Archive for RCUK

Farewell to the Haldane Principle?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 17, 2010 by telescoper

Many scientists – myself included – were so relieved at the outcome of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review that we thought the government had accepted the argument that Science is Vital more-or-less completely. Most of us have stopped worrying about whether we’re going to have to go about to carry on doing science and just got on with doing it for the past few weeks.

However, today I came across some worrying news about planned changes to the way the science budget is administered in the UK. In particular, the post currently occupied by Adrian Smith Director General for Science and Research – is to be phased out. The position will be merged with what are currently other separate positions within the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to form a single Director General covering science, universities, research and innovation.

There’s nothing intrinsically sinister about administrative reorganisation, of course, and one can understand that a certain amount of streamlining might well be justified in order to save costs at a time of economic challenge. However, there are worrying signs about this particular change.

One thing is that the new post has only been advertised to civil servants. Apparently there will no longer be a scientist in a position to speak up for science among the higher management of BIS. Adrian Smith is not only an effective manager – as demonstrated by his past success as Principal of Queen Mary, University of London – but is also a respected figure in the field of mathematical statistics. I suspect this combination of skills and gravitas played a big role in securing a reasonably satisfactory outcome for science in the CSR.

Another worrying thing is that the planned reorganisation apparently hasn’t even been discussed with the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington. Former Chief Scientific Advisor Lord May has reacted angrily to the new proposals, calling them “stupid, ignorant and politically foolish”. Strong stuff.

On top of all this is the apparent ambivalence expressed by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, about the Haldane Principle, which has underpinned British science policy for decades. Roughly speaking, this principle states that it should be researchers rather than politicians who should decide where research funds should be spent.

Willetts recently responded to a question about the Haldane Principle in the form of a Parliamentary written answer:

The Haldane principle is an important cornerstone for the protection of the scientific independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.

The principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers through peer review is strongly supported by the coalition Government. Prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. Such decisions are rightly left to those best placed to evaluate the scientific quality, excellence and likely impact of scientific programmes.

The Government do, however, need to take a view on the overall level of funding to science and research and they have decided to protect and to ring fence the science and research budget for the next four years. This decision has been made in the context of the current economic status of the UK and the strategic importance of research funding, while recognising the value of science to our future growth, prosperity and cultural heritage.

Over the years there has been some uncertainty over the interpretation of the Haldane principle. I intend to clarify this is a statement which will be released alongside the science and research budget allocations towards the end of this year. In order that this statement has the consent of the research community, I intend to consult with senior figures in the UK science and research community to develop a robust statement of the Haldane principle.

A superficial reading of this does start out by giving the impression that it strongly supports the  principle. However, I’m not aware of what  “uncertainty” there is over its application that requires such clarification. I rather think this is being put up as  an excuse to limit its scope, i.e. that the uncertainty is more about how the political establishment can get around it rather than what it actually means.

The fact that the  “robust statement” of a Revised Version of the  Haldane Principle is going to be wheeled out just when the allocations to the research councils are announced makes me very nervous that its prime function will be to justify big cuts in fundamental science in favour of applied research.

This all seems to add up to  a systematic attempt to sideline the scientists currently involved in the development of UK science policy development and its implementation. If nothing else, it seems rather strange from a political point of view to try to bring about this change in a way that is bound to alienate large sections of the scientific community, just when the government seemed to be recognizing the importance of science for the UK.

But then, perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Maybe we just have a new government that’s trying to do too much too quickly, and happens to have made a botch of this particular job…

You can find other blog posts on this issue, e.g.  here and here.


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The Great Escape? Not yet.

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on October 20, 2010 by telescoper

I expected to wake up this morning with the blues all round my bed, about the results of the Comprehensive Spending Review about to be announced today, but news appearing in the Guardian and the BBC websites last night suggested that the UK Science budget may, repeat may, be spared the worst of the cuts.

This news has been greeted with euphoria in the science community, as we were expecting much worse than the settlement suggested by the news. The RCUK budget, it seems, will be fixed in cash terms around £3.5 billion per annum for four years, as will the approximately £1bn distributed for research through HEFCE’s QR mechanism. This translates into a real terms cut that depends on what figure you pick for inflation over this period. The Treasury suggests it will corresponding to a 10% reduction figured that way, but inflation has defied predictions and remained higher than expected over the past three years so things could be different. Also important to note is that this budget (amounting to around £4.6 billion) is to be ring-fenced within RCUK.

So why the apparent change of heart? Well, I don’t know for sure, but I think the Science is Vital campaign played a very big part in this. Huge congratulations are due to Jenny Rohn and the rest of the team for doing such a fantastic job. The Guardian makes this clear, stating that science is usually a non-issue for the Treasury, but this time it was

high on the political radar because strong representations have been made by the scientific community about what they have described as “long term and irreversible” damage to the UK economy if there are deep cuts to research funding.

That means everyone who wrote to their MP or lobbied or went on the demo really did make a difference. Give yourselves a collective pat on the back!

BUT (and it’s a very big BUT) we’re by no means out of the woods yet, at least not those of us who work in astronomy and particle physics. As the BBC article makes clear, the level cash settlement for RCUK comes with an instruction that “wealth creation” be prioritised. The budget for RCUK covers all the research councils, who will now have to make their pitch to RCUK for a share of the pie. It’s unlikely that it will be flat cash for everyone. There will be winners and losers, and there’s no prize for guessing who the likely losers are.

The performance of the STFC Executive during the last CSR should also be born in mind. STFC did very poorly then at a time when the overall funding allocation for science was relatively generous, and precipitated a financial crisis that STFC’s management still hasn’t properly come to grips with. The track-record doesn’t inspire me with confidence. Moreover, at a town meeting in London in December 2007 at which the Chief Executive of STFC presented a so-called delivery plan to deal with the crisis he led his organisation into, he confidently predicted a similarly poor settlement in the next CSR. Talk about a self-fulfilling prophecy. Let’s hope they get their act together better this time.

Taking all this together it remains by no means improbable that the STFC budget could be squeezed until the pips squeak in order to liberate funds to spend elsewhere within RCUK on things that look more likely to generate profits quickly. The nightmare scenario I mentioned a few days ago is still on the cards.

As we all know, STFC’s budget is dominated by large fixed items so its science programme is especially vulnerable. As the BBC puts it

So any cut in [STFC’s] budget will be greatly magnified and it is expected that it will have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.

We could have to wait until December to find out the STFC budget, so the anxiety is by no means over. However, the ring-fencing of RCUK’s budget within BIS may bring that forward a bit as it would appear to suggest one level of negotations could be skipped. We might learn our fate sooner than we thought.

Overall, this is a good result in the circumstances. Although it’s a sad state of affairs when a >10% real terms cut is presented as a success, it’s far less bad than many of us had expected. But I think STFC science remains in grave danger. It’s not an escape, just a stay of execution.

But there is one important lesson to be learned from this. When the STFC crisis broke three years ago, reaction amongst scientists was muted. Fearful of rocking the boat, we sat on our hands as the crisis worsened. I hope that the success of the Science is Vital campaign has convinced you that keeping quiet and not making a fuss is exactly the wrong thing to do.

If only we’d been braver three years ago.


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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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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.


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Negative Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by telescoper

After spending the best part of the last couple of days being prodded and poked and subjected to all manner of indignity in the name of medical science, I think it’s appropriate to return to the blogosphere with another rant. Before I start, however, I’d seriously like to thank everyone at the University Hospital of Wales at Heath Park  for making my visit there as brief and painless as possible. Everyone was very kind and very efficient. I’m not going to blog about the details, as Columbo doesn’t like reading about other peoples’ ailments.

Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about the UK government’s agenda for research, particularly science research, that includes something called “impact”. The Research Excellence Framework (REF; successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, RAE) will include such a thing:

Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life

Apparently, however, they don’t really know how to do this so they have set up a number of pilot studies to try to find out. I’d feel a little more comfortable if the bureaucrats had thought about what they were going to do before announcing that our future research funds were going to depend on it. Meanwhile, applicants for grants from any of the research councils must  include a statement of the “economic or social” impact their research will have.

Understandably, those of us working in “blue skies” research are very nervous about this new regime. There is more than a suspicion that the new emphasis on impact is intended to divert funds away from “pure” curiosity driven research and into areas where it can have an immediately identifiable short-term economic benefit. This has led to a petition, with over 13000 signatures, by the University and College Union calling for the impact statements to be abandoned.

I don’t know who is going to assess these impact statements, but unless they have a flawless ability to predict future technology I don’t think fundamental physics is going to score very well at all. To see my point, consider the case of  J. J. Thomson, who is generally credited with having discovered the electron and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1906. Thomson made extensive use of cathode ray tubes in his studies; these later found their way into sitting rooms across the world as essential components of the classic television set. But that took decades. I doubt if an impact panel looking at Thomson’s work – even if they were physicists rather than grey-suited bureaucrats – would have found any of it likely to lead to immediate economic benefit. The point is that when he discovered the electron it wasn’t because he was actually trying to invent the television set.

I think there are basically two possible interpretations of this impact business. One is that it is a deliberate plan to wind down fundamental research and use the money saved to subsidise UK industry. The other is that it’s another exercise in pointless box-ticking. I am in two minds. On the one hand, it is clear that the recent behaviour of the Science and Technology Facilities Council shows strong evidence of the former. Fundamental research is being slashed, yet projects involving space technology have been funded on the nod without scientific  peer review. On the other hand, the RCUK Impact “Champion”, a person by the name of David Delpy, has written in the Times Higher to defend the new agenda. Consider the following paragraph

Recently I have read that some believe it is impossible to predict the economic impact of blue-skies research. To be clear, we are not asking for accurate predictions – simply a consideration of potential. Basic research underpins all disciplines and builds pathways to new technologies with economic and social applications. It may build on an existing body of knowledge, connect to other research around the world or attract new industries to the UK. There are many routes to impact. I believe that I could write a statement indicating potential impact for any proposal I have seen, and to hear that bright academics say they can’t do it sounds a little disingenuous.

Champion Delpy thus suggests he could write a statement for any proposal he has seen, which sounds to me like an admission that what is called for is just a load of flannel. In fact, if he’s paid to be the Impact Champion perhaps he should write all the bullshit and save us scientists the need to jump through these silly hoops? Or perhaps we could get one of those little Microsoft Office Assistant things:

Hello. Looks like you’re writing an Impact Assessment. Would you like me to pad it out with meaningless but impressive-looking socio-economic buzzwords for you?

If it’s just another exercise in vacuous bureaucracy then it’s bad enough, but if it is the other possibility then of course it’s even worse. It could be the end for disciplines like astronomy and particle physics as well as the end of Britain’s history of excellence in those areas. I’ve already blogged about my view of short-termism in research funding. Essentially, my point is that government money should be used to fund precisely those things that don’t have immediate economic benefit. Those that do should be funded by the beneficiaries, i.e. commercial companies.

Politicians probably think that all this complaining about impact means that scientists  are arrogantly assuming that the taxpayer should fund them regardless of the cost or the benefit. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s very unfair. I’m very conscious that my research is funded by Joe Public; that’s one of the reasons I think I should spend time giving public talks and doing other outreach activities. But I think the public funds me and others like me to do “useless” things because, in the end, useless things are more important than money.

The government is probably right to say that the UK economy doesn’t benefit as much from our scientific expertise as is the case with other countries. The reason for that, however, lies not with our universities and research laboratories but with our private industrial and commercial sectors which are, for the most part, managed with a very low level of competence. British universities are demonstrably excellent; our industry is demonstrably feeble. The persistent failure of the private sector to invest in research and development shows that it is in drastic need of a good shake up. British companies, not the taxpayer, should be paying for research that leads to profit for them and for that to happen they will have to learn to engage better with the University sector rather than expecting inventions to be served up on a plate funded by the taxpayer. Universities and research labs should continue do what they’re good at,  maintaining a culture within which curiosity and learning are promoted for their own sake not just as part of the dreary materialistic cycle of production and consumption that is all we seem to be able to think about these days.

So at the end I’ve come to the conclusion that, perhaps, insofar as it can be demonstrated, economic impact should be included in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. Research which leads directly to the economic gain of the private sector is  precisely the type of research that the taxpayer should not be paying for. If it can be proven that a given department has engaged in such activity, its state funding should therefore be cut and it should be told to recover the funds it has misused from the company that has benefitted from it. Economic impact should be included with a negative weight.

And if you think that’s a silly point of view, consider what happens with the other major part of a university’s activity, teaching. Students, we are told, are the primary beneficiaries of their education so they should have to pay fees. In the current regime, however, they only do so when their earnings reach a certain level. If commercial companies are to be the primary beneficiaries of state-funded research, why should they not likewise be asked to pay for it?