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Wednesday, December 12, 2007

The STFC - Danger to UK Astronomy Physics

Someone in comments has made the point that particle physics is hardly unscathed in this. This is very true, my emphasis on astronomy and especially STP came from the RAS response and my own 'bias'. In fact my post could be read as this being an astronomy vs. particle physics issue when it most certainly isn't. As STFC have said there will be cuts across the entire programme and that includes particle physics.

This seems to me to be more about science vs. facilities. This is the thing we worried about before the creation of STFC as I mentioned below. How do we keep the science grants protected from the vagaries of managing and maintaining large scale facilities and the associated costs? It seems we don't. Colleagues have commented to me that they think the new strategy strongly emphasizes the technology rather than the science. Be your own judge.

It has been pointed out to me that I am wrong to suggest that Diamond or ISIS are particle physics facilities. I gladly correct that mistake by pointing out that these are in fact for research in a number of disciplines not limited to, but seemingly primarily, materials science. This is even worse. Astronomy, particle and solar terrestrial physics grants are being hit for instruments that seem, primarily, for users in disciplines unaffected by the cuts.


Well here I am sat way up in the north of Norway running an experiment on the ionospheric radars here. Anyway it is pleasant enough but with funding shortages it is a bit like a ghost town during the day as many of the staff have gone.

Well, here I am minding my own business and what do I see on the BBC news website? This:

The government is to review its funding for physics after scientists warned of an £80m research shortfall.

Leading physicists criticised the threatened cutbacks which they said could"damage" physics research.

This is actually an update to the story as I read it yesterday morning. So what is this all about?

An excerpt from a letter by the President of the Royal Astronomical Society on their website:

STFC has been grappling with a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement for 2008-11 which, while slightly above the rate of inflation, amounts to a 7% cut of their budget when Full Economic Costs and the running costs of new facilities like the Diamond Light Source are taken into account. This has left the STFC some £80m short of the funding it needs to maintain research at its current level.

Some background:
The STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) is a relatively new research council that was formed through combining PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) with CCLRC (Central Laboratory of the Research Councils) and taking on responsibility for nuclear physics from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It was formed on April 1st 2007; make of that what you will.

Not only do they fund particle and nuclear physics, astronomy and space science as well as various facilities but they also cover solar terrestrial physics. This is my field. STFC consider it a part of astronomy.

In the run up to the formation of STFC worries were raised over the way in which funding for large instruments would be balanced against actual research. I know this was a hot topic of conversation amongst scientists, I was one of them. I recall that assurances were given that the research would be safe. Though funnily enough I don't think we had anything written down. Hmm. our first mistake there.

Now lets look at what has now happened, from the BBC:
The STFC claims it was aware(sic) of higher than planned running costs of new prestige research facilities, such as the Diamond Synchrotron, near Oxford.
One can only assume that should be 'unaware' otherwise this is hardly a defence for not budgeting correctly.

Come to think of it it is hardly a defence anyway. It is their job to be aware of the costs and to budget for them properly. Do you know what they would say to my boss if she told them that she had misbudgeted on the grant they gave her? They would tell her that it was tough. Thus one can understand the government might be less than pleased with this.

What it comes down to is that in one of their fundamental roles - assessing the needs of the community and then obtaining the necessary funding from the government the STFC has failed at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps they took their eye off the ball, that might explain such a failure at the most basic level. I know they were very concerned with creating a brand new master science strategy and that probably took up all the time they would normally spend on making sure they asked for the correct amount of money. More on that later.

Back to the BBC:
The council asked for additional funding to cover these costs but it is understood that officials within the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) were reluctant to make more funding available.The STFC was told no extra money would be forthcoming and that they would have to find savings within the agreed budget.
Hah. No surprise there. At least they have now had the decency to say that they are reviewing the earlier decision. I doubt extra money will appear; remember this does not seem to be a government cock-up, appearances suggest that this is a cock-up by the STFC and something that the top-level of management should do well to consider.

It initially suggested that the least worst option was to close the synchrotron radiation source in Daresbury, near Manchester, earlier than planned.

But this option was vetoed by ministers after representations from Labour MPs in north-west England.

I cannot blame local MPs for lobbying to keep the synchrotron at Daresbury open. They are looking after their local constituents. It is due to close next year anyway. I would be interested to know how much savings could have been made through early closure.

This is the killer though:
As a result, there are likely to be cuts the across the council's entire research programme, including particle physics, astronomy and laser physics.
So since in the past (and again more recently) it was decided that Astronomy and Particle Physics would be funded by the same body it now seems that due to overspends on behalf of the latter discipline (but as far as we can tell, not their fault) astronomy is going to be badly hit as well. If we are safeguarding Diamond and ISIS, I can hardly see them reducing our contribution to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It is even more worrying:

It is also feared that several hundred highly qualified scientists could lose their jobs.

One researcher told BBC News he feared the UK could end up with some of the finest facilities in the world, but without enough scientists and funding to fully exploit them.

Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said astronomy faced its worst financial settlement for decades, with many research programmes facing the axe.

"I have it from a very reliable source that we are looking at a 25% cut in grants over the next three years," he said.

"Programme cuts could even result in some existing research grants being cancelled. Both of these are truly awful for universities."


That is huge. My selfish side has to wonder that since the overspend seem to have come as a result of building certain facilities, perhaps the disciplines associated with those facilities should bear the brunt. But then how sensible is it to have new facilities if they cannot afford to fund anyone to use them?

The burn has already started. The UK pulled out of the Gemini telescopes in mid-November which caused a massive stir amongst UK astronomers.

Now for a little secret, the heads of STFC have made it quite clear what they think of solar-terrestrial physics (they don't think we have made our case over the worth of our science - none of them are solar or solar terrestrial physicists) and so I know exactly who is going to be cut deepest. Most of our ground-based instrumentation was cleared out last year by PPARC (same top management as STFC) and a new strategy delivery document has appeared which says that we are going to disinvest from all UK STP ground-based facilities (including this big radar I am sitting by).

This affects me personally since the announcement of whether we are funded for the next five years is about to be made. I fully expect that my job is about to disappear.

But reading about what is going on and how STFC failed in their first duty I have to wonder whether the right person could be losing their job?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

"So since in the past (and again more recently) it was decided that Astronomy and Particle Physics would be funded by the same body it now seems that due to overspends on behalf of the latter discipline (but as far as we can tell, not their fault) astronomy is going to be badly hit as well"

Actually ISIS is not a particle physics facility. It just uses similar technology. It will be used by e.g. material sciences.

And particle physics has been hard too (pulling out of the lienar collider for a start)