Archive for cuts

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.

Science is (still) Vital

Posted in Biographical, Politics, Science Politics with tags , on October 22, 2015 by telescoper

I’ve been on an interview panel all day and have only just emerged, blinking, into the daylight. I thought I’d take the opportunity to remind readers that there is a very important meeting/rally scheduled for Monday evening (26th October)  at the Conway Hall in London organised by Science is Vital to campaign against proposed cuts in UK science funding. I got my ticket some time ago, but I think there are a few places left. If you can’t make the meeting then you can still write a postcard to George Osborne. I have done a couple myself. Being in Brighton I was tempted to send one demonstrating the subtle humour characteristic of British seaside postcards, such as this one

postcardbut I decided not to.

 

Anyway, it’s almost five years since I last participated in a rally in London to protest against proposed cuts to the UK science budget. Since then research funding has been heavily squeezed by a “flat cash” settlement that threatens the survival our science base, with consequent damaging effects on the long-term future of the economy. This graphic, from a post by Stephen Curry, says it all:

science is still vital

Back in 2010, most of us were relieved that the outcome of the Chancellor’s spending review was a level funding in cash terms, although the decline in real terms funding since then has been enormously challenging across the board. The forthcoming spending review puts us in an even more dangerous situation. After the 2010 election the Coalition government announced a “ring fence” that protected science spending from cash cuts for the duration of the last Parliament (although this has, as the graphic above demonstrates) translated into real-terms cuts year on year. This time any commitment to a ring-fence from the Conservative government has been conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, its decision to claw back funding of STEM subjects through HEFCE has demonstrated its intention to remove even this modest protection. The government has signalled its desire to cut overall spending massively this time, and there are few places left for the axe to fall other than in research. Now the UK’s research councils are being told to budget for cuts of 20% and 40% to their core funding. This will lead to the abandonment of many international research projects and lead to large-scale redundancies across the sector, driving the best of our scientists abroad. These plans are bad not only for science, but for the economy as a whole because it is only through growth triggered by research and innovation that this country can hope to recover from the mess that it is currently in.

 

Science is (even more) Vital (than ever)

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , on September 17, 2015 by telescoper

It’s almost five years since I participated in a rally in London to protest against proposed cuts to the UK science budget. Since then research funding has been heavily squeezed by a “flat cash” settlement that threatens the survival our science base, with consequent damaging effects on the long-term future of the economy. This graphic, from a post by Stephen Curry, says it all:

science is still vital

Back in 2010, most of us were relieved that the outcome of the Chancellor’s spending review was a level funding in cash terms, although the decline in real terms funding since then has been enormously challenging across the board. The forthcoming spending review puts us in an even more dangerous situation. After the 2010 election the Coalition government announced a “ring fence” that protected science spending from cash cuts for the duration of the last Parliament (although this has, as the graphic above demonstrates) translated into real-terms cuts year on year. This time any commitment to a ring-fence from the Conservative government has been conspicuous by its absence. Indeed, its decision to claw back funding of STEM subjects through HEFCE has demonstrated its intention to remove even this modest protection. The government has signalled its desire to cut overall spending massively this time, and there are few places left for the axe to fall other than in research. Now the UK’s research councils are being told to budget for cuts of 20% and 40% to their core funding. This will lead to the abandonment of many international research projects and lead to large-scale redundancies across the sector, driving the best of our scientists abroad. These plans are bad not only for science, but for the economy as a whole because it is only through growth triggered by research and innovation that this country can hope to recover from the mess that it is currently in.

As scientists and as people who care about this country’s future we can not allow these cuts to go ahead. I will be attending an event at the Conway Hall in London organised by Science is Vital to campaign against these reckless plans. I encourage you to do likewise. I don’t know if the government will listen, but we have to try.

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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