“We are looking forward to the next few months – they will be challenging”

These were the words that opened the concluding sentence in the response of the Science and Technology Facilities Council to an article in the Sunday Times. Aficionados of business jargon will recognise the turn of phrase as something said by institutions hoping to persuade people that they’re keeping their heads above the water when in fact Davey Jones has all but laid out the canapes for their arrival. The sentence concludes with “but an exciting opportunity to set the course for the future”, which aficionados of STFC funding crises will recognise as “time to trim out some of those disciplines we never really wanted to fund and reshape an entire area of physics in the way we would like it to look”. Solar terrestrial physics was the victim last time, with the near destruction of the Scandinavian ionospheric radars (run internationally) as the totemic loss. This time the Sunday Times reported that CERN’s Large Hadron Collider and the European Southern Observatory might be the sacrificial cows this time.

Now I’m no fan of Lord Drayson (who tweets here), but even he recognises that pulling out of such a thing at such a time would be idiotic and it is believed he slapped down the STFC rather quickly before reassuring people. All we know is that soon the response was up and both CERN and the ESO were safe for the time being…

Drayson acted rapidly in response to a growing twitter campaign, #saveUKscience, spearheaded by particle physicist, sometime pop star and occasional tv and radio host Professor Brian Cox, who tweets here. But the cause of the campaign – STFC seem to be lining up programs for cuts in response to another funding problem whose origins seem murkier than the £80 million accounting error that came with the creation of STFC from PPARC and CCLRC – is still with us. As Cox says, it is likely the Sunday Times didn’t make up the story, but reported on STFC thinking the unthinkable as to where cuts may or may not be made.

The last time STFC tried to mess about with the makeup of UK Physics, they ended up getting us thrown out of the Gemini Telescopes temporarily and looked down upon by all our international partners who were seething at them. Now it appears that with an emphasis entirely on ‘wow’ physics and ‘immediate economic benefit‘ (engineering projects rather than physics), STFC are positioning themselves again for a hopelessly short-term outlook, which threatens an abandonment of the fundamental physics that drives these things. Without the esoteric discussions of quantum physics, we’d likely have no semiconductors with which to build our computers. No masers from which to create lasers and no CERN, a small spinoff from which was the world wide web. As Dr Ian O’Neil mentions in an article on the Brain Drain (the international market in scientists, where different countries offer different conditions on their employment and they choose from them), we have to look forward to the long term economic benefits of fundamental foundations from which we can engineer immediately useful solutions to our pressing needs.

So like I said last time. Sack Keith Mason.

UPDATE: According to the Institute of Physics statement in response to the same article, the present financial problems stem from the Treasury making research councils liable for currency fluctuations. In other words in the past when an international subscription started, if the pound weakened relative to that currency, making the subscription more expensive, then the Treasury would cover the difference. Now they don’t. Peanuts to the Treasury, quite a difference to the research councils, especially given the present state of the pound, though only one appears to have suffered…

UPDATE: Lord Drayson has replied to the above by saying STFC in fact received £50 million in additional funding to cover exchange rate fluctuations. He states that the present £40 million shortfall is due to a loan STFC took out, which they knew full well would have to be repaid now.

UPDATE: As well as awarding one year grants instead of the usual five year grants, STFC has cancelled outreach funding through the Large Awards scheme, which provided up to £100k for public outreach events. This is an interesting way to capitalise on and see out the International Year of Astronomy, 2009, during which many more eyes than usual have turned towards the skies globally…

UPDATE: The Institute of Physics suggests we’re looking at ‘deep cuts’ in physics funding across the board. Remember the last STFC crisis saw savage cuts and a £40 million loan to get rid of an £80 million deficit. Now the loan needs to be repaid with no other loans forthcoming, suggesting funding cuts of a similar magnitude this time round. This news was conveniently released at the same time as the announcement of a UK Space Agency and a different set of cuts – £600 million from the total budget for UK universities, which could also have an impact on physics departments in the affected institutions, with the Government still able to claim they’ve ring fenced the direct science budget. But where will the cuts be aimed? The Gemini Observatory, almost lost to UK eyes in the last round of cuts, fears it is on the list this time, a fear also expressed by the IoP. Meanwhile nuclear physicists are worried they’ll be the targets of an STP style cull in this round, according to the Guardian. Meanwhile, the Opposition have been spelling out their own attitude to science funding.

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4 responses to ““We are looking forward to the next few months – they will be challenging”

  1. Hi Phil,

    Great summary! And thanks a lot for the mention! 🙂

    From my perspective, 5000 miles away, there appears to be one recurring cycle with the STFC:

    1) The UK press publish leaked news about forthcoming cuts to major projects.
    2) Gov’t ministers make a public announcement that they are astonished and shocked at the news.
    3) The STFC issue a statement saying the UK press is incorrect/lying.
    4) The project in question is saved!
    5) Gov’t minister is a hero.
    6) Then… other, smaller projects, less likely to draw attention are culled instead.

    So, in this LHC fiasco, I think plans were afoot to scale back the UK’s commitment to CERN, but the STFC were nowhere near formulating a final plan. The Times got a hold of the info, printed it, pre-empting the council. Now, Lord Drayson had to step in, calling the plan nonsense (it really is a silly plan) and the STFC has to look elsewhere to make the cuts.

    As with the Gemini issue in 2008, smaller projects will suffer now that the LHC isn’t on the chopping block.

    They need to still make up that £80 million deficit from somewhere…

    Cheers, Ian

    PS. I still find the acronym “STFC” hilarious, as when I first found out that PPARC was going to be absorbed into the super-council, I wondered: what the hell has Stafford Town Football Club got to do with physics? True story.

    • Thanks Ian,

      No probs on the mention, that’s pretty much my reading on it too, though I do see a potential split in that my supervisor taught me to refer to the council as Swindon Town Football Club… His office mate chairs a few committees there and isn’t impressed…

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