Austerity bites in Utrecht

June 27, 2011

As you may have heard, the University of Utrecht has taken the extraordinary decision to completely shut down its Astronomical Institute SIU  by 2014. You can read about in a blog post written last week by Sarah Kendrew, and there is also a press statement  issued by the SIU. This is the scariest astro-disaster since the INAF panic. Utrecht is a significant fraction of Dutch astronomy; it is one out of five universities in the NOVA alliance , although of course a significant fraction of Dutch astronomy also goes on at two big NWO  labs, ASTRON  and SRON , as well as the ESA establishment ESTEC.

Some of the comments on Sarah’s post suggest that Dutch astronomers are not planning a protest campaign, because they don’t want to rock the boat in the upcoming NOVA review, and I have had similar comments by email from at least one Dutch ex-pat colleague. This may be a mistake. The “Science is Vital” campaign made a genuine difference here in the UK. You have to have a genuine case, but you also want to make sure you are not labelled as the patsy. If they change their minds about protesting, lets get our pens and keyboards ready…

The University of Utrecht is facing a horrible problem of course – 20% cuts. Like much of the rest of Europe, the Dutch – yes, even those softy liberal dope smoking Dutch – have decided that the age of austerity is upon us, and that the only way to get back the money we gave to the banks is to cut it from public services – from the armed services, from arts and culture, from everything. There have been some protests, eg over university cuts and arts cuts, but there is also a feeling that there is a puzzling absence of coherent mass protest against such drastic wholesale cuts , as explored in this RNW video piece.

The dutch deficit is pretty similar to ours – an accumulated debt thats about 75% of GDP, and a running annual deficit of 10% of GDP. You can see the UK statistics on an official government website, or loook at an interesting private analysis  here  put together by conservative writer Christopher Chantrill . To put this in perspective, France has reached about 100% of GDP, Italy 130%, and Greece 166%. So are we in a historically unprecedented debt-saddled epoch ? Nope. As the figure below, taken from Christopher Chantrill’s site, shows, debt as a fraction of GDP has been larger than 75% in the UK for the majority of the last few hundred years.

So where does the moral panic come from ? And why is it currently so obvious to everybody  in Europe that what we require is to cut spending, as opposed to (a) increasing taxes or (b) growing GDP by investing in economic activity ?

Well… I am not a knee-jerk Keynesian. These issues are practical, not philosophical. But it is puzzling that every government in Europe suddenly believes in austerity. As scientists we should care, both because we should believe in evidenec-based policy rather than ideological strife, and because science is the epitome of the case for investment for growth – over fifty years, not fifty weeks.

Evolution of UK national debt over history

Evolution of UK national debt over history, from Christopher Chantrill's UK public spending website

Gemini withdrawal : worse to come ?

November 18, 2007

The agency that now funds UK Astronomy – STFC – has announced its intention to withdraw from its partnership in the Gemini Telescopes. This is worrying news, but I fear worse is to come. The Treasury has left STFC with a gaping hole in its budget, and I don’t really understand why.

You can read the reaction of the Royal Astronomical Society here, a couple of UK Astronomy blog reactions here and here, and a letter to the Guardian.

I almost signed the Guardian letter, but had asked Roger Davies for some minor changes, and he was left unsure whether I wanted to sign or not by the time he had to act – I didn’t get back to my email at the right time. What I had suggested was a more sympathetic tone to the problems of STFC … They are in a tight hole.

Once every few years the UK Government holds a “Comprehensive Funding Review (CSR)”, which decides amongst other things the budgets for the Research Councils for several years. Here are the figures. Below is this year’s budget in millions, budget in 2010-11, and average increase per year after inflation at 2.8%. In reverse size order …

MRC Medical 543 707 6.4%
BBSRC Biology 387 471 4.0%
EPSRC Engineering & Phys.Sci 711 844 3.1%
ESRC Economic & Social 150 178 3.1%
NERC Natural Environment 372 436 2.6%
STFC Sci. & Tech. Facilities Council 574 652 1.6%
AHRC Arts and Humanities 97 109 1.2%

Source : Research Fortnight

At least its a real increase ? Not really. The way grants are paid to Universities has changed, and some of the extra money is to take account of that. When you allow for this, and compare to the STFC planned programme, they are about £80M short. This is a real cut.

This is not just a problem for Astronomy. Already, plans to go ahead with the 4GLS Synchrotron light source have been cancelled, and the long awaited second target station for the neutron beam facility ISIS looks doomed. The ambitions of the Nuclear Physicists to join FAIR look likewise a faint hope. Saving £4m/year on Gemini is just a wee bit of extra help ..

So.. if you write to your MP .. tell him/her how bad it is that the Government formed a brand new Research Council, and then screwed it straight off.