Raiding the science coffers

In the last couple of weeks, the UK Government has announced that the Department of Trade and Industry is so far in the red that it has cut £68 million from the science budget.

Usually, government finance isn’t a zero-sum game. But this year, to pay for payouts having to do with the collapse of the Rover car company and “the unexpected increase in support needed to cover British Energy’s nuclear liabilities” (does “nuclear” signify “science” somehow?). A few weeks ago, the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) announced that its share of the shortfall would be £3.1 million, which would result in a 2.5% cut in astronomy grants, and a 5% cut in ongoing projects.

The heads of the research councils have, naturally, complained, citing the usual ring-fencing of the science budget against such machinations, and the ongoing effect this will have on UK investment in science research and development over the long term. To those of us actually working in the well-appointed trenches of science, the real problem isn’t that our budget is being cut, but the uncertainty generated by these late decisions. We’ve been waiting since mid-December for the announcement of this year’s grant funding. Instead, they claim they’re going to delay new hires by six months. The councils often act as if academic jobs are just like in the so-called “real world”, where you can hire someone all year long, whereas we have to stick to the academic calendar, along with competing with our better-funded colleagues (mostly in the USA). Ironically, however, this delay may have the positive effect of putting us on the same schedule as those US competitors, who usually announce positions in the winter that will only start in the following autumn. (So any young cosmologists looking to come to London may want to get in touch, once PPARC lets us know about our funding…)