The Council of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are meeting today to discuss future science prioritisation and will announce the outcome of this meeting tomorrow (16 December) at 2pm. According to their website this is being headlined as STFC: Investing in the future 2010-2015. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The truth is that tomorrow may see the complete destruction of some British Science areas (Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics) that have, to date, been extremely productive and successful. Complete destruction may be a little over-the-top, but not by as much as you might think.
So why is there a problem? It seems that when the STFC was formed from the merger of PPARC and CCLRC a couple of years ago, it wasn’t actually given enough money to carry on doing what the previous two councils had been doing. There is some debate about this and the Science Minister – Paul Drayson – and the head of RCUK – Alan Thorpe – seem to think it was, but many others (MPs included) are convinced that it was not. Whatever the truth is, STFC needed to borrow some money in order to cover its costs two years ago and last year. The total amount borrowed was about £47 million. It now needs to repay this money this coming year and it is still effectively short of something like £20 million if it wants to carry on with current projects. This means it needs to somehow find something like £70 million right now in order to balance its budget.
Today’s meeting is therefore going to be a prioritisation excercise. The reality, however, is that rather than having something like £100 million of uncommitted spending, STFC will have something like £30 million. This is the money that is used to fund research projects that will exploit STFC facilities and will fund people to carry out the research. The expectation is that the decision will be to effectively slash and burn many very good Astronomy, Particle Physics, and Nuclear Physics research projects and that many people (young researchers primarily) are about to lose their jobs and have their careers cut short before they even have a chance to prove their worth. Effectively we might be looking at a 70% cut in funding with no real hope that it is going to get better in the future.
Maybe STFC has to pretend to the outside world that everything is hunky-dory, but the reality is that the meeting today is not about “Investing in the future”, it’s about finding a way to balance the budget probably by cutting the only things that can be cut : funding for research grants. They are being forced to have this meeting due to current circumstances (I would like to say beyond their control, but I’m not sure that’s correct) and not because there is some strong – non-budgetary – strategic reason why they need to consider priorities. I don’t really understand why the organisation that has effectively been responsible for funding Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics is unable to stand up and say that they are being forced – due to budget constraints – to consider major cuts to research funding that could see the end of a golden age in these areas. Hundreds of people may well, tomorrow, discover that they are about to lose their jobs and either have to leave the country or change careers. It seems incredibly disingenuous to pretend that this is about “Investing in the future”. What message does that send to people who’s careers may well be over and to those – like myself – who may still have a job, but will find it difficult to get any funding to do research.
Maybe I should wait till tomorrow before commenting, but part of the reason for writing this blog is just to get things off my chest. I also have a vague hope that if enough is said about this before it is too late to fix it, something positive may happen. It does, however, appear that there isn’t much desire within government or even with STFC to try and find a solution that doesn’t involve massive cuts to research grants. What I find amazing is that the management of STFC, which includes a couple of people who have been active researchers in Astronomy and Particle Physics, are not kicking up more of a fuss. If anything, they are giving the impression that everything is fine, and that the direction STFC is going in is the right direction (i.e., less researchers more facilities). I find it difficult to understand how people can comfortably oversee the destruction of their own research areas without resigning in protest. Maybe this shows great objectivitity, but I still find it hard to understand. I’m also not sure how anyone can retain faith in a senior management that either didn’t make a strong enough case for sufficient funds in the first place, or have mismanaged the budget so badly that they might be (it hasn’t happened yet) forced to do immense damage to what have been – and currently are – some extremely successful research areas.