Our day in Court

January 23, 2008

So the Select Committee hearing on the Science Budget Allocations finally came and went. You can listen to the proceedings
at the Parliament web site. There are postings at the Astronomy Blog and at Chris Lintott’s Universe . There are already all sorts of angry comments on earlier posts of mine here and here . STFC have put out a positive news spin on the BBC , but Ken Peach has produced a Panglossian parody of this . I didn’t know Ken was quite so erudite. (My daughter once asked what “erudite” meant. I told her it described the kind of person who knew what “erudite” meant).

So what have we learned ? Here’s my take.

It was all a mistake.

Oh no it wasn’t.

“Unintended consequences” was the line taken by Michael Rowan-Robinson and Peter Main, who were utterly cogent overall – but wrong on this point. This was a conscious act by DIUS. To be fair to Keith Mason, he says this consistently and firmly. The priority was medicine. Who is going to argue ? And they had to fund FEC, and the subscriptions; and meeting the costs of Diamond and ISIS. Fine. Tick, as MRR said. STFC and DIUS knew that this left the rest of the programme in a hole. They could then have added just a wee bit more. They chose not to. They chose not to because astronomy and particle physics did not make a strong enough case; and some people believe genuinely that University departments are too reliant on particle physics and astronomy.

Whatever short term help we may or may not get, this is the big message. We aint getting the message across, and unless we do, at the next CSR we are utterly sunk. Mason et al have screwed up in all sorts of ways, but on this basic issue they have told the truth repeatedly.

But the hearing was depressing because it sounded like Keith agreed with this government view of astronomy.

FEC : watch the lady

Paying for Full Economic Costing really is a problem. And it is going to be worse for EPSRC, as they are grants dominated. If you are doing condensed matter physics, don’t be smug … EPSRC will probably start announcing cuts a few months from now. But how can this be ? Surely the whole FEC thing should be cost neutral ? It looks like the Government has not passed enough money to the Research Councils to pay for FEC .. so this is really a hidden cut that we hadn’t understood.

But there is some extra money here … and its flowing to our Universities. Where will it go ? Its meant for infrastructure, not PDRAs, but we should asking our admins for that lab refurbishment and extra server and so on that we might have put on grants … Don’t wait until that new Management School Building appears and you wonder where it came from …

Diamond is not the problem .. or is it ?

Diamond is not the problem. CCLRC underprovisioning is. The Diamond and ISIS guys are professionals. By 2003-4 they had accurate operating cost estimates, and have stuck to them since. But CCLRC never had enough money in their budget to cover this : they were £25M/year short, as explained in the National Audit Office report. They were crossing their fingers. It seems they were right to trust in God. Eventually, God agreed that exploiting Diamond and ISIS was top priority and just had to be paid for. At the hearing, it was pointed out that the consequences of this were stated clearly in the Delivery Plan. I quote from page 7 :

Our ability to fully exploit the facility will depend on the success in making the savings elsewhere in this plan.

Remember, this what they had to write after their bid for that wee bit extra had failed.

Was PPARC Science damaged by the merger ?

Of course it was. At the hearings, Keith denied this, pointing out that their initial budget was equal to the sum of the two old Research Councils. But as explained above, the CCLRC budget had a £25M/yr hole in it. Derrrh.

Should we go for a vote of no confidence ?

I am not going to go for personal criticisms in my blog, although I won’t stop other’s comments unless they are really over the top. I don’t think its the right place.

What do we do ?

Either back room deals are happening or they’re not. Most of us can’t do much about that. Hopefully they are, and it will produce enough money to smooth over the chaos.

But get ready for the future. Make the case for fundamental science. Brain Cox can’t do it all.