Gemini withdrawal : worse to come ?

November 18, 2007

The agency that now funds UK Astronomy – STFC – has announced its intention to withdraw from its partnership in the Gemini Telescopes. This is worrying news, but I fear worse is to come. The Treasury has left STFC with a gaping hole in its budget, and I don’t really understand why.

You can read the reaction of the Royal Astronomical Society here, a couple of UK Astronomy blog reactions here and here, and a letter to the Guardian.

I almost signed the Guardian letter, but had asked Roger Davies for some minor changes, and he was left unsure whether I wanted to sign or not by the time he had to act – I didn’t get back to my email at the right time. What I had suggested was a more sympathetic tone to the problems of STFC … They are in a tight hole.

Once every few years the UK Government holds a “Comprehensive Funding Review (CSR)”, which decides amongst other things the budgets for the Research Councils for several years. Here are the figures. Below is this year’s budget in millions, budget in 2010-11, and average increase per year after inflation at 2.8%. In reverse size order …

MRC Medical 543 707 6.4%
BBSRC Biology 387 471 4.0%
EPSRC Engineering & Phys.Sci 711 844 3.1%
ESRC Economic & Social 150 178 3.1%
NERC Natural Environment 372 436 2.6%
STFC Sci. & Tech. Facilities Council 574 652 1.6%
AHRC Arts and Humanities 97 109 1.2%

Source : Research Fortnight

At least its a real increase ? Not really. The way grants are paid to Universities has changed, and some of the extra money is to take account of that. When you allow for this, and compare to the STFC planned programme, they are about £80M short. This is a real cut.

This is not just a problem for Astronomy. Already, plans to go ahead with the 4GLS Synchrotron light source have been cancelled, and the long awaited second target station for the neutron beam facility ISIS looks doomed. The ambitions of the Nuclear Physicists to join FAIR look likewise a faint hope. Saving £4m/year on Gemini is just a wee bit of extra help ..

So.. if you write to your MP .. tell him/her how bad it is that the Government formed a brand new Research Council, and then screwed it straight off.