Archive for DIUS

Good News, Bad News

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on May 1, 2009 by telescoper

Further to my gloomy prognosis about the implications of the Budget for astronomy research, I’ve managed to glean the following interpretation of the outcome for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

Just to remind you that the situation before the budget settlement was announced last week was truly dire, with  falling exchange rates leading to rises in the cost of subscriptions putting pressure on an already overstretched STFC budget. In fact, STFC actually underspent last year but was not allowed to carry the underspend forward into the tax year beginning this April so that has done nothing to help the imminent financial meltdown. The overall  shortfall for 2009-10 was estimated pre-budget to be about £80 million, meaning that £80 million of current commitments would have to be ditched if nothing was done.

First, the good news. After the budget it has emerged that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS)  has taken steps to “lend” STFC money to plug the shortfall arising from exchange rate fluctuations. This means the actual shortfall is not going to be as large as the previous estimate.

Now the bad news. There is no new money for STFC,  and there is consequently still a serious gap in the finances. There will have to be about £20 million savings this financial year (against current commitment) and about £30 million next year. Not as bad as £80 million, but still very tough.

At this moment the powers that be are dusting off the Programmatic Review which involved the prioritisation of missions and facilities within the STFC remit. There is also yet another review of ground-based astronomy which is meant to be a long-term thing, but will presumably inform the decision-making process in the short term too.

A line had previously drawn as far down the  list of priorities as funding would permit. Now the available funds are less the line will have to rise and some astronomical projects that thought they were safe will have to be ditched after all. This also depends on whether STFC saves money in other ways,  such as from the grants line or by internal savings within its own administration.

It will be a nervous wait for many of us to see where and the axe will fall next…

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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.

Executive Roast

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on February 6, 2009 by telescoper

The Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (Keith Mason) was recently summoned to the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills. The video of his inquisition is now available for your enjoyment (but not his) here.

(I tried embedding this using vodpod but it didn’t work, so you’ll just have to click the link…)

Notice how in traditional fashion the light was shining in his eyes throughout. I suppose I should really feel sorry for him, but somehow I don’t. He may not be entirely responsible for the budgetary crisis currently engulfing STFC, but he handled the aftermath so badly that the damage done to relations between STFC and the community of physics researchers that rely on it for funding will take a long time to fix.

Anyway, if you can’t be bothered to watch the whole show here are some of the salient points in a summary that was passed to me by an anonymous source; I was too busy laughing to make my own notes, but I’ve added a few comments in italics. For those of you not up with acronyms, DIUS is the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and CSR stands for the Comprehensive Spending Review.

KM insisted that STFC had been successful in giving the UK unprecedented opportunities for doing world class science, and by the end (though by that stage his most aggressive interlocutor, Ian Gibson, had left) appeared to have earned the committee’s grudging respect (though I suspect that was for the way he played a tricky wicket as much as because he had persuaded them out of their deep concerns about his management of the STFC)

Among the many issues raised were the following:

  • KM agreed to hand over the letter detailing the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s 2007 spending review allocation to MPs for scrutiny.
  • He denied that the external review of STFC had been a “total
    whitewash” on the grounds that it had not been given sufficient time to thoroughly interview a cross section of staff during the review or to do other than take the STFC’s self-assessment document, upon which their work was based, at “face value” without being able to find out if the majority of STFC staff actually agreed with its content. On the contrary staff had made their views known ‘vociferously’.
  • Challenged about the perceived overrepresentation of the executive council on the STFC council KM said that, while it had affected the perception held in the community, it made “no difference” to the outcomes (a point which the committee repeatedly contested). He added that STFC takes full account of community input via the advisory panels and science board. It’s simply not true, he insisted, that the executive dominates the Council;  rather it ensures it is properly informed so that decisions are well founded. However he acknowledged that communications had not been good – hence the new arrangements (Director of Communications appointment); Great, another spin doctor – PC .
  • An extra GBP 9M had been freed up by DIUS reducing STFC’s liabilities to exchange rate variations from the first 6 to 3 m pa over the triennium. Of this 6 would go to exploitation grants and 3 to HEIs to promote knowledge transfer. So 6M will be used properly and the rest wasted – PC .
  • He stated that Jodrell Bank had no long term future in radio astronomy since its location exposed it to too much ‘noise’ – but that was for Manchester University (which STFC would continue to support via E-MERLIN and SKA) to determine. It will take a silver bullet to kill that particular zombie -PC
  • KM also voiced the opinion that here was no tension between being simultaneously responsible for developing STFC labs/campuses and funding HEIs through grants; on the contrary it enabled better utilisation of resources bearing in mind the role of STFC which is BOTH to promote science AND its societal /economic benefits. In other words he wants the flexibility to continue robbing Peter to pay Paul – PC
  • For this reason (as well as reasons of administrative complexity)
    STFC had rejected Wakeham’s recommendation to ring fence the ex-PPARC budget line in the forthcoming CSR. Ditto
  • KM argued that  Daresbury was not being treated unfairly in relation to Harwell (there was a good deal of probing about this by North West MPs) .

My own view having watched most of the video is that Professor Mason must have an incredibly thick skin to shrug off such a sustained level of antipathy. Some of it is crude and abusive, but it’s quite impressive how well informed some of the members are.