anyway, I’m far too old to play David versus Goliath in this particular battle. I’ll leave that to the continuing efforts of, e.g., Private Eye. But I will give you a tiny – and not particular important – illustration of how useless the SSC really is. I’m one of those people who has to fill in a self-assessment tax return every year. It’s not too difficult to do because I retain a chap to organize my accounts and in any case   income I receive on top of my main salary is usually documented in the various P60s I get at the end of each tax year. Except this year I didn’t get a P60 for the work I did for STFC on the Astronomy Grants Panel. Such payments are also administered by SSC, and it is their statutory responsibility to provide a P60, but despite repeated attempts to extract one, I didn’t get it  in time for the January 31st deadline. I therefore filed my return with estimated figures and an explanatory note.

Finally SSC replied. It seems they had decided to send my P60 to my old address in Nottingham, along with a number of other items of correspondence. Why they did so I have no idea, as I moved from there in 2008. I told STFC my new address at that time, and have been receiving various bits and bobs from them at my correct address since then. Moreover, SSC have been sending items here too, so they do have the right details. Only it seems I’ve been getting letters from Finance, whereas the tax stuff is dealt with by the dreaded Human Resources. As seems inevitable with large bureaucracies, the different parts clearly do not communicate with each other.

Anyway, to cut a very long story very short, after I filed my tax return I finally received an email from SSC explaining what had happened. It also said that it was not possible to issue a duplicate P60, but they were attaching a statement of earnings and tax paid. Only there was no attachment. I emailed back to ask what had happened to the attachment. Three days later I got a reply with the attachment. The email began “Dear Professor Collins…”.

Curiously the attachment – when it finally was sent – arrived in encrypted form “for security”. A bit of a waste of time, methinks, when they’ve been posting confidential documents to the wrong address for more than three years!

I’ve corrected my tax return in the light of the new information they sent, but I may still be liable for some sort of surcharge. It’s clearly the fault of the SSC, but there’s no symmetry in tax affairs. If Joe Bloggs is late or makes an error, he gets stamped on by the Inland Revenue. If a government agency messes up it probably gets away scot free.

This is all small potatoes of course, but the dire state of their record-keeping in a trivial case like mine makes me worry about what might be going wrong with more serious things…

I have the feeling that there might be one or two people out there with SSC stories of their own. Do feel free to share them via the comments box.

Public Attitudes to Science

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 10, 2011 by telescoper

Another quick bit of news to catch up on concerns the publication (on May 2nd) of a study by Ipsos MORI into Public Attitudes to Science. I have a special interest in this study because in fact I took part in it, in the role of a sort of science observer at the session held in Cardiff, which I blogged about in November 2010.

The study was not based on a particularly large sample – only 2103 people – but the results are quite interesting (and perhaps surprising). You can download the full report here, including a mention of yours truly on page 121, but it’s worth mentioning a few of the headline results for those of you who haven’t the energy to read the entire document. For example,

  • 82%  thought that “science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest”
  • 88% thought that scientists “make a valuable contribution to society”
  • 82% thought that scientists “want to make life better for the average person”

On the other hand

  • 51% thought  they see and hear too little information about science
  • 56%  do not feel well informed about scientific research and developments
  • 66% think that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.

These last three numbers compare unfavourably with corresponding figures from an earlier survey done in 2008. I’m not sure whether the results are surprising or not, but the results were considered sufficiently important for a Press Release from the Department for Business Industry and Skills (BIS) along with a response from RCUK which make interesting reading. Minister David Willetts is quoted as saying

Science, technology, engineering and maths are vital to economic growth. It’s encouraging that people are increasingly interested in research and new developments. However, more disappointingly, at the same time they feel less informed. People want more information and to engage with these subjects in a way that’s relevant to them. That’s a very clear message which Government has an important role in responding to.

The RCUK statement includes the following

RCUK is committed to working with researchers to encourage them to engage the public with their work. Along with the other UK funders of research, RCUK has underlined this commitment by putting in place the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. The Concordat aims to create a greater focus on and help embed public engagement with research across all disciplines in the higher education and research sectors. By establishing an ongoing dialogue between the research community and the public, society can benefit more fully from the outputs of research. A copy of the Concordat is available here.

While it’s good to see a high-level endorsement of the importance of outreach and public engagement, it remains to be seen how well this message propagates to individual departments and research groups, not all of which take these activities as seriously as they should in terms of rewarding staff taking part in them.

I also think that part of the difficulty lies not with scientists, but with the mass media who  seem reluctant to accept that there is a significant demand for in-depth  science coverage, e.g. on television.


The STFC Delivery Plan

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

Excuse the very quick and sketchy post on such an important topic, but I’ve got a lot of things to do before the dreaded Christmas lunch.

This morning the allocations of funding for the research councils were announced. The statement accompanying the ensuing Delivery Plan for the Science and Technology Facilities Council can be found here, while the plan itself is here. You’ll probably also want to read Paul Crowther’s analysis here.

Other research councils have also published their plans; you can find the one for EPSRC here.

The headline announcement reads:

After transferring responsibility for space science to the UK Space Agency, STFC’s overall baseline allocation for 2011-12 for resource funding (previously termed “near-cash”) is £377.5m rising to an allocation of £381.14m in 2014-15. This excludes administration which will be separately allocated. Our capital baseline allocation for 2011-12 is £91m, with an indicative allocation for the remainder of the spending review period reducing to £68m in 2014-15.

So not at all bad news for resource funding, but the implications of the capital cut are unclear (at least to me).

I haven’t had time to read the entire document, but did have a quick look at the crucial Appendix D which shows how each discipline is expected to fare:

  • Particle Physics expenditure will rise from £133M to £148M over 4 years
  • Astronomy expenditure will fall from £77M to £69M over the same period
  • Expenditure on Synchtron facilities (e.g. Diamond Light Source) will increase from £42M to £56M.

Within an approximately flat-cash settlement, therefore, Astronomy is a clear loser (although much of the cuts in expenditure relate to decisions already made, such as withdrawal from the Gemini Telescopes). Confusingly, much of the increase in Particle Physics expenditure relates to an increase in the CERN subscription, which I thought was supposed to be falling …

As far as I understand it, the plan also maintains grant funding at the current level (although it will move into the new consolidated grant system as quickly as this can be achieved).

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got time for right now, and comments/reactions/corrections/clarifications are very welcome through the box below.


Snowy Saturday

Posted in Biographical, Sport with tags , , , on November 27, 2010 by telescoper

Up early this morning, cold notwithstanding, to take part in an all-day workshop on Public Attitudes to Science conducted by the market-research organization IPSOS-Mori on behalf of the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) I can’t really say much about what happened since it’s an ongoing research project, but it was very interesting and particularly nice to talk to the participants (who were aged 18-24). My role was as a “science expert” so my job was to explain a bit about how the kind of science I do actually works in practice, compared with what they thought before the event.

On the way home I had to find my way back through the crowded streets of Cardiff. Today was the last day of the autumn rugby internationals, and Wales were playing New Zealand at home. There was a fantastic atmosphere in the city, as always on match days, although the combination of a rather boisterous rugby crowd with large numbers of Christmas shoppers did slow down my journey home. The game just ended, Wales 25 New Zealand 37; not as one-sided as many feared and a much better spectacle than last week’s awful match against Fiji.

I took a few pictures of Bute Park on my way to the event this morning. It looked very beautiful, but it wasn’t half cold early on. I doubt if there’ll be much rugby played on the sports fields for a while, because the ground is frozen solid at the moment!


Farewell to the Haldane Principle?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 17, 2010 by telescoper

Many scientists – myself included – were so relieved at the outcome of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review that we thought the government had accepted the argument that Science is Vital more-or-less completely. Most of us have stopped worrying about whether we’re going to have to go about to carry on doing science and just got on with doing it for the past few weeks.

However, today I came across some worrying news about planned changes to the way the science budget is administered in the UK. In particular, the post currently occupied by Adrian Smith Director General for Science and Research – is to be phased out. The position will be merged with what are currently other separate positions within the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to form a single Director General covering science, universities, research and innovation.

There’s nothing intrinsically sinister about administrative reorganisation, of course, and one can understand that a certain amount of streamlining might well be justified in order to save costs at a time of economic challenge. However, there are worrying signs about this particular change.

One thing is that the new post has only been advertised to civil servants. Apparently there will no longer be a scientist in a position to speak up for science among the higher management of BIS. Adrian Smith is not only an effective manager – as demonstrated by his past success as Principal of Queen Mary, University of London – but is also a respected figure in the field of mathematical statistics. I suspect this combination of skills and gravitas played a big role in securing a reasonably satisfactory outcome for science in the CSR.

Another worrying thing is that the planned reorganisation apparently hasn’t even been discussed with the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington. Former Chief Scientific Advisor Lord May has reacted angrily to the new proposals, calling them “stupid, ignorant and politically foolish”. Strong stuff.

On top of all this is the apparent ambivalence expressed by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, about the Haldane Principle, which has underpinned British science policy for decades. Roughly speaking, this principle states that it should be researchers rather than politicians who should decide where research funds should be spent.

Willetts recently responded to a question about the Haldane Principle in the form of a Parliamentary written answer:

The Haldane principle is an important cornerstone for the protection of the scientific independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.

The principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers through peer review is strongly supported by the coalition Government. Prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. Such decisions are rightly left to those best placed to evaluate the scientific quality, excellence and likely impact of scientific programmes.

The Government do, however, need to take a view on the overall level of funding to science and research and they have decided to protect and to ring fence the science and research budget for the next four years. This decision has been made in the context of the current economic status of the UK and the strategic importance of research funding, while recognising the value of science to our future growth, prosperity and cultural heritage.

Over the years there has been some uncertainty over the interpretation of the Haldane principle. I intend to clarify this is a statement which will be released alongside the science and research budget allocations towards the end of this year. In order that this statement has the consent of the research community, I intend to consult with senior figures in the UK science and research community to develop a robust statement of the Haldane principle.

A superficial reading of this does start out by giving the impression that it strongly supports the  principle. However, I’m not aware of what  “uncertainty” there is over its application that requires such clarification. I rather think this is being put up as  an excuse to limit its scope, i.e. that the uncertainty is more about how the political establishment can get around it rather than what it actually means.

The fact that the  “robust statement” of a Revised Version of the  Haldane Principle is going to be wheeled out just when the allocations to the research councils are announced makes me very nervous that its prime function will be to justify big cuts in fundamental science in favour of applied research.

This all seems to add up to  a systematic attempt to sideline the scientists currently involved in the development of UK science policy development and its implementation. If nothing else, it seems rather strange from a political point of view to try to bring about this change in a way that is bound to alienate large sections of the scientific community, just when the government seemed to be recognizing the importance of science for the UK.

But then, perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Maybe we just have a new government that’s trying to do too much too quickly, and happens to have made a botch of this particular job…

You can find other blog posts on this issue, e.g.  here and here.