Archive for Budget

Cut and Thrust and Nip and Tuck

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on March 26, 2010 by telescoper

This week we received the not-altogether-unexpected news that the budgets of Welsh universities will be cut next year. The Higher Education Funding Council for Wales (HEFCW) has announced its detailed allocations for 2010-11 and all but one institution will receive a cash cut.  Cardiff University faces a cash cut of 1.74%. Lampeter is the exception, but it gets a cash increase of only 0.32%. After taking inflation into account, even they get a real terms decrease. So it’s real cuts across the board for Welsh Higher Education, with a total of about £30 million in funding taken away.

In fact, it appears that the total amount of money available to HEFCW for next year is level in cash terms compared to last year. The total amount it has distributed in recurrent grants has, however, decreased by about 2% on last year. As far as I understand it, the discrepancy between the income and expenditure is partly explained by the diversion of some funds into a new Strategic Implementation Fund(SIF) to enable HEFCW to meet the goals outlined in the Welsh Assembly Government (WAG) document stating its vision for Higher Education, entitled For our Future. Some elements of SIF are included with the current allocation, but other’s are not, hence the  cash cuts seen here.In future, a larger proportion of the budget will move from recurrent, formula-based funding towards initiatives more closely aligned with the WAGs or, more likely, wasted on window-dressing and increased bureaucracy.

We’ll have to see what the impact of the new SIF arrangements will be in the longer term. In the short-term, however, the cuts (though obviously regrettable) are by no means a shock and will probably appear entirely insignificant after the General Election and the real cuts start, probably more like 20% than 2%…

The situation in Wales contrasts with Scotland where the Higher Education has grown by 1% for 2010/11.  Some Scottish universities, such as Edinburgh with a cash increase of 2.2%, have done pretty well. A small number of others, such as Stirling have been cut by 3.3% in cash terms.

Allocations for English universities were announced by HEFCE last week. There the situation is more mixed, partly to do with HEFCE rejigging its formula for research funding to concentrate it even more than last time (something that HEFCW – wisely, in my view – decided not to do..). It seems about half the 130 institutions in HEFCE’s remit get a cash increase, although when inflation is factored in the number with a real increase is much smaller. Among the universities with big cash cuts are Reading (-7.7%) and the London School of Economics (-6.3%).

As far as I understand the situation, these figures don’t include the fines for over-recruitment recently demanded by Lord Mandelson and may not take into account cuts in capital allowances, so things may be a lot worse than they appear at first sight.

However, to complicate things  a bit more, this week’s budget announced new funding for Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, corresponding to an increase in numbers of about 20,000.This is only for England, as Higher Education in Wales and Scotland is not part of the remit of the Westminster government. One advantage of this for those of us in Wales is that we can’t be affected by pre-election tinkering in the same way England can.

I’m sure the news of new funding is very welcome to my colleagues across the border, but it does look to me like a bit of sticking plaster that looks likely to fall off after polling day.

Anyway, it looks to me like these results are going exactly with the form book. Scotland has always valued Higher Education more strongly than England, and Wales has usually trailed along in third place.  The real struggle hasn’t yet started, however, and we have to wait anxiously to see how hard the axe will fall once the election is over.

Slippage and Slideage

Posted in Science Politics with tags , on July 3, 2009 by telescoper

Back from the week’s exertions I’ve just realised that I missed the announcement from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) of the changes to their programme as a result of the 2009 budget settlement.

You can find the full statement here, but of immediate concern to astronomers is the plan to cut funding for the Cambridge Astronomical Survey Unit (CASU) and the Wide-Field Astronomy Unit (WFAU) at Edinburgh. I’m not sure how much their support is to be reduced and what the long-term implications of the cuts will be.

Expenditure on the outrageously useless space gizmo Moonlite will be delayed until next year, thus saving another bit of money. In my opinion, it would have been better simply to have cancelled this one altogether and diverted the funding into research grants which are instead to be held at the levels they were cut to last year.

Other savings will be made by “rephasing” (i.e. delaying) other projects in particle and nuclear physics and some others have started late anyway for other reasons.

Any optimism there might have been about a better settlement at the next Comprehensive Spending Review has now totally evaporated, however, and I wouldn’t bet against STFC having to cope with further large cuts  (in cash terms) a few years down the line. There are several ongoing consultation exercises (see Andy’s discussion and my earlier post for details) which will no doubt be used to draw up hit lists that will be used to make further cuts if and when needed.

The immediate impact of this review exercise on the astronomy programme seems considerably less brutal than I feared, but what may be going on is simply a holding operation and that the really drastic decisions will happen later, after money has already been spent on projects that are really already doomed. Still, a stay of execution is better than immediate termination.

The Shape of Things to Come..

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on April 24, 2009 by telescoper

The implications of this week’s budget for astronomy are gradually becoming clearer although a full picture is yet to emerge.

The following statement appeared on the webpages of the Science and Technology Facilities Council:

STFC’s budget of £491 million for 2009-10 is evidence of the Government’s commitment to investing in science in a period of severe national and global economic uncertainty.

STFC’s Chief Executive Officer, Professor Keith Mason, said: “Our budget represents a major investment in science at a time of increasing pressure on public spending, and will allow us to fund a wide array of world leading science delivering significant impact for the UK.”

“The budget confirms the Government’s commitment to, and acknowledgement of, investment in curiosity driven and application led research as essential elements to support the country’s economic growth in the short, medium and longer term.”

Professor Mason said the near cash* budget of £491 million was more than the Council’s allocation in the Comprehensice Spending Review (CSR07), thanks to assistance from the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) in the form of a loan and compensation for foreign exchange exposure. This outcome follows extensive consultation between DIUS and the Research Councils to ameliorate the effect of the fall of the pound. However, it will unfortunately not allow STFC to fund the full science programme planned under its Programmatic Review.

Professor Mason said STFC would now consult on reprioritising its programme across the remainder of the CSR period. This consultation will cover both the short-term items required for 2009-10, and a longer term process to ensure stable platform for planning in the medium to longer term. Council will discuss options for 2009-10 at its meeting on the 28th April.

“For its part STFC has already imposed a series of internal savings, including on travel and severe restrictions on external recruitment. We will seek to identify further savings in order to concentrate resources on funding our core research programme,” Professor Mason said.

It appears, then, that there is to be short-term assistance from the effects of currency fluctuations but this will be in the form of a loan that will eventually have to be paid back from savings found within the programme. I suppose something’s better than nothing, despite the bland language, it is quite clear that we are heading for big cuts in the STFC programme and astronomy will not be immune.

The Times Higher has also covered the budget settlement for science and higher education generally in very downbeat terms. Echoing what I put in my previous post:

Although the Budget maintains an existing commitment to ring-fence the science budget, DIUS had reportedly sought a £1 billion increase in funding for scientific research as part of a stimulus package designed to use science to boost the economy.

Instead of this, research councils will be required to make £106 million in savings, which will then be reinvested elsewhere intheir portfolio “to support key areas of economic potential”.

We await details of where these “savings” will be made. My current understanding is that the STFC needs to find about £10 million immediately although whether this is on top of or including its share of the overall “efficiency savings”, I don’t know. In any case it is clear that this money will be taken from pure science programmes and spent instead on areas deemed to have “economic potential”. It looks like we’re all going to have to hone our bullshitting skills over the next few years.

Economic Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on April 22, 2009 by telescoper

Like many of my colleagues I’ve been looking nervously through the lengthy documents  produced by HM Treasury to fill in the details of the Chancellor’s Budget speech. I was hoping to find some evidence of a boost for science that might filter down as a rescue package for STFC and might dispel the rumours of savage cuts in the Astronomy programme. Unfortunately I didn’t find any.

No real details about the science programme are given in the lengthy budget report, at least not that I could find this afternoon. There are, however, a couple of worrying pointers that things might be going from bad to worse.

The Chancellor has decided to cut public spending overall by about £15 billion (largely by “efficiency savings”) in order to control the UK’s ballooning public debt. The Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) which sits above the Research Councils in the hierarchy of research management is mentioned twice in the document, in the following passages talking about savings:

£118 million through increasing the effectiveness of research activities funded by the Research Councils by reducing administration costs and refocusing spend on new research priorities;

and

An additional £106 million of savings delivered by the Research Councils within the science and research budget to be re-invested within that budget to support key areas of economic potential.

Both of these look to me like indications that money will be diverted from pure science into technology-driven areas. Far from there being a boost for astronomy, it looks like we face the opposite with money being squeezed from us and re-allocated to areas that can make a stronger case for economic potential.

Another indication of this phase change, which has been in the air for some time, appeared yesterday on the STFC website.  The whole item can be found here, but the salient points are included in the following excerpt

Applicants for STFC rolling and standard grants will now be required to produce an impact plan, identifying the potential economic impacts of their proposal. The change takes effect from 21 April 2009 and will affect grants rounds from autumn 2009 onward.

The change follows a 2006 Research Councils UK project, and subsequent Excellence with Impact report, into the efficiency and value for money of Research Council peer review processes. The report recommended the Research Councils improve guidance to applicants and peer reviewers to ensure a shared understanding about the value of identifying the potential economic impact of research, and that the new requirements be supported in electronic application systems and guidelines.

More details of the spending priorities of DIUS within its overall budget will no doubt emerge in due course and they may yet reveal a tonic of some sort for STFC. What seems more likely, however, is that any such funds will be aimed at space gadgetry rather than at science. I have a feeling that the impact of the economic downturn on UK Astronomy is going to turn out to be dire.

Budget Boost?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on April 19, 2009 by telescoper

This Wednesday (22nd April 2009) the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling, will deliver the UK government’s budget for this year. The background is of course the economic recession and the consequent collapse of our public finances. The government will have to borrow an estimated £175 billion over the next year, and it likely that taxes will eventually have to rise considerably to balance the books in the longer term.

Rumours are abounding about what will be in the budget and what won’t. According to today’s Observer, the centrepiece is likely to be a £50 billion scheme to revitalize the housing market.  If this is the case then I think it’s a mistake. Our economy has been run for too long on the basis of money raised from inflated property valuations, and we need to take this opportunity to change to a more sustainable way of running the country. Other schemes that may emerge include a £2 billion scheme to help unemployed young people which is a better idea, but much of it would probably be wasted in bureaucracy rather than doing real good.

My own attention will be focussed on whether there is anything in Alistair Darling’s speech that indicates some help for science, particularly fundamental science like physics and astronomy. In yesterday’s Guardian the Astronomer Royal and President of the Royal Society, Lord Martin Rees argued  for an injection of cash to stimulate science and innovation. About a month ago the BBC reported on efforts by Ministers to convince the treasury of the benefit of a £1 billion stimulus package for science along these lines. However, even if the powers that be listen to this argument (which is, in my view, unlikely), any increase in science funding would not necessarily be directed towards fundamental physics. I think if there isn’t anything for those of us working in astronomy in this budget, then we’re completely screwed.

I believe the funding crisis at the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was precipitated by a conscious government decision to move funds away from blue skies research and into more applied, technology driven areas.  The 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review was extremely tough on STFC but quite generous to some other agencies.  Moreover, within STFC itself there seems to be a shift from science-driven to technology-driven projects,  signalled by the cancellation of projects such as Clover to save a couple of million, and the allocation of funds to projects such as Moonlite which is devoid of any scientific interest and which could end up costing as much as £150 million over the next five years or so.

The true depth of the ongoing STFC crisis is only gradually becoming apparent. It was bad enough to start with, but has been exacerbated by the fall in value of sterling against the euro since 2007 which has meant that the cost of subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO have risen dramatically (by about 40%). These form such a large part of STFC’s expenditure – the CERN subscription alone is £70m out of a total budget of around £800m – that it cannot absorb the increased cost and it is now looking to make swingeing cuts on top of the 25% cut in research grants already implemented.

News emerged last week that STFC has abandoned plans to fund any R&D grants for ESA’s Cosmic Vision programme, and there are dark rumours circulating that it is considering cancelling all astronomy grants this year as well as clawing back money already given to universities in previous rounds. I hope these are not true, but I fear the worst.

Cuts on this scale would be devastating, demoralising, and I honestly think would destroy the United Kingdom as a place to do astronomy. They would also signal a complete breakdown of trust between scientists and the research council that is supposed to support them, if that hadn’t happened already.

Incidentally it is noticeable that STFC hasn’t bothered to report any of these matters publically through its website. Instead, the lead story on the STFC news page is about a visit by Prince Andrew to the Rutherford Appleton Lab. No sign yet, then, of the promised improvement in communication between the STFC Executive and its community.

The way I see it, the urgent issue is not whether we get a stimulus package , but whether we even get the bit of sticking plaster that is needed to  saves physics and astronomy from utter ruin. The cost would be a small fraction of the billions lavished on profligate bankers, but I’m not at all sure that the government either appreciates or cares about the scale of the problem.

Anyway, coincidentally, next week sees the Royal Astronomical Society’s National Astronomy Meeting (NAM), which is this year held jointly with the European Astronomical Society’s JENAM at the University of Hertfordshire. I won’t be going because it has unfortunately been organized in term time apparently because European astronomers refuse to attend meetings in the vacations, at least if they’re in places like Hatfield.  STFC representatives  have been invited; it remains to be seen what, if anything, they will have to say.