Page last updated at 09:39 GMT, Monday, 14 April 2008 10:39 UK

An astronomer's view of funding cuts

Gemini North Observatory (Gemini Observatory)
The UK was temporarily ejected from the Gemini consortium
Paul Crowther is a professor of astrophysics at Sheffield University.

He has been a regular commentator on the funding cuts that have thrown UK particle physics and astronomy into turmoil.

BBC science reporter Paul Rincon caught up with Prof Crowther at Queen's University Belfast, which was hosting this year's National Astronomy Meeting.

Paul Rincon: How would you describe the current status of funding of UK astronomy and particle physics?

Paul Crowther: We're talking about fundamental physics: particle physics, astronomy, space science, and nuclear physics. There was an 80m shortfall in the STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) budget for the next three years. And right now, we're facing the consequences of that shortfall because we are not able to maintain the existing programme in terms of running laboratories, exploiting facilities and having access to facilities. So there have been a number of consequences of this shortfall.

PR: What are the biggest-hit programmes as a result of this shortfall and what do they do from here? Do scientists just pack up and go home?

PC: The STFC involves facilities, it involves technology development and it involves science. There is a certain element that is fixed, involving commitments to subscriptions to, for example, Cern (European Organization for Nuclear Research) and Esa (European Space Agency). There are other elements that involve running facilities and laboratories such as Diamond (synchrotron facility) at Harwell.

When you have limited money, you really need to perform that juggling act as carefully as possible

There are other elements such as providing UK involvement in ground-based and space-based telescopes - some of which are under threat. In addition, there is the access to exploitation grants in departments of physics around the country. Right now, that is also being hit by a 25% cut in the number of research grants across particle physics, astronomy and nuclear physics.


Watch Susan Watts' film on the issue from BBC Newsnight

PR: So why are scientists so angry? Presumably funding must have gone up and down in the past - what's so different about these cuts and the way they're hitting astronomers and physicists?

PC: "Blue skies" research like astronomy and particle physics has always been up and down. But it is the scale of the cuts and the suddenness of the cuts that has shocked the community. The reason we're so frustrated is that there was no warning, really, before Autumn last year about the scale of the cuts. At some level, it goes back to the way in which this blue skies research is funded.

Over a year ago, it was funded through a research council called PParc (the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) which was purely astronomy and particle physics. But that was later merged with the CCLRC (Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils) to produce STFC. It is this combined research council that has - overall - had a pretty decent return from government: 13.6% over three years is, in principle, a good return. Unfortunately, subscriptions to international commitments and the cost of running laboratories increases at greater than inflation.

Astronomers at NAM 2008 in Belfast (Paul Rincon/BBC)
Astronomers got to question STFC chief Keith Mason in Belfast

So the effect of this "flat cash" settlement from government has been an unprecedented impact on the ability of, for example, departments to do long-term planning in terms of staff appointments.

Because the flat cash settlement does not take into account inflation, spending power is eroded over the three years. So the research council is facing an inability to deliver on things the government and the scientists would like us to deliver on. In addition, this new research council has had to take on board these things without the right advisory structures in place.

PR: Some commentators have said that the community should have anticipated the squeeze in funding. Is that a view that you have any sympathy with?

PC: I think there have been communication difficulties - that's certainly true. There has been a lack of engagement with the community from this new research council - from the management. But if we take the blue skies research done in astronomy and particle physics - we got flat cash, as did the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) which deals with applied physics.

But they have been impacted by a change of a few percent in the volume of grants and research they can carry out. The STFC has a different structure which means it has been 25%. That is a big hit to take for departments in terms of their long-term planning. The lack of communication has been the key to the community's furore over the implementation by the research council of the settlement from government.

PR: What are the big questions astronomers want to ask Keith Mason, STFC's chief executive?

PC: The key from the astronomy perspective is that we want to get the best return for the taxpayer for the money that has gone in. Right now, because of the way in which the STFC has been set up in terms of its advisory structures of scientists, just too few scientists have been involved in the decision-making process. So the community doesn't feel involved or engaged in that process.

When times are good, then everyone's happy. But when times are tough, like now, we as a community need to know what the priorities are

As a result of this, there has been a prioritisation of which facilities are top priority and are of lower priority, and that has been done by a very small number of scientists. Astronomers are a very disparate bunch. Some people want to study the Sun in detail, some want to carry out a mission to Mars, others want to study galaxies from space or planets from the ground.

So we all have our own bits of kit we want. When you have so few scientists on those panels deciding on those prioritisations, even with their best efforts, it has been impossible for the community to feel as if the best use of taxpayers' money has been made. It's really down to getting the most cost-effective return for the money that is available. When you have limited money, you really need to perform that juggling act as carefully as possible.

Up until now, there has been a lack of confidence from the community in whether the STFC has made the best use of the money we have. So there was a ranking of facilities and - to give STFC their due - they had a three-week consultation period. It was short, but nevertheless it went ahead. Now there are small panels deciding on whether they agree or do not agree on the prioritisation that was done by this advisory structure.

PR: So what can we expect from those panels?

PC: The small panels will be feeding back the community response to the advisory structures in the STFC. Those are going to be responding in the next few weeks. Thereafter, there will be a period of trying to implement those with the fixed amount of money they have.

So we think that by the beginning of July, they will be in a position to say which facilities are to stay and which ones will not. The concerns many people have is that a lot of the programmes which the UK is leading and will benefit UK scientists in the next five years are in the bottom half of the prioritisation. Some of the things which are in the top half, while addressing fundamental questions, are not where the UK is leading.

They are where the UK is buying into some component. Certain projects, such as eMerlin and Astrogrid - where the UK has taken a lead - are brand new, just out of the box, yet are facing immediate closure.

PR: There seems to be a real disconnect between the projects that look set to receive continued funding and those which the community thinks should receive continued funding. Are there any patterns that can be teased from the prioritisation? Has, for example, space exploration fared better than astronomy?

PC: Clearly, the research council has a science and technology strategy. But the community hasn't, as yet, been told what that is. But it certainly involves things like increased involvement in the space exploration programme through Esa. And that's a means of the UK securing an Esa science centre at Harwell in Oxfordshire. And space exploration is a good thing.

Lovell Telescope at Jodrell Bank (Getty)
The closure of eMerlin would hit the Jodrell Bank facility in Cheshire

But the concern is that everything else is being squeezed because of that strategy. Therefore, science at some level is at a lower tier than the strategy of the research council. I think what would be great would be to have a space exploration programme as well as an astronomy and particle physics blue skies programme. But right now, there are, perhaps, too many things being squeezed into the available budget.

Right now, the community feel they haven't had the strategy fully communicated to them and there has been this problem where we've had to tease information out of government and the research councils using methods such as Freedom of Information Act requests.

When times are good, then everyone's happy. But when times are tough, like now, we as a community need to know what the priorities are and what we can do to lobby government, to respond to the priorities of the research council and really get the best return for the money that the UK taxpayer puts in.

PR: Lastly, where do you think this could lead in terms of future UK astronomy and particle physics capability? What effect is this going to have, for example, on the numbers of young people coming into science?

PC: Clearly, the government has made it clear that they want to make science in universities more directly beneficial to the economy in the short term. And I think that is the right strategy. But the concern is that it is particle physics and astronomy that really motivates students towards doing science - especially physics - at university.

The signals that are being sent out right now are negative ones towards fundamental physics and blue skies research. In the long-term, if you want to have a knowledge-based economy, and a scientifically literate country, then you need to invest - at a relatively modest level compared to other areas of science - in fundamental science, to get students into the system.

Once they're in they find out about amazing things going on in applied physics. But it is things like astronomy that get students into studying science at university.

We solicited your comments on the financial woes currently facing UK physics and astronomy. The comments below relate to this page and the parallel interview with STFC chief executive, Prof Keith Mason.

Having close links with Daresbury Lab in Cheshire I am personally seeing the impact this is having on the morale of the staff and scientists. This facility is fantastic and if you had attended any of the open days which they hold for the staff, their families and the local schools you would really see what motivates children to go and study science. Removing this kind of hands on access to science will damage our science capability for generations to come. The cuts are very shortsighted. Science is an essential part to every day life without it how would you drive to work in a morning , heat the water to make a brew or find cures for cancer.
Lisa J Cordwell, Irlam

The STFC chief exec is quoted here as asserting "We have never withdrawn, or indicated that we would withdraw from Gemini." Compare this to the STFC press release of 15th November: "the STFC informed the Board that the STFC, in shaping its programme for the next 3 years and beyond, is planning to withdraw from the Gemini Observatory." Is it any wonder there was "a bit of a misunderstanding"? Paul Crowther's www page includes a good summary of contradictory statements from STFC on this issue.
Russell Smith, Durham

There is more than a little irony in Keith Mason laying the blame for astronomy's current funding problems on the introduction of Full Economic Costing (FEC) as a mechanism to make research properly sustainable. The grant that supports astronomy research here in Nottingham was scheduled for renewal last year. We duly put in our bid for support, including the level of FEC that had been calculated as appropriate for sustaining research (using an official audited process called the TRAC protocol). The grant was highly rated by the review panel, and recommended for funding, including the level of FEC that we had requested. There was then a lengthy delay as the full extent of the funding problems in STFC became apparent. Finally, the grant was announced, but in order to try and meet some of its budget shortfall, the recommended level of FEC had been slashed by more than a factor of two. Consultation with other universities that had grants in for renewal this round indicates! that they suffered comparable arbitrary cuts in the level of FEC awarded. If our experience is anything to go by, STFC is not spending its new money on anything like the level of FEC required to sustain a research programme.
Michael Merrifield, Professor of Astronomy, University of Nottingham, Nottingham

I found Keith Mason's response to the question about Students wondering if it was worth staying in astronomy to be quite insulting. I am approaching the end of a four year masters degree in physics and astrophysics and have been planning to do a phd in some are of space research. The reason I, like other students, am worried by the cuts is not that I feel I won't make money but that the cuts will make it harder for me to find a job at all! It is the nature of the economy the STFC claims to be supporting that you need to make money to survive. I know that a research career in astronomy will never make me a millionaire. If I wanted to make money then I would work in the city where physics degrees are in high demand. My reasons for wanting to get into astronomy research are my curiosity and desire for knowledge, not wealth. However I can't do this for nothing. Perhaps we should ask how much Prof Mason earns for leading STFC. Surely serving your country shouldn't be about the money?
Tim Coveney, Hull Uk

The really stupid aspect of the decisions was that previous funding of millions of pounds had gone into developing capital facilities like eMerlin only for them to be stopped. eMerlin is due to come on stream this year but for a cost of 1/3 an England football manager we will lose any benefit from the millions spent over the last few years - this is called sensible planning!
Ros, Renfrewshire

As a physicist (and "part time"astrophyz) I feel very disappointed by the sudden cuts in funding. I fear that the lack of funding could be a major set back and that the position of the UK will suffer eventually. Space technology has been providing jobs for many, and advances in science and technology do not come only from the bio/ chemistry part. May I add that I have nothing against biologists or chemists. Nuclear power is bound to take more importance if we want clean energy. How can we do it if research, and training at the grassroots levels are impeded? When I learnt of the closing of Reading university's physics department, I felt betrayed. The other critical problem for the lack of funding will be the lack of jobs for fresh graduates and postgrads leading highly skilled worker seeking jobs abroad. Very bad for UK's economy.
Kim Vignitchouk, guildford

Britain is one of the richest countries in the world and our Science research is world class. I'm disgusted that the government cannot be bothered to provide the funding required. This research could benefit the whole of mankind and I find it incredible that it is treated with such disrespect by the Government.
Albert Leach, Southampton, Hampshire, UK

Has anyone noticed? It's the countries that invest heavily in science and technology education and research that are the wealthiest and happiest? What does UK do? Close university chemistry departments and fund art galleries and theatre groups.
Michael Papworth, Evesham

I was funded by PPARC (the predecessor of STFC) to study my Astrophysics PhD and I am appalled by the continuing stories of cuts and projects under threat. Fundamental physics research is so important to the UK - not just economically but also culturally. This 80 million shortfall represents less than 0.1% of either the NHS or social welfare budget! Why can't the government just write STFC a cheque?
James Steel, Clitheroe, UK

I'm a science teacher. The government has provided incentives for certain science undergraduates to specialise as science teachers because of a predicted shortage, and all that implies for the UK's future. In parallel we have crisis-management by STFC members, talk of "taxpayers' money" and that "taxpayers have a right to a return." What constitutes this future "return" is not clear, nor even how they predict it, but it's news and there is no disguising this fatuous situation from my students: not one of them wants to be a scientist, or a science teacher.
David Marshall, London

I'm a science teacher. The government has provided incentives for certain science undergraduates to specialise as science teachers because of a predicted shortage, and all that implies for the UK's future. In parallel we have crisis-management by STFC members, talk of "taxpayers' money" and that "taxpayers have a right to a return." What constitutes this future "return" is not clear, nor even how they predict it, but it's news and there is no disguising this fatuous situation from my students: not one of them wants to be a scientist, or a science teacher.
David Marshall, London

Reading the above article it seems to me that what we don't want is investment into research being dictated by media interest lobbying and vested interest. The job of deciding the level of resources in the various area's will always be contentious however, I would think that it would be important to make the decisions transparent and for changes to take place over a three to five year time frame to enable the changes in the number of research graduates needed in each area to be planned for. There is only one thing that you can guarantee and that is the decisions will be wrong at least 30% of the time. I personally think to much of our research funding is being spent on particle and astro physics.
T Carlin, Suffolk

Just to make it clear the funding body have been given an 11% rise in latest 3 yr budget by Government.
Mark, Sheffield UK

The point is 'Was the government made fully aware of the impact of introducing FeC during the spending review?'. Also short-term funding problems become long-term problems as expertise lost is not easily regained.
G Burt, Glasgow

Do we/industry make any money out of the projects, if the answer is NO then it must get the chop are other EU partners doing the same or similar research if the answer is yes it must be the chop
Alan, morpeth

In this interview Professor Mason comes across as being the mealy-mouthed puppet of a weasel Government that is cutting science budgets, hiding behind terms like "Full Economic Costing", "Flagships" and "Visions". Is this man a champion of the UK science or a champion of his government masters?
Alastair Donald, Abingdon, UK

From now to the end UK will depend of USA Crumbs.
Gustavo Mendoza, Lima, Peru

We can waste billions of pounds on Iraq and the Olympics but can't find what is a relatively small amount of money to support our technological future. It's time our government woke up.
W Bates, Poynton, UK

1bn was found for the millennium dome, 9.3bn for the Olympics, 100bn to bail out Northern Rock. And yet 80m, spread over 3 years, can't be found to cover a science budget shortfall. Where are the government's priorities? If they were truly committed to science, this money would be made available immediately!!!
Chris Johnston, Belfast

Science cuts: Funding chief has his say
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