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Friday, January 11, 2008

Ping-pong goes the blame game

Yesterday (jan 10th, 2008) some questions were raised in parliament by MPs concerned over the loss of jobs and science following the £80 million shortfall in the STFC budget. It was hardly inspiring stuff:

Ann Winterton: Is the Minister aware of the potential damage that will be caused by the Government’s reduction in support for academic research in science and its impact on Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy, including Jodrell Bank observatory, one of the world’s leading astronomical centres, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Lovell telescope? Will he review urgently the £80 million shortfall in research funding to prevent damage to the United Kingdom’s research capacity and effectiveness in physical science, and to its international reputation?

Ian Pearson: It might help the House if I put a couple of facts on record. The budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council is going up over the next three years by 13.6 per cent.—an increase of £185 million over the budgetary period. The STFC will spend £1.9 billion during that three-year period, a significant proportion of which will be spent in the north-west. Like other research councils, the STFC has to make some difficult decisions, and it has to decide what its priorities should be. The Government are concerned about the health of all the disciplines, which is one of the reasons we have asked Research Councils UK to undertake a series of reviews of the health of the disciplines, starting with physics. Bill Wakeham will lead that review, and its terms and references have been scoped out.

First off, regional based questions are a red herring and easily dismissed, although some regions will be hit hardest (the north-west being one of them) the cuts are a UK-wide issue and should be dealt with as such.

Secondly giving the minister the opportunity to flag that actual 13.6% increase is a huge blunder. No one denies this is the case, the problem is that given the increased commitments that STFC has to make (increased subscriptions, FEC, running costs of new facilities and whatever else) a 13.6% increase translates to an £80 million decrease in real terms. That decrease is being heaped disproportionately on the researchers. If we give the government room to argue that it is an increase and then dismiss the actual shortfall then we are failing.

Thirdly, relying on the Wakeham review is a non-starter. By the time the review is over many areas of world class science will have disappeared and it will be too late to do anything about it.

I am not meaning to pick on Ann Winterton I am exceptionally grateful that she, and all the others who asked questions, are making a stand on this and trying to get to the root of the problem. However it is clear that DIUS is taking the attitude that the shortfall is STFC's problem and they should put their own house in order. That means we must learn from what happened yesterday and frame any further questions and inquiries in terms that cannot be danced around!

A later exchange was particularly interesting (emphasis mine):

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Dr. Brian Cox of Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy has said:

“Scientific research is not a luxury, it is a necessity”.

I am concerned that most of the cuts that will occur as a result of the £80 million shortfall will not be to major facilities, but to small grants going to physics and astrophysics departments, not only in the north-west, but throughout the country. What assurances can the Minister give that that bedrock of blue skies research in physics and astrophysics, which brought us things such as the MRI scanner, will be protected?

Ian Pearson: I agree with Dr. Brian Cox that scientific research is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity, and in the north-west, a great deal of world-class scientific research is conducted. During the past few weeks, the university of Liverpool have been developing a model that can predict the risk of any person developing lung cancer in a five-year period. The university of Manchester, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has discovered a key process that may be involved in the spread of cancer, which could lead to new treatments to stop 80 to 90 per cent. of cancers in their tracks. A great deal of research into other matters, too, is being undertaken at north-west universities. As I said earlier, the budgets of all research councils have grown—for example, the STFC budget has increased by 13.6 per cent. and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s budget has increased significantly. However, it is up to research councils to determine their priorities, based on their best assessment of the science. There will be change because we live in a changing world and difficult decisions have to be taken, but it is best if those best placed to make the judgments(sic) are allowed to do so.

It is interesting to me that of all of the examples the minister could have chosen he picked on medical advances, the MRC having come out on top in the comprehensive spending review.

The last sentence is very interesting. I think it highlights that if the scientific community really wants to resolve this issue in a satisfactory manner we need to highlight the fact that the folks making the decisions in STFC are not best placed to do so. There are few STFC scientists who think that STFC has actually listened to what the community tells them and so the case can be made. Alternatively we start shouting our case more loudly than ever before at STFC so that we can show that their judgement is out of step with the scientific community they are supposed to represent.

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