Archive for BIS

Astronomy Cuts Rumour Mill

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on October 18, 2010 by telescoper

Following on from my recent post of the STFC budget, and the comments thereon, I thought it might be useful to make the discussion a bit more prominent as the scale of the cuts is revealed this week and people feel the consequent need to work off nervous energy.

To get things started I’ve taken the liberty of paraphrasing some of  Paul Crowther‘s comments (in italics):


More or less 20% of the total STFC budget shifts across to UKSA from April 2011. This means the STFC budget will reduce from around £570m to around £455m even if the settlement is flat-cash. Grants for space science exploitation remain the responsibility of STFC even after the transfer of the other space activity to UKSA.

George Osborne has announced that ‘infrastructure’ cash from LFCF (Capital Fund) will go towards an upgrade of the Diamond light source. This is a different pot of money from individual Research Councils, but still part of the overall RCUK budget. The Drayson plan for STFC was always to separate Harwell operations (Diamond, ISIS, CLF) from the rest of STFC programmes, so support for Diamond upgrade is likely to come with operations cash too.

Putting these two items together, the STFC allocation will shrink and some of the remaining cash is going to be ring-fenced for Diamond operations. Assuming that the overall RCUK budget falls by  20%  in near-cash terms and 50% in capital on Wednesday 20th and STFC not do worse than “average” across the RCUK portfolio, the cash+capital for the rest of the non-UKSA programme at STFC would fall by 25% or so, i.e. approx £100 million pounds less to spend per annum than at present.

In practice this might mean..

…Mothballing ISIS + CLF (£35m)  AND withdrawing from ESO (£30m) AND cancelling all PP grants (£24m) AND stopping all accelerator R& D (£8m)…

… or some other equally hideous combination of items  in the spreadsheet.


In other words this really would be  “game over” for large parts of STFC science. Even if the cuts are at the level of 15%, which is apparently what the word on the street is saying, then there are still going to be extremely hard choices.

One nightmare possibility is that STFC not only cuts back on new research grants – as it has already done by approximately 40% over the past three years – but actually decides to claw back grants it has already issued. If this happens at the same time as the Treasury slashes HEFCE’s support for research through the QR element then many physics departments will go under very quickly, as they will no longer be even remotely viable financially.

We’re on the brink…


Unravelling Cable

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on September 8, 2010 by telescoper

I woke up this morning with the Vince Cable Blues, owing to an item on the BBC News concerning a speech by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that clearly signals that the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will entail big cuts to the UK’s science budget.

It was a depressing way to start the day, but I for one wasn’t particularly surprised by the news. We all know big cuts are coming, the only remaining questions are “how big?” and “where?”. However, when the text of the speech was released, I was shocked by what it revealed about the Secretary of State’s grasp of his brief.  Read it for yourself and see if you agree with me.

Vince Cable: Out of his Depth

Of course there are the obligatory  platitudes about the quality of the UK’s scientific research, a lot of flannel about the importance of “blue skies” thinking, before he settles on the utilitarian line favoured by the Treasury mandarins who no doubt wrote his speech for him: greater concentration of research funding into areas that are “theoretically outstanding” (judged how?) or “commercially useful” (when?). In fact one wonders what the point of this speech was, as it said very little that was specific except that the government is going to cut science. We knew that already.

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, science.

So was Cable’s speech was feeble-minded, riddled with clichés, and totally lacking in depth or detail? Yes.  Was it surprising? No.

What was surprising, at least to me, is Cable’s deliberate use of spurious numbers to back up his argument. For example,

Its is worth noting in the last RAE 54 per cent of submitted work was defined as world class and that is the area where funding should be concentrated.

This appears to be what Cable  was referring to when he stated on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that  “45% of research grants were not of excellent standard”.

For one thing, there’s a difference between a research grant and the money allocated by HEFCE through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE); more about that in a moment. Moreover, at least in England,  RAE funding is only allocated to grades 3* and 4* anyway, so the concentration he talks about is already happening. The comment is made all the more meaningless, however, because the 54% was actually imposed on the assessment panels anyway; they were told to match the outcome of their deliberations to a target profile. The figure quoted is therefore hardly an objective measure of the quality of scientific research in the UK.

When it comes to research grants – usually obtained from one of the Research Councils, such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) scientists apply for funding and their proposals are assessed by panels. In the case of STFC I can assure every one that the only proposals funded are those graded excellent, and there isn’t anything like enough money to fund all the proposals graded that way. Further cuts will simply mean that  even more excellent research will have to be scrapped, and even more excellent scientists will  go abroad.

This basic misunderstanding convinces me that Vince Cable is completely out of his depth in this job. That’s very unfortunate because it means he will probably be susceptible to manipulation by the dark side (i.e. the anti-science lobby in Whitehall). Already  someone – most likely a Civil Service mandarin with an axe to grind – seems to have  duped him into thinking that 45% of  taxpayer’s money funds mediocre research. What with him already singing so enthusiastically from the Treasury hymn sheet, I fear they have got him exactly where they want him. Rarely has a new arrival in the Whitehall jungle gone native so quickly.

Another remark of his that was quoted today is that “the bar will have to be raised somewhat” in terms of  science funding.  At the next General Election I hope the British people, especially those foolish enough to opt for the Liberal Democrats last time, will “raise the bar” when it comes to deciding who is worthy of their vote. I’m sure of one thing, though. The fraction of British politicians who are “mediocre” is an awful lot higher than 45%.


Science versus Engineering?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on July 13, 2010 by telescoper

I suppose it was inevitable that there would be infighting as academics jostle for an increase intheir share of what is likely to be a diminishing level of research funding to be announced at the end of the ongoing Comprehensive Spending Review.  The first professional society to try to barge its way to the front of the queue appears to be the Royal Academy of Engineering, which has written to the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) in terms that make it clear that they think egineering should prosper at the expense of research in fundamental physics.

To quote the RAEng:

we believe that research should be concentrated on activities from which a contribution to the economy, within the short to medium term, is foreseeable. I recognise that this calls for significant changes in practice but I see no alternative in the next decade. This may mean disinvesting in some areas in order properly to invest in others.

And where should the axe fall?

BIS should also consider the productivity of investment by discipline and then sub-discipline. Once the cost of facilities is taken into account it is evident that ‘Physics and Maths’ receive several times more expenditure per research active academic compared to those in ‘Engineering and Technology’. This ratio becomes significantly more extreme if the comparison is made between particle physics researchers and those in engineering and technology. Much of particle physics work is carried out at CERN and other overseas facilities and therefore makes a lower contribution to the intellectual infrastructure of the UK compared to other disciplines. Additionally, although particle physics research is important it makes only a modest contribution to the most important challenges facing society today, as compared with engineering and technology where almost all the research is directly or indirectly relevant to wealth creation.

Obviously whoever wrote this hasn’t heard of the World Wide Web, invented at CERN – precisely the place singled out for vitriol.

I couldn’t agree less with what the RAEng say in their submission to BIS, but instead of going on a rant here I’ll direct you to John Butterworth’s riposte, which says most of what I would want to say, but I would like to add one comment along the lines I’ve blogged about before.

The reason I think that the RAEng is precisely wrong is that I think the Treasury (on behalf of the taxpayer) should only be investing in research that wouldn’t otherwise be carried out. In other words, the state should fund academic esearch precisely because of its “blue sky” nature, not in spite of it.

Conversely, engineering and technology R&D should be funded primarily by the commercial sector precisely because it can yield short-term economic benefits. The decline of the UK’s engineering base has been caused by the failure of British companies to invest sufficiently in research, expecting instead that the Treasury should fund it and all they have to do is cash in later.

I’m not calling for the engineering and technology budgets to be cut – I don’t have such a blinkered view as the RAEng – but I would argue that a much greater share should be funded by private companies. This also goes for energy research. As Martin Rees pointed out in a recent Reith Lecture, the UK’s energy companies spend a pathetically small proportion of their huge profits on R&D. The politicians should be “persuading” industry to get invest more in the future development of their products rather than expecting the taxpayer to fund it. I agree that the UK economy needs “rebalancing” but part of the balance  is private companies need to develop a much stronger sense of the importance of R&D investment.

And, while I’m tut-tutting about the short-sighted self-interest displayed by the RAEng, let me add that, following the logic I’ve stated above,  I see a far stronger case for the state to support research in history and the arts than, e.g. engineering and computer science. I’d even argue that large commercial companies should think about sponsoring pure science in much the same way as they do with the performing art exhibitions and the Opera. We need as a society to learn to celebrate curiosity-driven research not only as a means to economic return (which it emphatically is) but also as something worth doing for its own sake.

Finally, and most depressingly of all, let me point out that the Chief Executive Officer of the Royal Academy of Engineering, Philip Greenish, sits on the Council of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, an organisation whose aims include

To promote and support, by any means, high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related post-graduate training in astronomy, particle physics, space science and nuclear physics.

Clearly, he should either disown the statements produced by the RAEng or resign from STFC Council. Unless he was put there deliberately as part of the ongoing stitch-up of British physics. If that’s the case we all have the dole queue to look forward to.