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STFC Prioritization Exercise

In advance of the announcement of the STFC Prioritization Exercise on 16 December the President of the RAS has written to Science Minister Lord Drayson to convey the deep concerns of the astronomy community. This was sent before the pre-budget statement which contains plans to cut £600 million from higher education and science and research budgets by, inter alia, 'prioritisation across universities, science and research'.

Dear Minister
 I am writing to express my growing concern about the situation within  STFC and the storm that will likely occur when the results of its current prioritization exercise are released in mid-December.


 Astronomers, space scientists, particle physicists and nuclear  physicists are all anxious and frustrated by the manner in which  decisions on our research funding are being handled. There are several  strands to the problem, which I want to briefly outline.

First though, let me say that I'm pleased and impressed by your  participation in the two recent debates; one in Cambridge last week,  and the Wellcome Trust this Monday, both of which I attended. I do not  disagree with your stance on most issues, although I remain confused  by your interpretation of the impact agenda. Your willingness to  debate the issues behind science funding and blue-skies research gives  me hope that you will listen and respond to what I have to say.


 A major issue concerns how your requests, which appear reasonable, are interpreted by scientists, academics and especially by the research  councils. Examples are your statements last week that science should  help pull us through the recession, and at the same time you will also  ring-fence the science budget. Both are very positive. Yet they can be  interpreted to mean a priority on short-term research goals funded  from a fixed pot which would otherwise also provide for longer-term,  less certain, curiosity-driven research. RCUK and research councils  might well squeeze the latter to provide the former. That is certainly  what it feels like.


As you know well, STFC was formed by merging two other councils and in  its first year found an 80 million pound deficit afer the CSR. This is  widely attributed to a mistake and has never been clearly explained in  simple terms despite being the target of a Select Committee. It was  handled and reduced somewhat with help from DIUS then BIS, but the  bulk of the deficit has never gone away. The nature of the STFC with  its many large facilities and subscriptions means that the squeeze is  on the only flexible parts of its programme, which are the research  grants and smaller facilities. The last set of grant awards (which  mainly involved particle physics) were for just one year, rather than  three or more, which seriously restricts the research which could be  done. Key postdoctoral staff are likely to be lost to Europe and the United States, where funding has been increased.


We are told that the STFC budget deficit will be handled by deep cuts  made at Council in mid-December, following a prioritization to which  scientists have provided advice. We are fearful that this will cause  serious damage to our work, both through a loss of people, expertise  and instruments.  Whilst STFC have improved in their consultation with  the community, decisions are increasingly taken at arm's length from  us. From a user point of view, STFC has serious structural problems.  We risk reopening the open dissention between the community and  STFC/BIS which followed the 2007 Delivery Plan (and which in the  meantime the RAS has been trying to contain).

 

Astronomers and Space Scientists do feel that we make an impact, from inspiring young people to take up the hard sciences and stimulating  the general public, to the development of highly sophisticated  imaging, robotic and radio devices. The nature of the work is that  serendipity plays a strong role so reliable prediction of future  products is difficult. Most of what we do is necessarily long term.


The grave situation is remediable by plugging some of the funding gap.  We appreciate that some cuts are inevitable, but some sciences, such  as medical research, are more easily able to attract non-governmental  funds than we can.  We hope all round that when the outlook improves  the overall science budget can be increased.

 

yours sincerely  

Andy
Professor AC Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society,
Professor of Astronomy, University of Cambridge