Archive for Research Funding

Unravelling Cable

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on September 8, 2010 by telescoper

I woke up this morning with the Vince Cable Blues, owing to an item on the BBC News concerning a speech by the Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills that clearly signals that the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review will entail big cuts to the UK’s science budget.

It was a depressing way to start the day, but I for one wasn’t particularly surprised by the news. We all know big cuts are coming, the only remaining questions are “how big?” and “where?”. However, when the text of the speech was released, I was shocked by what it revealed about the Secretary of State’s grasp of his brief.  Read it for yourself and see if you agree with me.

Vince Cable: Out of his Depth

Of course there are the obligatory  platitudes about the quality of the UK’s scientific research, a lot of flannel about the importance of “blue skies” thinking, before he settles on the utilitarian line favoured by the Treasury mandarins who no doubt wrote his speech for him: greater concentration of research funding into areas that are “theoretically outstanding” (judged how?) or “commercially useful” (when?). In fact one wonders what the point of this speech was, as it said very little that was specific except that the government is going to cut science. We knew that already.

For what it’s worth I’ll repeat my own view that “commercially useful” research should not be funded by the taxpayer through research grants. If it’s going to pay off in the short term it should be funded by private investors or venture capitalists of some sort. Dragon’s Den, even. When the public purse is so heavily constrained, it should only be asked to fund those things that can’t in practice be funded any other way. That means long-term, speculative, curiosity driven research. You know, science.

So was Cable’s speech was feeble-minded, riddled with clichés, and totally lacking in depth or detail? Yes.  Was it surprising? No.

What was surprising, at least to me, is Cable’s deliberate use of spurious numbers to back up his argument. For example,

Its is worth noting in the last RAE 54 per cent of submitted work was defined as world class and that is the area where funding should be concentrated.

This appears to be what Cable  was referring to when he stated on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme that  “45% of research grants were not of excellent standard”.

For one thing, there’s a difference between a research grant and the money allocated by HEFCE through the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE); more about that in a moment. Moreover, at least in England,  RAE funding is only allocated to grades 3* and 4* anyway, so the concentration he talks about is already happening. The comment is made all the more meaningless, however, because the 54% was actually imposed on the assessment panels anyway; they were told to match the outcome of their deliberations to a target profile. The figure quoted is therefore hardly an objective measure of the quality of scientific research in the UK.

When it comes to research grants – usually obtained from one of the Research Councils, such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) scientists apply for funding and their proposals are assessed by panels. In the case of STFC I can assure every one that the only proposals funded are those graded excellent, and there isn’t anything like enough money to fund all the proposals graded that way. Further cuts will simply mean that  even more excellent research will have to be scrapped, and even more excellent scientists will  go abroad.

This basic misunderstanding convinces me that Vince Cable is completely out of his depth in this job. That’s very unfortunate because it means he will probably be susceptible to manipulation by the dark side (i.e. the anti-science lobby in Whitehall). Already  someone – most likely a Civil Service mandarin with an axe to grind – seems to have  duped him into thinking that 45% of  taxpayer’s money funds mediocre research. What with him already singing so enthusiastically from the Treasury hymn sheet, I fear they have got him exactly where they want him. Rarely has a new arrival in the Whitehall jungle gone native so quickly.

Another remark of his that was quoted today is that “the bar will have to be raised somewhat” in terms of  science funding.  At the next General Election I hope the British people, especially those foolish enough to opt for the Liberal Democrats last time, will “raise the bar” when it comes to deciding who is worthy of their vote. I’m sure of one thing, though. The fraction of British politicians who are “mediocre” is an awful lot higher than 45%.


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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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Stay of Execution

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on June 22, 2010 by telescoper

Another beautiful summer’s day here in Cardiff just happened to be the day when the new ConDem government unleashed its much-feared budget. I suppose we were all expecting some combination of  tax rises and spending cuts but nodody I know had managed to predict the details. A big rise in VAT (to 20%) is the headline figure most of the newspapers seem to be running with, but the other side is the one that caught my eye;  average cuts of 25% in “unprotected” Whitehall departments. That means basically everything outside Health and Education, and “Education” doesn’t include Higher Education which falls within the remit of the Department of Business Innovation and Skills.  Universities (in England; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland run their own budgets for HE) and the Research Councils are therefore bracing themselves for cuts of 25% or even more; if some departments are cut less than this average, then some will be cut more…

For informed comment, see here and here.

However, the details of how these cuts will be implemented – and, of particular relevance to me, how much the Science and Technology Facilities Council will be chopped – will have to wait until the Comprehensive Spending Review to be announced in October 2010. No doubt the STFC Executive will be using all their political skills and powers of persuasion to argue for a positive settlement. Like they did last time. In other words, we’re doomed.

Incidentally, you can hear Lord Rees’ scathing comments about the inept management of STFC here, although to so involves shaking hands with the devil that is iTunes.

There’s also a two-year freeze on public sector salaries – again, not entirely unexpected – but obviously that will only apply to those who keep their jobs after the departmental budgets are cut by a quarter.

Anyway, no point in griping. We all knew this was coming. The big question now is whether the increases in unemployment and tax rises will stop our feeble economic recovery in its tracks, and how badly the cuts in investment will jeoparside future growth. I’m not sufficiently knowledgeable about economics to comment sensibly on this.

Coincidentally today was also the day that STFC Council met here in Cardiff. Of course they did so behind closed doors, but they also had a quick tour of the buildings and a briefing by our Head of School, Swiss Tony Walter Gear. I’m told one of the Council members asked “Excuse me, but what is Planck?”. Apparently the question was posed by one of the non-scientists on STFC Council. So that’s alright then.

Still, there’s always the elimination of France from the World Cup to gladden the heart of an Englishman. Like STFC, the England  football team will learn its fate soon eough …

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