I presume that anyone reading this blog knows that today is the day when the great unwashed masses of UK Astronomers heard about our financial fate from the STFC, the small arm of the UK government responsible for Astrophysics, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics.
For various reasons, some clear and others manifestly not, STFC is something like £70 million in the red. When all this started about two years ago, one of the main criticisms of the STFC management (beyond wondering how they could have got themselves — and us — into this predicament to begin with) was that they started to impose solutions that seemed to bear little resemblance to what the scientists themselves wanted. Trying to either genuinely ameliorate this, or at least give themselves good cover, they’ve spent much of the last year gathering input from various groups of physicists and astronomers, through a series of reports produced by scientist-led panels. These panels released their results this autumn, and STFC has supposedly used them to make decisions about the next five or so years of funding.
I was selfishly relieved to see that our work with the Planck Surveyor Satellite is rated “alpha 5”, and that our other local grants don’t appear directly affected (i.e., we weren’t drastically cut). However, STFC has “requested” (not sure what that means in this context) that even these projects reduce their costs by 15%. Other programs were not even this lucky — a not-quite-complete list of the cuts is on the STFC site. The cuts (a.k.a. “managed withdrawal”) include the UKIRT telescope, the LOFAR array, future work at the low-background facility at the Boulby mine, and future science exploitation of the XMM and Cassini missions (among many others). Alongside this, there will be a 25% cut in studentships and fellowships, although the details of this have not been revealed.
In his independent response, the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, says “we are investing record amounts into scientific research, but it is absolutely right that it is the scientists themselves, through the Research Councils, that decide how best to spend this money.” Of course we scientists don’t necessarily feel that our voices have been heard. The prioritized list of projects is available from STFC, and although it generally correlates with both the inputs from the various sub-panels and the financial outcome (in particular, many of us were pleased and relieved to see the much-criticised MoonLITE project at the bottom of the heap), there are some striking differences from at least my understanding of the panel recommendations, such as the “alpha 4” grade given to the Aurora human spaceflight program.
However, Drayson does seem to understand some of the issues: “…there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.” Not sure what this means, but even if we are grasping at straws, it’s the only promising news of the day.
I’ve got 11 browser tabs open just to get myself up-to-date. Here are some of them:
- An excellent summary of the situation before the announcement is at To the Left of Centre.
- Paul Crowther’s page has become the canonical clearing-house for information on the astronomy side of the “STFC Funding Crisis”.
- Blogs from Andy Lawrence and Peter Coles are both well-wrought and likely feature commentary from the opinionated luminaries of UK astronomy.
- The Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society respond.
- The BBC talks about the cuts with Lord Drayson.
- Physics World summarizes the situation as “savage cuts”.
- Our US counterparts get in on the commentary at Science magazine.
- There’s a web campaign to help save astronomy in the UK.