Here we go again

The news this morning was unsettlingly familiar. Thatcherism returns with a smooth Cameron spin. Thatcher relished the fight, publicly squaring up to her enemies. The New Tories approach like an old friend, with arms wide open, the stiletto concealed within the sleeve.

Apparently the public will be consulted about the spending cuts choices. How jolly. And indeed you can go now to the Programme for Government website and insert your suggestions. There are already  82 comments about the plans for deficit reduction… The reality is clear in that BBC news item :

A “star chamber” of senior figures will be created, before which ministers will have to justify their spending. Ministers could be asked to consider whether services currently provided by their departments could be better supplied by the private or voluntary sectors.

Is this what the Committee of Public Safety, sorry, I mean the Office for Budget Responsibility is all about ?

Hmm. Hands up who remembers Prior Options Reviews ? Maybe this time the process really will be open minded, but thats not what it felt like last time round. There was a story of a civil servant handing in a report to senior minister X, which concluded that in this particular case there were sound arguments for particular bodies remaining in the public sector. Minister X tosses the report over his shoulder, and says “Try again”.

Now, lets see. Where did I put that phone number for the Serco guys ?

Update Thursday : Mike Watson sent me this apposite picture, snapped with his iPhone while he was in a traffic jam somewhere in Leicester ….

Sign of the times ?

Cameron's Cutz

12 Responses to Here we go again

  1. John Womersley says:

    What – no comments here yet? Let me be deliberately provocative: what services that STFC currently provides could be better provided by others? Obviously I am not thinking about peer review or the issuing of grants, but could (for example) a university operate a lab or a facility better than STFC?

    (And no jokes please about how STFC is not providing anything you would call a service, or how just about anyone would be better qualified, please!)

    • Albert Zijlstra says:


      Why do you want to exclude the grants from this discussion? The grants line has suffered most from the STFC financial problems and has been treated as a low priority item. Grant management should be included in any discussion on things STFC should or should not do.

      To respond to provocation with provocation, let’s state that STFC does not not know what it is for. It can operate facilities on behalf of the UK scientific community. It can be a government instrument to get scientists to behave. It can enable research in nuclear, particle and astrophysics. But it has proven, I think, that it can not do all of these simultaneously. There has to be a single, defined mission.

      I would be happy to let STFC operate those research facilities which are too large for a university (Diamond, international subscriptions). But I am concerned that the same organisation is in charge of research funding. That is a conflict of interest. STFC is both our main funding source and our main competitor. With predictable results.

      The conflict is made worse by the fact that the facilities support a much larger range of science (e.g. life sciences) than does the grant funding.

      So – what is or would be STFC’s mission statement? What is its top priority: supporting the government, running facilities, or supporting specific research areas at universities?


  2. Michael Merrifield says:

    OK, I’ll bite. The main problem I would have with transferring large facilities from STFC to universities is that it would contribute to a major instability in the astronomical community, with large places growing empires and squeezing out the rest. While research concentration may be the flavour of the month, I think it is fundamentally misplaced as a philosophy in a distributed activity like astronomy. It is in the nature of this extreme subject that progress requires us to try out a large number of crazy ideas to find the one crazy idea that is actually true, so if your agenda is to make real scientific progress then it probably makes greater sense to distribute your funding more rather than less widely.

    Taking one obvious example, I am sure that the University of Edinburgh would do a fine job of running the UKATC, but it is far healthier having the ATC as a third party to which all other institutions can turn to equally for collaboration on, for example, innovative E-ELT instrumentation.

  3. andyxl says:

    Mike – SLAC is a DOE lab, but operated by Stanford University under contract. Could that work ? Fermilab used to be run by a consortium, but that changed recently. Likewise of course we have the AURA example in astronomy.

    The ATC isn’t the only point of discussion. Could Daresbury be run by Manchester, or RAL by Oxford ? Or by SERCO under contract ? SERCO already have a large role in some ESA establishments.

  4. Iain Steele says:

    Of course many smaller facilities are already run by university departments, e.g. eMERLIN, the Liverpool Telescope etc. With fEC this certainly makes the costs of the facility very much more explicit and easier to identify completely than having them run by something like STFC where I suspect a lot of central admin costs (e.g. payroll) are not easily attributable to an individual facility and so do not end up being seen as a cost of that individual facility. This difference makes fair cost comparisons very difficult to achieve – I suspect its very hard to determine if running the LT as a university facility is more or less expensive than if STFC were running it.

    Another problem you have to deal with is who picks up things like redundancy payments when the money dries up. At present universities have to cover that themselves if STFC withdraws a grant. I suspect that Oxford would run a mile from taking on that responsibility for the very large number of people at RAL for example.

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    I am sure it could be made to work, Andy. The question is whether it would work any better. Once you have built in the safeguards that you might want to ensure that such facilities are really still national rather than the preserve of the administering organization, I cannot believe it would be significantly more efficient than keeping it central in the first place. Plus if you do build in such safeguards, you remove much of the incentive universities might have for wanting to run the facility in the first place, and the associated motivation to do a good job.

    Maybe an alternative approach would be to fully autonomize the administration of some of these facilities, so they would be bidding for devolved funding fully tensioned against other demands on STFC’s budget such as research grants. That would remove the “standing army” issue from STFC, provide an incentive for efficiency and applicability in these labs, makes sure that all potential “client” institutions could work with the facilities equally, and create a level playing field where the facilities could compete for additional resources such as research grants on the same basis as universities.

  6. John Peacock says:

    As I recall the happy days of Prior Options, the reason the whole process foundered in the mid-1990s was pension crystallisation. Government scientists don’t have a pension fund: they just get paid a pension when they retire as part of general government spending at that time. But when you transfer an ‘activity’ (i.e. trained and skilled people) into the private sector, a pension fund has to be created and filled with roughly 10k for every year of staff service. So although the Treasury likes the idea of long-term savings in the (of course) more efficient private sector, it very much doesn’t like having to write a big cheque on day 1 of the transfer. When the Royal Observatories were up for privatisation, several millions had been spent in legal fees getting the process to a quite advanced stage before anyone thought to ask the Treasury if they would pay; the answer was “no”.

    I can’t see that this obstacle has been removed. The alternative to privatising an existing organisation is to sack everyone and start again, but that also has big up-front costs in redundancy payments. So change is expensive initially; you might consider borrowing money to cover that initial hit, but that’s hardly attractive if the motivation for change is to reduce government borrowing. Tricky.

  7. andyxl says:

    In those good ole days, there was a presumption that private was philosophically better than public. The government of the day was prepared to spend money (at least at first) to achieve its revolutionary agenda. Maybe this time it really is more practical. But I wonder.. Just as last time the Winter of Discontent was the ideal time to smuggle revolutionary changes past the sceptical British public, maybe this time the Big Scary Deficit is a perfect excuse to be allowed to do extra-ordinary things that normally the public would object to.

  8. John Peacock says:

    Andy: I think you’re right about deficit scares. The Cameron “worse than we thought” stuff is backed up by stats that have been available for some time. I thought the most recent reports actually said things were bad but not quite as bad as expected. So you suspect that they want to cut the public sector from a philosophical point of view (if that’s not too flattering a term), and are seizing the chance to do more cutting than they would normally have got away with. On pre-election plans, at least, the total change in public spending will not be much different from what Labour planned – but how it’s achieved might well be rather different.

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  10. telescoper says:

    The line break after the second line had me scared for a moment!

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