STFC Prioritisation Exercise (2009)

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 prioritisation 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 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 prioritisation 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

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