Gordon’s Final Word

I got another email from 10 Downing Street today. (Yes I know, most of you did too..) I wrote about Gordon’s initial response to the famous petition in this post. Here is the text of the final response :

You signed a petition asking the Prime Minister to “reverse the decision to cut vital UK contributions to Particle Physics and Astronomy.”

The Prime Minister’s Office has responded to that petition and you can view it here:


Prime Minister’s Office

Petition information – http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/Physics-Funding/

If you would like to opt out of receiving further mail on this or any other
petitions you signed, please email optout@petitions.pm.gov.uk

Have a read of the petition. Its a mixture of depressing and encouraging. Of course, the Government was never going to say “Oh dear you are quite right, here is lots more money”. That ain’t how things work. However this :

Claimed reductions in STFC’s budget appear to have been derived from STFC’s aspirations for the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) period (2008/9 – 2010/11). These aspirations never constituted an agreed set of activities or funding for them, and the suggestion that £80m has been cut from its budget is wrong.

is close to insulting. We are not stupid. Nobody said £80M has been cut from the STFC budget. Merely unfunded aspirations ? That applies to the ILC, but not to discussing plans for several hundred job cuts, sending a message to every UK University saying “how would you respond to 25-40% grant cuts”, and publishing a Delivery Plan announcing “We plan to withdraw from future investment in the twin 8-metre Gemini telescopes” and “We will cease all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities” and “We will cease to invest in high-energy gamma ray astronomy experiments”. (I am avoiding plugging the cases that affect me personally). These are facts and quotes and they are cuts. I am not even saying they are wrong to do … I might have done these things too … but saying “there are no cuts, only unfunded aspirations” is more or less spitting in our face. I was actually pretty impressed with the STFC performance at NAM, and so really disappointed they allowed these patronising words to escape Number Ten.

On the other hand .. The response says

It is a tribute to UK science that it will always be the case that there will be more proposals for scientific research than the funding is able to cover. Funding bodies such as STFC will always have to make difficult decisions and it is both justified and understandable for there to be a debate over how these decisions are made.

Which seems to say it was ok for us to make a fuss. Huh. Maybe we are not foolish children after all. Perhaps more importantly the response says :

This follows large increases in funding in recent years and means that there would be no major reductions in physics funding before the outcome of the Wakeham Review is known. (Professor Bill Wakeham, Vice Chancellor of Southampton University, has been asked to lead an independent review of the health of physics overall and we, and the Research Councils UK (RCUK), will pay close attention to his conclusions, which are expected in the Autumn.)

The community and the RAS have been consistently asking for this, so its very good to see. So.. having had my hissy fit … lets all start working to make the best of this. We have time.

Next up, Wakeham. Just got the questionnaire … some thoughts on this soon…

19 Responses to Gordon’s Final Word

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    “I was actually pretty impressed with the STFC performance at NAM, and so really disappointed they allowed these patronising words to escape Number Ten.”

    You don’t think that this response was drafted for Number 10 by STFC?

    Actually, I thought STFC were on a bit of a roll with being patronizing after the NAM, what with telling a student that he should be doing science for love rather than to pay the mortgage, and suggesting to John Peacock that Excel might be a little beyond him…

  2. Peter Williams says:

    Mortgage, ha ha. What’s one of those?

    The £80M sophistry in the PM’s response – while strictly correct from an accounting perspective, does produce cuts. Point this out to your MP’s.
    I would suspect the statement was drafted somewhere in the bowels of DIUS, but Gordon himself is aware of the situation. Perhaps this fact is one of the positive things to have come out of the community stamping its little footsie and crying (which i agree with by the way). Physics is well and truly above the radar in Government – we’ve been noticed and I suspect earned a little respect for standing up and fighting our corner.

    Wakeham – yes, we’ve just received our formal invite to contribute. We’ve even pre-empted it a bit by drafting a few pages

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    From what I know of the inner workings of DIUS, they would have neither the knowledge nor the interest to draft anything so detailed. There are STFC fingerprints all over it.

  4. onlooker says:

    Gordon’s reply – 67% increase in astronomy grants 2005-2008:

    How much of that is due to the addition of FEC, and for inflation? Are these grants just for post-docs, or are other types of grants included?

  5. Kav says:

    At the risk of being bitter and cynical I can only say that if you were impressed by the STFC gang at NAM then something must come over in the audio that was lacking in the flesh.

    With regards to this reply from Gordon I cannot take too much comfort from the ‘positive’ parts. I admit that I was hardly expecting anything better but hope springs eternal. My chief concern is that an awful lot of non-physicists signed that petition in support of us. These are folks who recognised the damage being done and thought that astronomy was worth sticking up for. However they are unlikely to have delved into this mess to the full depths that we have and so this reply might resonate with them to a higher degree than it does with us.

    Essentially, we are not the full audience for this reply. Our support in the wider community is the primary target and although we may find it insulting to them it may seem like a real answer, i.e. we were all had by the figures and everything is really fine.

  6. Old-timer says:

    I try to take things as they come and I don’t expect organisations to be perfect or consistent, so I have tried to avoid criticising STFC in the current crisis. But my confidence in it as an organisation lessened during the NAM open session. I saw an executive team that was often (after the opening statement) unable to explain clearly what was going on, and who were not entirely at one, each with the other. I was more confused after the explanation about e-Merlin than I was before it. I saw shoot-from-the-hip responses of truth-as-I-would-have-liked-it-to-have-been. I heard self-serving, wasn’t-me-guv, explanations of the peer review process. I was appalled by the tactless responses (more than one) to the young solar physicist about the wonderful future facilities that he wont be paid well to use or wont be in a position to use at all. I heard an unhelpful yes-it-is, no-it-isnt debate on FEC and HEFC funding. And finally I afterwards heard comments from loyal STFC staff who had convinced themselves that it went well. I’m depressed.

  7. […] yesterday. I’m sure there will be more line by line responses to come, but here’s Andy’s take on the […]

  8. Unattributed says:

    I’m told that the No. 10 response was definitely not from STFC, so you’re going to have to look higher up the evolutionary scale for this one.

  9. MikeW says:

    Unattributed: I find this difficult to believe, it reads like STFC exec-speak to me.

    Mike Merrifield was spot on. Most of us were depressed rather than impressed by STFC performance at NAM. The UKIRT “typo” was however an unexpected gem.

  10. Michael Merrifield says:

    Higher up the scale? So, where do you think it came from? From the PM? From John Denham? And if it did, where do you think he acquired his detailed knowledge of the ownership of Jodrell Bank, the names of 8-metre telescopes around the World to which we may or may not have access, and the magnitude of cuts in US investments in the ILC? I hate to break this to you, but we really do not matter that much, and the details of astronomy and particle physics’ woes are not sufficiently at the finger tips of the minister or his office to draft such a response. Instead, he does what a government minister will always do: he gets the civil servants running the show to write him a brief. In this case, the civil servants who know are those who work for STFC, which is why the “Prime Minister’s” response reads like it was written by STFC – it was.

  11. Watcher says:

    A common feature on these pages in the tendency by some to say that something is so when what they mean is that they think it is so. Thinking something to be true does not make it true. Mike’s last contribution is an example of this.

  12. Dave Carter says:

    I think its a mixture, paragraphs 1-4 read to me like the DGRC, paragraphs 5-8 are more detailed and could only have come from within the STFC council or executive, the last three probably appended by one of the ministers to make it sound conciliatory.

  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    I (perhaps unwisely) assumed that anyone reading this blog was intelligent enough to realize that when someone posts a comment they are expressing their own view rather than revealing any deeper truth. I could have liberally scattered around “in my humble opinions” and the like, but, as I said, I had assumed that others would take them as read.

    Personally, I would have thought it was self evident that no-one within DIUS or even higher up in RCUK would know the ins and outs of GranTeCan and Subaru, and that such information must have been quoted fairly directly from the STFC briefing on the subject. I also think it unlikely that STFC would have provided such briefing without taking the opportunity of a ministerial and even prime ministerial audience to editorialize about their own faultless position, and, perhaps unsurprisingly, much of this has made its way into the official response. I am happy to stand corrected by a more authoritative view, but such authority is very unlikely to come from someone who conceals their identity.

  14. Dave Carter says:

    Maybe it was DIUS then Mike. My understanding is that a limited amount of GTC time is available through ESO, for two years only and earmarked for large collaborations. Spaniards are too smart to be giving away whole telescopes as part of their ESO fee. What of Subaru? There is a time swap with Gemini, are we selling 50% of this? If I was a potential buyer of the UK Gemini time I would be inclined to drive a hard bargain. Is there GTO time for the institutes involved in FMOS? This could hardly be construed as UK access yhough.

  15. Watcher says:

    Mike, not all of us feel in a position to be open on these pages but nonetheless feel that we can add to the debate. When you say at the end of your earlier piece “it was” rather than “I think it was” , I think a correction is in order and you could read “it wasn’t” into that correction if you wanted to.

  16. Dave Carter says:

    Andy your clock is an hour wrong!

  17. andyxl says:

    I guess wordpress.com don’t know about British Summer Time….

  18. Michael Merrifield says:

    Whatever. Anyway, here’s a more interesting thing. Part of the Government response reads as follows:

    The UK research community will continue to be able to carry out international research, through access to a range of world-class facilities, including CERN, as well as the European Southern Observatory, ESRF and ILL, and programmes of the European Space Agency. Major new facilities in the UK such as Diamond and the ISIS Second Target Station will also provide opportunities for world-leading scientific research.

    And here’s a quote from a letter from Ian Pearson to my local MP dated March 12th:

    However, the research community will continue to have access to a range of wrold-class facilities, including CERN and the European Southern Observatory, and programmes of the European Space Agency. Membership of these international organisations is increasingly expensive, but STFC believes continuing access to the facilities they provide is a priority and is crucial to the delivery of its science strategy. Major new facilities such as Diamond and the ISIS Second Target Station will also provide opportunities for exciting scientific research.

    So, demonstrably, the Government’s involved at least a degree of cut-and-paste from another significantly-older document, and I still believe that STFC is the only plausible source for such a technically-heavy briefing. It is also interesting that the Government chose to omit from its response the sentence about STFC’s view as to the importance of international subscriptions. Perhaps it was just a matter of the available space (and these days in STFC most things seem to be to do with space). Perhaps the Government does not want to appear too explicitly committed to continuing with all its international subscriptions. Or perhaps it was that this sentence was too obviously reproducing STFC’s views rather than appearing to be a higher-level policy. I have my own opinions, but I don’t want to risk further confusing anyone by expressing them.

  19. Michael Merrifield says:

    Sorry, I mistyped the quite from the letter from Peasron, which actually matches the Government response even more closely. What is said was

    However, the research community will continue to have access to a range of world-class facilities, including CERN and the European Southern Observatory, as well as ESRF and ILL, and programmes of the European Space Agency. Membership of these international organisations is increasingly expensive, but STFC believes continuing access to the facilities they provide is a priority and is crucial to the delivery of its science strategy. Major new facilities such as Diamond and the ISIS Second Target Station will also provide opportunities for exciting scientific research.

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