Archive for cuts

Cutting Remarks

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 13, 2011 by telescoper

I know you’ve all been waiting with baited breath for news of the outcome of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee‘s report into Astronomy and Particle Physics in the UK.

Well, it’s out now. You can find the web version of the report here and it’s also available as a PDF file there. There’s also a press release with the headline

MPs warn astronomy and particle physics budgets cuts will hit UK science hard

Journalists have obviously been busy overnight – the report was released at midnight, I believe – and there are stories all over the press this morning, including The Guardian, and the journal Science as well as the BBC. The Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics have also been quick to respond.

Apart from the savage cuts themselves – which the committee correctly suggest will reduce astronomy and particle physics spending by 2014/15 to about 50% of the level it was at in 2005 – the great tragedy of this story is that it has taken so long to recognize the scale of the disaster. Most of the damage was done way back in 2007 when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) was first set up. I’d suggest there is an error in the tense of the verb “to hit” in the headline above. It would be more accurate as

MPs warn astronomy and particle physics budgets cuts HAVE ALREADY hit UK science hard, and are getting worse all the time..

Last year’s Comprehensive Spending Review had relatively good news for STFC, with a settlement corresponding to level funding in cash terms. However, the Bank of England has recently stated that it expects inflation to reach 5% this year, which means that science will actually be getting 5% year-on-year real terms cuts on top of what it received in 2007. It’s a pretty dire situation.

The report also raises a doubt over whether the current Chief Executive, Keith Mason, has the “ability to command the confidence of the scientific community”. No shit.

I don’t have time to write much more on this right now as I have lectures to do, but perhaps others out there might feel the urge to start a discussion through the comments box…

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Batting for Astronomy

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by telescoper

I was too busy teaching this morning to watch streaming video of the meeting of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee I referred to in a previous post, but then, being a confirmed Luddite,  I rarely manage to get such things to work properly anyway. Or is it just that Parliament TV isn’t very good? Anyway, I did get the chance to do a fast-forward skim through the coverage, and also saw a few comments on Twitter.

By all accounts the two big hitters for astronomy, Professor Roger Davies and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell both played good innings, watchful in defence, parrying the odd tricky delivery, but also scoring impressively when the opportunity arose. Dame Jocelyn, for example, got in a nice comment to the effect that the shortfall in observatory funding was equivalent to one banker’s bonus.

Any other reactions are welcomed through the comments box.

The e-astronomer (whose pseudonym is Andy Lawrence)  has already blogged about the event, including a delightfully pithy summary of the written evidence submitted beforehand . But then Andy’s never reluctant to take the pith when the opportunity arises…

The thing that depresses me most is the contrast between the forthright and well-considered performances of leading figures from the astronomy establishment with the bumbling efforts of the Chief Executive of STFC, Keith Mason. As Andy Lawrence points out, some of the latter’s responses to questions at the last session of the inquiry were downright misleading, giving the impression that he didn’t know what he was talking about. And that’s the more generous interpretation. Combine the poor grasp of detail with his generally unenthusiastic demeanour, and it becomes easy to see that one of the main reasons for the ongoing crisis at STFC is its Chief Executive.

I’ve been told off repeatedly in private for posting items on here that are severely critical of Professor Mason, sometimes on the grounds that my comments are ad hominem, a phrase so frequently misused on the net that it is in danger of losing its proper meaning. It’s not an “ad hominem” attack to state that a person is demonstrably useless at their job. I stand  my ground. He should have gone years ago.

Unfortunately we still have to wait another year or so before a replacement Chief Executive will be installed at STFC. Good people elsewhere – both  inside and outside science – have lost or are losing their jobs, because of the recession and cutbacks, through no fault of their own. Reality is much less harsh if you’re at the top.


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Did HE fall, or was it pushed?

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , , on October 30, 2010 by telescoper

One of the other scary bits of news to emerge last week concerns proposed changes to the arrangements for tuition fees in English universities. According to the Times Higher, the Minister responsible for universities, David Willetts, has admitted that the cuts to university budgets announced in the Comprehensive Spending Review, will occur before any new money flows into universities from whatever new fee arrangements emerge from the government’s deliberations following the Browne Report.

One of the recommendations of the Browne Report was that central government funding for arts, humanities and social sciences be scrapped entirely. Although I’m a scientist and I do think Science is Vital this is a very bad move, as I think other forms of scholarship and learning are vital too, for a wide range of reasons including cultural ones. It was never clear whether arts & humanities departments would be able to recoup the money lost as a result of cuts to central funding, but now it appears they will have to survive for an indeterminate time without any prospect of extra income to offset the shortfall.

The upshot of all this will be a huge and immediate cut in the budgets of many university departments, a  state of affairs about which Willetts commented only thus:

You have to expect that there will be pressure on universities to save money, and we don’t think they should be exempt from the pursuit of efficiencies.

Can an immediate 40% cut in teaching income be made by efficiency savings? I don’t think so, Mr Willetts. Even making large-scale redundancies won’t help there, as that costs a lot of money up front.

So why is the government pushing through cuts to university funding before ensuring that the new fee arrangements are in place? A variety of answers are possible. One would be incompetence, always a possibility when politicians are involved. However, although this government has tried to rush things through very quickly, I do not believe that this is something that hasn’t been considered very carefully. I think it’s deliberate.  I believe that this government wants some universities to fail, and has found an opportunity to push them over the edge.

It’s not about efficiency savings, it’s about survival of the fattest. Only those places able to dig into their reserves for several years will be able to weather the storm. Some will cope, some won’t. That’s the point.

It’s well known that several universities, most of them post-1992 institutions, have been struggling financially for a considerable time. In the past, special procedures have always been implemented to protect organizations of this type that have been close to insolvency. This government has said that will do things differently, and that universities that go bust will now be allowed to fail. This may involve them closing altogether, or being taken over by private companies. If I were working in a university heavily dependent on income from arts, humanities and social science teaching, I would be extremely nervous about the future. I mean, more nervous than I am anyway, working as a scientist in an institution which is financially sound. And that  is already very nervous indeed.

The other side of this particularly nasty coin, is that more “prestigious” institutions specialising in non-STEM areas, such as the London School of Economics, are already considering the option of going private. If the government gives them no support directly, yet insists – as seems likely – in capping the fee students pay at a figure around £7K per annum as well as strangling them with yards of red tape as HEFCE is wont to do, then why not just withdraw from the system and set fees at whatever level they like? It’s unlikely that an institution with a strong science base will go down this road, as the taxpayer is going to continue supporting STEM subjects, but it seems to me that it would make sense for the LSE to opt out of a system whether the costs of membership exceed the benefits received.

In the longer term, the squeeze is set of continue. According again to the Times Higher, the net revenue from fees will only replace part of the funding withdrawn over the CSR period. It looks like five years of struggle during which many departments may go under. The more you think about it, the worse it looks.

However, perhaps a better question than the one I asked a couple of paragraphs ago is the following. Why is the government intent on slashing the budgets of HE institutions, when it appears to have  let Vodafone off without paying a bill for £6 billion tax?

That amount would have been more than enough to tide the HE sector over until the new fee stream came online…


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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):

\begin{paraphrase}

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.

\end{paraphrase}

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…


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Universities Challenged

Posted in Education, Politics with tags , , , , , on June 10, 2010 by telescoper

The news headlines over the last couple of days have been dominated by remarks made by David Willetts, Minister for Universities and Science, who has called for a radical overhaul of the way UK universities are organized and funded. Predictably, his comments set alarm bells ringing about the savage cuts likely to be coming our way, but I hope it’s not just about slash-and-burn and that some imagination is applied to the problem of sorting out the mess the system has become. We’ll see.

According to a piece in the Guardian, for example, Willetts suggested that some students could study at smaller local colleges instead of going to a big university, but these colleges would teach courses designed and administered by the larger “elite” institutions, such as the University of London. This suggestion isn’t  exactly new because it’s actually how things used to work many years ago. In fact, Nottingham University, where I used to work used to be Nottingham University College and its degrees, along with those of a number of similar provincial universities, were University of London degrees. Nottingham University only got the power to award its own degrees in 1948. Of course, there wasn’t really such a thing as distance learning in those days, so there’s a possibility that a 21st Century revival of this basic idea could turn out very differently in terms of how things are actually taught.

On the up side of this suggestion is the fact that it would be a lot easier to maintain standards, if examinations were set by a common body. On the down side is the fact that the distinctive flavour of speciality courses taught in different colleges, which is a strength of research-led teaching, would be lost. In between these positives and negatives there is a huge grey area of questions, such as where the funding would go, precisely which universities should administer the changes and so on. A lot of thinking and planning will be  needed before anything like this could be implemented.

Let me add two more specific comments to this. First, I think Willetts’ suggestion would make a lot of sense here in Wales where it could be easily implemented by returning to the old University of Wales.  As I’ve mentioned before, as well as suffering from many of the problems besetting the English university system, the Principality has a few extra ones all its own. Among the most pressing is the proliferation of small colleges and the consequent duplication of administrative systems. I think a great deal of money could be saved and teaching quality improved by cutting out the unnecessary bureaucracy and having the smaller places administered by a larger central University (as Willetts imagined with the University of London).

My other comment is specific to my own subject, physics (and astronomy). The problem with this – and other laboratory based STEM subjects – is that it’s very difficult to imagine how they can actually be taught at all at degree level without access to research laboratories for, e.g., project work. This is why physics is only taught in 40-0dd of the 131 universities and colleges around the UK. You can call me old-fashioned, but I just don’t think it’s either possible or desirable to separate teaching from research in science subjects in the way this plan seems to suggest. I know some colleagues of mine disagree strongly with this, but there you go.

Behind this proposal is the issue of student funding, as it is at least partly motivated by the suggestion that students could stay at home and study at a local college instead of moving to a university further away, which would necessitate them taking out student loans which the Treasury has to pay out. 

There’s also the issue of fees. At the moment students in England are expected to pay a flat-rate annual fee of £3225. In addition to this the government pays to the University concerned an amount called the “Unit of Resource”. Last year, in England, the basic amount was around £4K but there is multiplier for more expensive courses. Clinical medicine, for example, attracts four times the basic rate. Subjects like physics and chemistry get a multiplier of 1.7 (so each student comes with around £6.7K of funding). Subjects with no laboratory component, i.e. most Arts and Humanities courses,  just get the bog-standard amount.

I think there’s an obvious problem with this system, namely that physics (and other science subjects) are  much more expensive to teach than the formula allows for. The total income per student for an arts subject would be about £7.2K, while that for physics is about £10K. Why bother with all that expensive laboratory space and shiny new kit when the funding differential is so small. That’s another reason why so many universities have scrapped their physics departments in favour of cheaper disciplines that generate a profit much more easily.

Coincidentally I attended a lunch yesterday with some of our soon-to-be-graduating students. I’ve been a member of a committee working on updating our Physics courses and we wanted to discuss the proposed changes with them. One of the group was a mature student who had already done an English degree (at another university). She said that a physics drgee was much harder work, but was impressed at how much more contact she had with staff. Like most physics department, virtually all our teaching is done by permanent academic staff. Students doing  Physics at Cardiff get about three times as many contact hours with staff as students doing English. It’s unfair to compare apples with oranges, but I’m convinced the funding model is stacked against STEM subjects.

The awful financial climate we’re in has led to a general sense of resignation that the government contribution to university education (the Unit of Resource) is going to decrease and the student contribution go up to compensate. However, there’s a Catch-22 here for the Treasury. If the tuition fee goes up students will have to borrow more, and the Treasury doesn’t want to take on more  subsidised student loans. It seems much more likely to me that the cuts will be achieved by simply reducing the number of funded places. However, in the light of what I argued above, I think this is a great opportunity to think about what is the correct Unit of Resource for different subjects. If we all agree the country needs more scientists and engineers, not less, I’d argue that funded places elsewhere should be cut, and that the difference between arts and science units of resource also be substantially increased.

I’d even go so far as to suggest that there should be zero-rated courses, i.e. those which students are welcome to take if they pay the full cost but to which the government will not contribute at all. That should put an end to the Mickey Mouse end of Higher Education provision once and for all.

PS. A review of the tuition fee system is currently taking place but isn’t due to report until the autumn. It is led by Lord Browne who was formerly the boss of BP. I wonder if there’ll be any leaks?

Day of Reckoning

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by telescoper

10.45am. I came in this morning determined to get on with some work to distract my attention from the looming announcement of budget cuts from the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC). I was up nearly all night worrying about the future, especially for the current generation of postdocs whose careers I’m pretty sure are going to sacrificed in large numbers to balance the books. It reminded me a bit about a poem I posted a while ago: I could not sleep for thinking of the Sky STFC.

Anyway, I’ve spent over an hour trying to write one paragraph of the paper I’m trying to finish and I can’t settle so I thought I’d start a post, with the intention of updating it as the day goes on, the picture gets a bit clearer, and I become increasingly suicidal.

The actual announcement of the result of the prioritisation exercise will appear this afternoon on the STFC website here under the heading

STFC: Investing in the Future

Who said these guys don’t have a sense of humour? What’s underneath is currently completely blank. Hang on, they might have put the result up early in that case…

Most of the blogs and tweets I follow – at least those emanating from this side of the Atlantic – are about this today, so if you’d like to keep up here are some useful links:

Paul Crowther at Sheffield has kept up with all the ongoings and downturnings at STFC and you can expect him to understand it better and quicker than the rest of us  here.

There’s a very good (and nearly anonymous) post about all this on the blog To Left of Centre.

The e-astronomer (Andy Lawrence at the ROE)  has written about this and a lot of important people have commented on it.

Rob Simpson, a PhD student here in Cardiff,  is probably expressing the fears of many younger researchers as is Sarah Kendrew who gives a postdoc perspective.

There’s a list of things astronomical that are probably about to eat the dirt at this website. My bet is that everything on their list will go, plus more. The reason is that most of the things at the bottom of the prioritisation exercise are actually fairly cheap, so just closing a few won’t plug the gap. As a colleague of mine said the other day, “It’s a big shit sandwich, and we all have to take a bite.”

11.15am. If the phrase “going forward” appears anywhere on the STFC announcement page, then I won’t be responsible for my actions…

11.50am. WICKET! Prince c Collingwood b Swann 45. Oh sorry. Wrong blog.

12.08pm. Incoming transatlantic link from the Starving Economist, from whose page I’ve pulled the following comment:

So I’d almost forgotten that other countries are out there, facing the Great Recession as well, and making really stupid decisions in the face of it. IMHO one example of blatant incompetence in an economic sense is being perpetrated by none other than the UK. We kind of look up to them, don’t we? It’s the accent or something. But they are busy tossing some of their world-renowned science, and much of their past investment in such, out the door rather than restructure some of their government funding. Talk about inertia. Their astronomy program appears to be particularly hard-hit. Interesting way to close 2009, the International Year of Astronomy.

I couldn’t agree more. It also reminded that I haven’t made enough of the irony that this is indeed the International Year of Astronomy. For a lot of people it will be the last year they’ll be doing astronomy.

12.25pm. Meanwhile, our man in Madrid, Matt Griffin has been wowing the audience with some of the new results from Herschel. I hope to be able to post a few of them later when the official workshop results go live.

12.45pm. STFC operatives have been phoning project leaders this morning to tell them the bad news. Our head of school, Walter Gear, has got his phone call telling him that our attempt to resurrect Clover will not be funded. Disappointing, but not entirely unexpected…

13.15pm. It’s tea-time in sunny  South Africa (with the home side at 159-4) but here in Blighty it’s the long dark lunch break of the soul, waiting for news of the inevitable.

13.30pm. Half an hour to go. Most of the astronomers in the department have now left to travel to Madrid for the big workshop starting tomorrow. They tell me the new results probably won’t be available for public consumption until Friday (18th December). Nothing to sugar the pill, then.

13.55pm. I’m not often right, but I was wrong again. I’ve just noticed that there is already an ESA press release that includes this stunning image of a star-forming region in the constellation of Aquila made using both PACS and SPIRE observations. This is just a first look at part of an extended survey of stellar nurseries that Herschel will be undertaking over the forthcoming months.

14.00pm. And there were are, right on cue. Here is the announcement. As expected, there is a ridiculous attempt to put a positive spin on it all, but you will find immediately, sigh, another 10% cut in research grants to universities (on top of the 25% we already had) to reduce the amount of “exploitation”, plus 25% cuts in the number of PhD students and fellowships “mirroring the overall reduction in the programme”. I read that as meaning that STFC wants, in the long term, about 25% of the astronomers in the UK to go somewhere else and, preferably,  never come back.

I’ll post more when I’ve read the details.

14.10pm. So here’s a quick summary of what projects will be funded in (ground-based) astronomy:

Advanced LIGO, JCMT (to 2012), Gemini (until end 2012), ING (to 2012), KMOS, VISTA, Dark Energy Survey, E-ELT R&D, SKA R&D, SuperWASP, e-Merlin, Zeplin III; Total cost of £87m over 5 years

(the big surprise to me in there is  e-Merlin, which I thought would get the chop) and what won’t

Auger, Inverse Square Law, ROSA, ALMA regional centre, JIVE, Liverpool Telescope, UKIRT. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £16m. Total savings of £29m over 5 years

And on the space side we have the lucky ones:

Aurora, GAIA, Herschel, JWST-MIRI, LISA Pathfinder, Rosetta, Planck, ExoMars, Hinode, Cosmic Vision, Solar Orbiter, Stereo, Swift, Bepi-Colombo; Total cost of £114m over 5 years

and the losers

Cassini, Cluster, SOHO, Venus Express, XMM. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £28m. Total Savings of £42m over 5 years

Note that both Aurora and Bepi-Colombo were both rated very low on scientific grounds but have been retained in the programme, presumably for political reasons.

However, the big downside for everyone is the cut in university grants for “exploitation” that I mentioned above. STFC wants to have lots of expensive facilities, but doesn’t want to fund the modest among of staff needed to actually get science out of them. The stupidity of this decision is made even more depressing by its inevitability.

Even the top-rated projects are getting cuts to their funding. It just shows how little thinking is going on about the actual science that STCF is supposed to be supporting. Isn’t it a more sensible strategy to do a few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly? It’s a mess.

14.38pm. From a Cardiff perspective this is nowhere near as bad as it could have been, but is still pretty dire. The primary activities for our current astronomy programme, Herschel and Planck, are both very high in the priority list and the relativity group is relieved to see ground-based gravitational wave research, including Advanced LIGO, at the highest priority. Moreover, it looks like what I feared most of all – an immediate clawback of existing grants with consequent immediate redundancies – is not going to happen, owing to what appears to be a last-minute injection of funds from RCUK. We’re still looking at cash cuts though, and we’re vulnerable because so much of our research income comes from STFC.

14.43pm. Not on the STFC webpage, but it appears that they are not going to support LOFAR-UK either.

15.05pm. If you want to read the full outcome of the prioritisation exercise, in terms of a batting order of projects, you can download it here. It includes a recommendation that the top funded (alpha-5) projects should get a 15% cut and those at the next leveldown (alpha-4) should get a 20% cut. However, things will probably turn out worse than that because those cuts were suggested on the basis that only those projects would be funded at all. As it turns out, some alpha-3 projects have made it through also, so the cuts to the higher-rated projects must be larger to compensate. Mustn’t they?

15.24pm. I note that STFC have decided to carry on their programme of outreach activities:

Ongoing support for public outreach and science communication, through continuance of our award schemes and Fellowships, and public engagement and communications, helping to ensure new generations of children are enthused and inspired by science, and encouraged to continue study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects.

..so we can kick them in the teeth when they’ve just started a scientific career.

15.30pm. Press release, from Unelected Minister for Science and Innovation, Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, and Formula 1 Car Racing,  Lord  Drayson of Twitter.  I quote:

… it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control.   I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

Is there a possibility that a light has gone on somewhere to the effect that something must be done to stop STFC killing University research? I hope so. If he can pull something out of the fire before March 2010, though, I’d be very impressed.

16.07pm. I may be clutching at straws here, but it is interesting to join the dots between Lord Drayon’s comment above and the following excerpt from the STFC announcement

discussions would be held in coming months with national and international partners, including universities, departments and project teams, on implementation of the investment strategy. This will include discussions with EPSRC and the University funding councils on the impact of these measures on physics departments in universities.

I doubt if EPSRC is going to come running to the rescue without a great deal of encouragement. However, taken together with the comment above by Lord Drayson, there’s at least a hint of a possibility that a way to protect grants might be found. Calling them “research” rather than “exploitation” grants would be a start…

16.18pm. Press statements from Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, President of the Institute of Physics here and Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society here.

17.08pm. I think that’s enough for the day. It hasn’t been good, but the nightmare scenario was that my own research grant would be terminated immediately and I’d have to break the news to my PDRA. At least that didn’t happen, not yet anyway. I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies. But I’m exhausted after sleeping so badly last night, so I think I’ll close this for now. Keep your comments coming if there’s anything significant I missed…

19.45pm Before I settle down with my gramophone records for the evening, I just thought I’d remind anyone not sufficiently depressed at the state of STFC that the drastic cuts announced today do not take account of whatever share of the £600 million “efficiency savings” announced in the budget has been allocated to them. It may look bad now, but it’s probably going to get worse. On that cheery note, I’m going to have a drink and listen to Mahler.

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