Stay of Execution

So, finally, we hear the faint whistle of air as the axe descends, but it slices into the neighbouring neck. Universities are taking a hit but direct science funding is spared for now. You can read the BIS announcement here and the overall Treasury announcement here. Reactions are all over the interweb already – try Robert Peston at the BBC , the Nature Blog, the Universities UK response, the IOP response, and the New Scientist S word analysis.  Nobody has anything particularly deep or original to say apart from how v.important it is to realise that science funding is an investment. The day before, Peter C at least had a novel line, explaining why things are even more miserable in Wales.

There is an awkward atmosphere, because while things ain’t as bad as we feared, and we are left blustering somewhat, we all know that the awfulness is still to come. The Impending Doom still Impends. The axe whistled past us, but our pardon has not arrived. We are trudging back to the cells to wait. It looks like the PR folk at STFC knew this, and have subtly tried to warn us. This very same morning, the STFC website launched a news page comfortingly entitled “Brace yourself for more cold winters to come”.

Usually of course civil servants rather more skilfull than that. Mandarin-speak is one of the great art forms of our civilsation. To cheer yourself up, check out the humour section of the handy website “How to be a Civil Servant” . (Thanks to Pippa who knows of what she speaks.)

For your convenience, I attach a document summarising the methodology that the Civil Service will deploy to implement the newly announce staff reductions.

19 Responses to Stay of Execution

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    I am sure that model of rectitude and the irrelevant detail, Sir Humphrey, would know that the Minister’s PPS was called Bernard Woolley.

  2. telescoper says:


    I don’t hink my piece says things are “more miserable” in Wales. That’s certainly not what I intended it to say, anyway. I was just trying to point out that things are more complicated for Welsh universities because the new cuts are happening alongside potentially radical changes imposed by the Welsh Assembly Government.

    These changes may even turn out to be good, although given the WAG’s past record I wouldn’t put too much money on that being the way it works out!


  3. telescoper says:

    I don’t hink my piece..

    You’ll have had my “t” …

  4. John Womersley says:

    All in all, it could have been much worse.

    One thing to watch – and as far as I know we are still waiting for details – is this slightly worrisome statement:

    “£100m is to be saved from a 10% reduction in running costs in BIS and its quangos”

  5. Dave Carter says:

    Why does that worry you John? Thats running costs. Things like the travel budget. Not front-line services. You are delivering front-line services. Aren’t you?

  6. Nick Cross says:

    Does that mean that the conference I wanted to organise on the Australian Barrier Reef will now have to be in Bognor Regis?

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Not sure astronomy is quite what politicians have in mind when they talk about “front line services,” Dave.

  8. Dave Carter says:

    I am not entirely convinced of that, but in the HE sector, and in the science budget, I think that they understand that front-line services are Teaching and Research. They probably also understand that research in general needs to have some impact, and that economic impact is part of this. Having been involved in REF pilots I am reasonably happy with the HEFCE impact agenda, and I would hope that the new government would see its advantages.

    Universities and STFC have this in common, they need to concentrate on their core activities, and to make it clear to government that these are front line activities.

    Although its a minor cost, there is a perception problem, and jetting around the world, be it to board meetings which could be held by telecon, or to international conferences, would not be seen as frontline and is maybe something we could do without, at least for the moment.

  9. Nick Cross says:

    Travel can be pretty tiring anyway. Volcanic ash a particularly cold winter and strikes don’t make it more tempting. Working on the Gaia Data Processing Consortium, most of the collaborative work gets done via weekly video conferences, with meetings every 6 months or so for big units. The same is true for much of my other work, although it is always interesting going to bigger conferences to learn about work being done by groups you are not associated with.

  10. Paul Crowther says:


    all true, but `visibility in the field’ includes participation in international conferences – see p141 in Chapter 3 (astrophysics) of very interesting report from CSHE, Berkeley. Junior academics who need to get a foot in the door need to have a presence at meetings more than you or I, yet they’re the ones most likely to miss out on funds if UK grants are too heavily concentrated on `leaders’.

    Participation in TAC’s *can* work via teleconf (e.g. Gemini ITAC, so long as no more than a few nodes involved) but having just taken part in HST Cycle18, I believe there would have been an inferior outcome had everyone been dialing in, especially for super TAC. Curious though that ESA covers business air travel for such meetings while NASA does not.


  11. Michael Merrifield says:

    The ESO OPC also did its thing last week. Contingencies were in place to have stranded members telecon in, but the dust cloud cleared just in time so everyone ended up present in person.

    It is a very interesting question whether the outcome would have been inferior without the face-to-face interaction, but the almost complete lack of data, not to mention the absence of a well-defined metric to establish whether one outcome is inferior to another, means that it is a very difficult one to address.

  12. Dave Carter says:


    Yes I think all that is true, and to some extent a consequence of the fact that a main aim of PhD students and young researchers these days is to nail down a job overseas as soon as possible. There are often conference funds for young academics so there is some hope.

    I am shocked that ESA still funds business class. I did HST cycle 4, it was out of kilter even then, and I got serious grief from ESA admin for booking economy.

  13. John Womersley says:

    Update: it now appears that the research councils will be asked to find £10-15M in efficiency savings as part of this reduction in running costs. Sharing between the councils still to be determined.

  14. Dave Carter says:

    It might be that, it might be as simple as the difference between the average pay increase of VCs remaining in post, and the average pay if VCs including those who have been replaced.

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