Place your bets

Hundreds of people just read my post on plotter script packages, but there has only been one comment. I conclude that even software fans are too busy fretting over the coming cuts. The newspapers, Twitter, and departmental coffee rooms are are swimming in gossip, angst, and bitterness. Peter Coles has captured the mood in his latest post, including a long embedded analysis from the ever reliable Paul Crowther.

To be honest, the guts of what Peter and Paul (where’s Mary ?) have said in that post is what we have known for some time. Because STFC has 80% fixed costs, and even more hard-to-back-off projects, a cut of 25% is physically impossible without something drastic being done. This either means STFC will be let off, or something drastic has to be done. Even the rumoured 15% cut leaves more or less the same conclusion. We will be left with a statue of Keith Mason and nowt else. All around the lone and level sands stretch far away. Nothing beside remains.

Yesterday in the Twittersphere there was some brief optimism – people took Osborne’s statement on Diamond  as a sign of support for Science. My immediate reaction was the opposite. He was setting up a rebuttal – “but look, I am investing extra in Science”. The £69M concerned is what was almost certainly earmarked in the Large Facilities Capital Fund anwyay, and will of course have to be paid back to the Treasury later, for which in the next round, some non-cash will again be announced as “more investment in science”.

Now actually of course we probably still won’t know the answer by the end of the week, as the implications will take a while to cascade through BIS and RCUK….

I am so depressed, all I can think is to make a game  of it. Place your bets.

28 Responses to Place your bets

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Newman and Paul Crowther, Jonathan Butterworth. Jonathan Butterworth said: Place your bets with @e_astronomer I voted number six. #scicut #scienceisvital […]

  2. telescoper says:

    Re: the statue of Keith Mason. Can I take it that this would be a bust?

  3. andyxl says:

    Oh crikey. Its only 9am and already five people say they’ve got a job in Chicago.

  4. Jim Wild says:

    As I drove in to work today listening to the Today programme, I played the game of translating the government thinking applied to the defence review to the science budget.

    To summarise:

    1. The UK will invest in some of the next generation of expensive shiny flagship projects we said we’d do (because we have already signed up to do it and because it will be too costly to do otherwise).

    2. To fund these, current projects will be closed much earlier than planned, including big flagships that are currently doing just fine. While we’re at it, we’ll get rid of the scientists that operate off the deck of the current flagship projects to save more money.

    3. This will leave the UK without the flagship or the scientists on the deck for the next 10 years. This isn’t a problem since there have been times in the past when we didn’t have a national capability to project science power around the world. The US have always been there to do it in the past and will no doubt do it again now, but we should probably give them a call to make sure they’re ready.

    4. When our next generation projects do come online, they will be marvellous. But, there will be no scientists to put aboard for five years, because it will take some time to purchase them from abroad. We have full confidence that these new multi-national joint strike scientists will appear on demand, on time and on budget.

    5. In the meantime, funding will go up for the units of elite hand-picked special-impact scientists who are able to punch above their weight in the economic battleground with hit-and-fade patent-targeting scienceheads (like a warhead but with more peer-review). This will make up for the cuts everywhere else.

    I await a letter telling me to report to a location on the Clyde for decommissioning. Maybe a few of us will be lucky and mounted on a poles as university gate guardians.

  5. John Peacock says:

    Andy: Peter Coles’ blog contained an interesting snippet from Terry O’Connor, suggesting that the headline 15% cut is in real terms, including a fairly substantial government deflator. This would lead to cuts in actual pound notes (modulo the cash/non-cash issue) of “only” around 2% p.a. This isn’t wonderful, but it’s by no means as apocalyptic as the 25% reduction in cash over 4 years implied by Paul Crowther’s analysis.

    If we hadn’t just been through the debacle of STFC’s creation, you might even have thought there could be enough elasticity in the system to absorb a few years of 2% cuts. But after 3 years of chaos, any such capacity has eroded away. The question is partly whether government knows that, but also whether it cares.

    That’s not to imply I’m not depressed too – but maybe things will end up just short of immediate total disaster. In any case, I’m not going to chicago.

    • Paul Crowther says:


      I can’t claim to have carried out an ‘analysis’ – just to point to what “Scenario C” requested of Research Councils might mean for STFC. In reality we’re unlikely to discover much before the next exciting CSR installment of STFC’s Delivery Plan in December with details expected in March 2011.

      Andy failed to include a box allowing those South of the Border to re-locate to an independent Scotland for the duration of the ConLib squeeze. Alex Salmond seems like a nice chap; Ian Halliday would surely not let Scotland withdraw from ESO; plus you have some SUPA research unis..


      • telescoper says:

        Anyone remember the disgraceful “STFC Delivery Plan” of 2007? Talk about “economical with the truth”!

      • John Peacock says:

        Paul: I wish I knew what all this will mean for Scotland. Cuts in public expenditure in England will mean a reduction in the size of the block grant that goes to Scotland roughly in proportion (modulo fine details of the Barnett formula). But then the Holyrood parliament can do what it likes within that reduced total. So in principle Scottish universities might get raised funding and still not have to introduce fees. But it’s unlikely that this will be the priority, so my guess is we will end up with “England-lite”: some cuts in government support (but not at the barbaric level that seems to be planned south of the border) and the re-introduction of fees (which used to exist, contrary to popular belief – at the level of just over 2k total for the whole degree), but well less than 6-7k per year. The net effect will probably be similar to most English unis, which will put their fees up to 6k and still see their total income decline slightly.

    • richard wade says:

      But don’t forget the possible cut in capital even under the most favourable settlement.

  6. […] has a post summarizing the current swarm of rumours, and Andy Lawrence has a poll where you can pick your poison cuts-wise. At this late stage the mainstream media has finally started picking up on the message of the […]

  7. andyxl says:

    NEWS. Looks like the result is out on the BBC news site. The answer seems to be flat cash = 10% real cut over four years. The article implies Cable and Willetts accepted the arguments of the science lobby, and this was the compromise reached with Cameron and Osborne. Wommers is quoted.

    This is still bad, but honestly could have been worse. But but but we have no idea how this will cascade through HEFCE/RCUK. Much tension still to come.

    Meanwhile, I am glad I added the “other” box in my poll. Somebody put “Don’t care. Just accepted a new job in ESO .. oh shit”.

    • Kav says:

      Guardian website, Andy.

      Probably the best news we could expect. Now lets see what filters through to STFC.

    • telescoper says:

      I’ll really only believe this when I hear the official announcement, but assuming it is true you’re right to be cautious. STFC faces a big fight to prevent being squeezed by other RCUK priorities and likely big reduction in capital spend. I agree this settlement would be much less bad than many of us were fearing, but it could still turn out badly for STFC.

      Don’t cancel those tickets for Chicago yet.

  8. Paul Crowther says:

    Andy, Peter

    I share your concerns about STFC’s science programme. Flat-cash for overall science budget is a very good result in the circumstances. But from BBC report on Science Budget CSR-briefing:

    “So any cut in [STFC’s] budget will be greatly magnified and it is expected that it will have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.”

    Now, which unnamed major programme in your game might you think Pallab Ghosh is referring to? Can’t see Harwell taking a hit..


    • telescoper says:


    • andyxl says:

      This is where you reconsider applying for the Scottish Visa Paul, just in case they decide to close the ATC. Which is almost the same thing as no future work on ELT. Which is almost same as leaving ESO.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      At this point, surely we have to convince STFC to stick by its plan of separating the budgets for subscriptions, facilities and exploitation: flat cash in the subscriptions line would not require the loss of a big-ticket item like ESO (perhaps ESRF is more exposed with DLS fully supported), and flat cash for exploitation, while damaging, would not be irreversibly destructive.

  9. P says:

    Andy, Peter

    I share your concerns about STFC’s science programme. Flat-cash for overall science budget is a very good result in the circumstances. But from BBC report on Science Budget CSR-briefing:

    “So any cut in [STFC’s] budget will be greatly magnified and it is expected that it will have to withdraw from a major programme. Alternatively, it would have to cutback or close one of its research institutes.”

    Now, which (unnamed) major programme in your game might you think Pallab Ghosh is referring to?


  10. andyxl says:

    Well, if its worth saying…

  11. richard wade says:

    Hopefully we will get more details today but probably not enough to really understand the extent to which we have escaped major damage. Naturally the big uncertainty is now capital. This is a particular issue for STFC as we spend the great majority of our capital allocation on what is called “operational capital”. This covers essential maintenance and development rather than investment in major new infrastructure. You can see this in the budget table I provided. Note particularly the proportion of the CERN subscription that is counted as capital. BIS understands this issue and will help where they can I’m sure.

  12. telescoper says:

    Now the news is out. MRC are the big winners, with a flat settlement in real terms. Since the RCUK overall budget is frozen in cash terms, this means the baseline for other RCs is a reduction in cash, even before the effect of capital cuts takes hold.

    According to the Independent:

    One casualty could be “Big Science”, overseen by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC).

    Fingers crossed.

    • andyxl says:

      got a link to the specific page peter ?

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      An email with notes from Brian Cox on the David Willets briefing gives a bit of further info. We should propose to research ‘galactic weather and climate’ or ‘Universal cooling’ to qualify for more research funding.

      Note the last comment.


      David can say that Diamond Light Source and UKCMRI have guaranteed funding (separately from the ring-fenced budget) because money comes from NHS Research & Development. They’ll be providing £200m.

      *Other issues:*

      Health research must remain stable in real terms.

      MoD budget is down so there will be some loss of research in that way, but hopefully not too much.

      Want to ensure strong backing for climate research and energy etc

      Focus on budget split — want to take lead from scientists guiding Research Councils priorities

      No intention of leaving any of the big European projects (e.g. CERN and ESO)

  13. andyxl says:

    It seems that when you vote in the poll, you don’t get to see the “other” entries. So for your amusement, here are some examples :

    • Cuts won’t be as bad as postulated; UK Government’s bark is worse than its bite.
    • Don’t care. Already accepted a job offer in Outer Mongolia
    • Don’t care, I’ve already accepted a new job at ESO…oh crap!
    • UK ATC to convert the Crawford Building into DSS flats for out of work postdocs
    • Whatever happens, priority will be given to protect RAL-Harwell innovation
    • Careful with that axe, Eugene

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