Making Enemies

September 15, 2010

I am getting a bit perturbed by this Cable bashing thing. Maybe we are unwittingly making an enemy of someone who means to help.

After his Radio Four blunder, and the related speech at QMUL,  the BBC smelled rebellion in the air; the Twittersphere went into overdrive, as described in Roger Highfield’s S-word post; Peter Coles concluded that big cuts were signalled ; Brian Cox told Sun readers that Cable’s plans might be “wiping out 50% of UK research”; now Robert May says Cable is being “just plain stupid”.

Even The Daily Mail is worried about the lunacy of cutting science budgets. Crikey.

Lets get some context. The whole coalition government drastic cuts thing has me fuming. It is an ideological exercise aimed at rolling back the state, with the fiscal deficit employed cynically as a handy way to keep the public on side. The UK should be going for a mixture of modest cuts, tax rises, and infrastructural stimulus spending. Well, thats my personal opinion. But we are where we are. In that  context, Cable, a sound economist and all round good Liberal, is in a very difficult position. Every minister is saying “my Department is an exception !!”. Osborne ain’t accepting that.  What would you do in that position ? Well maybe you would talk tough while quietly protecting things that matter.

On Radio Four, speaking live, Cable implied that a large fraction of research grants are below world class. That is palpably wrong and was an appalling error. I hope he is wriggling in shame over that. Read the QMUL speech and there is no doubt what he really meant – that only 55% of the teaching staff employed at Universities are actually doing the world class research that the UK is justly famous for. But those folk already get 90% of the HEFCE/HEFCW/SFC research funding, and nearly all the RCUK grant funding. We are already pretty much doing what Cable argues for. So what is in his mind ? Clearly further steepening of the QR funding, maybe even removing QR from the lower end completely.

This could be bad, but is it “wiping out 50% of UK research” ? Of course not. Could it be misunderstood as wanting to do that ? Well yes, but only if you are looking to pick a fight.

Sometimes picking a fight is the right thing to do. Things are getting savage, and you need to establish that you ain’t a sucker to be victimised. What Cox and Highfield and others have been doing speaking up for science has been tremendously important and valuable. More please. But painting Vince Cable as Mr Evil ? Doesn’t smell right.


End of an era

August 8, 2010

Polish your CV. You could be the next CEO of STFC. If there is anything left to run.

Just before my holidays, I mentioned an STFC web page asking for input to the CSR discussion. This has three interesting updates. The first is a report from Science Board and PPAN. Nothing surprising or scary in this. The second  is news from Council. This is normally so dull it makes you want to chew your own foot off, but on this occasion contains news that will surprise some : the STFC CEO has made it known that he will not take up a second term, and so will leave in March 2012. Council have already set up a subgroup to establish the requirements for his successor.

I think we are way past the personal recriminations stage, so no schadenfreude please. I am tempted to open a book, but probably thats not suitable for public discussion either.

So lets look to the future ! The third update is a link to a presentation given by Director of Science Programmes, John Womersley, to the recent Astronomy Forum.  The bottom line is that BIS will have an answer by October-ish, but the trickle down to STFC won’t be clear until Nov-Dec-ish; and how STFC implements the new budget will be horribly difficult. The feedback our Head of Institute (JAP) gave us was that input is really genuinely desired by Womersley et al. There are going to be some horrible decisions, even if we successfully make the argument that STFC science is investment, and we have less than the Government average 25% cuts.  I am sure individual input will be welcome, but very likely group responses will be more effective, so start lobbying your Head of Department or research group leader.

Even if we were to reduce exploitation grants to zero, we would have a problem. We may be looking at big decisions, like pull out of ESA and do bilaterals, or pull out of CERN. Of course one worry is that negative signals will stop young people committing to the UK; this could be a distinctly non-linear effect, and one that lasts much longer than this spending review.  An interesting positive suggestion that apparently emerged from the Forum was that Fellowships should somehow be strengthened into “New Blood” lectureships. But this requires commitment from our Universities, who ain’t exactly feeling rich either …


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