Archive for postdoctoral

No Science Please, We’re British

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2010 by telescoper

The time is getting closer when the Condem government’s hatchet men announce the detailed plans for spending cuts over the next few years. Those of us scientists working in British universities face an anxious few weeks waiting to see how hard the axe is going to fall. Funds for both teaching and research seem likely to be slashed and there’s fear of widespread laboratory closures across the sector, particularly in “pure” science that doesn’t satisfy the current desire for a rapid return on investment.

The mood is pretty accurately summarised by an article in the Guardian, in which John Womersley (who is the Director of Science Programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council) pointed out the very real possibility that the UK might be forced to mothball expensive national facilities such the recently built Diamond Light Source and/or withdraw from international collaborations such as CERN (which would also entail pulling out of the Large Hadron Collider). Astronomers also fear that cuts to STFC might force us to withdraw from the European Southern Observatory, which would basically destroy our international competitiveness in a field which for so long we have been world-leading. Withdrawal from CERN would similarly ensure the end of particle physics in Britain.

As well as the loss of facilities and involvement in ongoing international research programmes, big cuts in science funding – especially at STFC – will also lead to a “lost generation” of young scientists having little or no opportunity to carry out their research here in Britain. In fact the process of throwing away the UK’s future as a scientific nation has already begun and is likely to accelerate even without further cuts this year.

The STFC budgets for training young scientists at both postgraduate and postdoctoral levels were slashed even before the General Election because STFC was formed in 2007 with insufficient funds to meet its commitments. The total funding for research grants in astronomy – which is how many postdoctoral researchers are trained has been squeezed by an unsustainable level of 40% already. Many young scientists, whose contracts have been terminated with virtually no notice, have not unreasonably decided that the UK can offer them nothing but a kick in the teeth and gone abroad, taking their expertise (which was developed thanks to funding provided by the UK taxpayer) to one of our competitors in the global economy.

Some say the previous funding crisis was due to downright incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive, some say it was part of a deliberate policy at the RCUK level to steer funding away from pure science towards technology-related areas. Either way the result is clear. Opportunities for young British scientists to do scientific research have been severely curtailed. Another round of cuts to STFC of the 25% being talked about by the new government will certainly lead to wholesale closures of labs and observatories, the withdrawal from international commitments such as CERN and ESO, and the loss of irreplaceable expertise to other countries.

On top of this, it seems not only STFC but also other research councils (such as EPSRC) are talking about clawing back funds they have already granted, by reneging on contracts they have already signed with Universities to fund research by scientists carried out there. If this does happen, there will be a catastrophic breakdown of trust between University-based scientists and the government government that will probably never be healed.

This government risks destroying the foundations of scientific excellence that have taken over 300 years to build, and all for what level of saving? The annual subscription the UK pays to CERN is about £70 million, a couple of pounds per British taxpayer per year, and a figure that most bankers would regard as small change. It would be madness to throw away so much long-term benefit to save so little in terms of short-term cost.

In the Guardian article, John Womersley is quoted as saying

Our competitor nations such as Germany and the US are investing in science and engineering right now because they recognise that they stimulate economic growth and can help to rebalance the economy. It is pretty obvious that if the UK does the exact opposite, those companies will look elsewhere. That would deepen the deficit – in a recession you need to invest in science and engineering to reap the benefits, not cut back.

Of course we don’t know how the Comprehensive Spending Review will turn out and there may be still time to influence the deliberations going on in Whitehall. I hope the government can be persuaded to see sense.

I’m trying very hard to be optimistic but, given what happened to STFC in 2007, I have to say I’m very worried indeed for the future of British science especially those areas covered by STFC’s remit. The reason for this is that STFC’s expenditure is dominated by the large facilities needed to do Big Science, many of which are international collaborations.

In order to be active in particle physics, for example, we have to be in CERN and that is both expensive and out of STFC’s control. The cost of paying the scientists to do the science is a relatively small add-on to that fixed cost, and that’s the only bit that can be cut easily. If we cut the science spend there’s no point in being in CERN, but we can’t do the science without being in CERN. The decision to be made therefore rapidly resolves itself into whether we do particle physics or not, a choice which once made would be irreversible (and catastrophic). It’s the same logic for ESO and ground-based astronomy. There’s a real possibility in a few years time that the UK will have killed off at least one of these immensely important areas of science (and possibly others too).

A decade ago such decisions would have been unthinkable, but now apparently they’re most definitely on the cards. I don’t know where it all went wrong, but given the (relatively) meagre sums involved and the fact that it started before the Credit Crunch anyway, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that it’s a deliberate stitch-up by senior mandarins. All I can say is that the future looks so grim I’m glad I’m no longer young.