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December 22, 2010

In science there are no second prizes

October’s Comprehensive Spending Review promised a ‘flat cash’ settlement, ring-fenced over four years, for recurrent science funding through the research councils. But the 44 per cent capital expenditure cut it imposed across the Department for Business Innovation and Skills would be a major threat to the Science and Technology Facilities Council. 

So how did it turn out?

Core funding for STFC actually falls by 3 per cent over the period, which, with conservative assumptions for inflation, will mean a cut of some 14 per cent by 2014-15. Meanwhile, the capital cut for RCs is 'only' 41 per cent, for an overall outcome now being widely acclaimed as 'good'.

However, given that science is a global activity in which there are no second prizes, the contrast between STFC core funding and the substantial real-terms increases for all our major international competitors might more accurately be described as ‘marginally better than feared’.

Unfortunately for the STFC science community, the new settlement comes after severe cuts in the early years of the new council as it struggled to deal with an £80 million funding gap in its initial budget. In that wider context, maintaining funding levels for new post-docs has to be seen against a fall of 50 per cent from the peak of three to four years ago.

And while some have argued the UK produces too many astronomers and particle physicists, that view can be countered by noting the critical role of these popular disciplines in sustaining the health of university physics, whose graduates support one million jobs in physics-based manufacturing.

Other recent cuts have left significant gaps in the facilities now available to UK researchers in the disciplines supported by the STFC, a point noted by the Commons Science and Technology Committee, which announced on Monday the intention to question ministers on its "concerns at the implications [of cuts] for some areas such as optical astronomy in the northern hemisphere".

Retaining a clear separation of funding of UK large facilities, now set by user demand, and of the core science programme is crucial in building stability into STFC planning. So too is the undertaking to protect the international subscriptions from exchange rate variations. In the latter area, STFC officials have evidently been able to obtain useful ‘elbow room’ in the resource budget in prior negotiations with our international partners.

The introduction of consolidated grants is an opportunity for greater efficiency in the peer review process that must not be missed. With prior guidance from the STFC, the setting of priorities within an indicative level of support will, from April, be up to a university department. That ought to mean that the current practice of examining every application in fine detail by external panels can be streamlined, avoiding double jeopardy and yielding substantial savings in money and effort.

Hopefully the transfer of funding of instrument development and post-launch support to the new UK Space Agency will not cause a significant mis-match with exploitation, which remains with STFC, or add to the complexity of peer review. University space scientists, the historical base of one of the UK’S most successful industries, will also hope that the new Harwell Centre will not take too much of the R&D funding , and that UKSA will not become too closely tied with the European Space Agency, given that bilateral missions are often highly cost-effective.

In overview, beyond the bare figures there is some reason for cautious optimism within the university physics community served by STFC, with evidence of a better understanding between the Government and STFC officials, now guided by a stronger Council. Signs of real progress in addressing the structural (and leadership) problems that have beggared the STFC since the forced marriage of the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council in 2007 are reflected in the latest settlement and the accompanying STFC Delivery Plan for 2011-12 to 2014-15. Nevertheless, it will be difficult for the UK to retain its pre-eminent position in the best measure of research impact, by international citation, with funding falling well below the OECD average. The hope must be that when financial conditions improve a growing political enthusiasm for science will deliver strong new investment in a by-then leaner research community.

Ken Pounds, a fellow of the Royal Society, is emeritus professor of physics at the University of Leicester.


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