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

Astronomy Grant History

February 4, 2011

Time for me to break a rule.

As many of you will know, I am currently chairperson of STFC’s Astronomy Grants Panel. I have steered clear of discussing AGP business on this blog, for obvious reasons. However, the current round is now complete, so I can relax that rule somewhat. I wrote a chairman’s report which went out yesterday on the astrocommunity email list. Paul Crowther has put it on his website, so you can read it if you haven’t already. Telescoping Peter has also done a quicky. I am not keen on getting into nitty-gritty implementation stuff in this arena, but some interesting big picture things have become clearer, which are quite appropriate for the blog. So here we go…

What really has happened to Astronomy grants funding over the last fifteen years ? If you ask any random astronomer over coffee, they will know for sure that grant funding has been cut inexorably for years. On the other hand, if you ask a random condensed matter physicist over coffee, they will know with equal clarity that astronomy funding has been ballooning out of control, forcing ISIS to close half the year etc. Meanwhile we suspect that the average Whitehall Mandarin believes that the essential problem is the growth of the astronomical academic community. Universities know that astronomy courses get bums on seats, so more and more astronomers get appointed, producing a pressure on facilities and postdoc numbers.

So what is the truth ? With help from STFC grants staff and E&T staff, and as ever, the redoubtable Crowther, here are the figures. The size of the academic community is estimated mostly by returns to the PPARC / STFC Education and Training Committee, for the purposes of calculating PhD quota places. It includes permanent academic staff, temporary lecturers, and senior fellows, such as RSURFs and PPARC/STFC Advanced Fellows – what one might think of as the “PI community”. The size of grant funding is characterised by the number of RA awards made in each year. Of course grants also fund technicians and equipment, and recently, part of investigator staff salaries, so the real situation is more complex, but the number of RA awards is a reasonable metric, and it is a number that people are directly interested in. Note that on average the number of RAs in place is roughly three times as large.

Astro grant and community data

Evolution of the astronomical community and grant funding

So what do we see  ?

  • The academic community has indeed grown, but by less than a factor of two, and the growth seems to have flattened off
  • From 2000 to 2006, PPARC, and briefly STFC, responded to this pressure : grant funding improved. But don’t forget this is during the good old Brown days when the Science budget doubled
  • Since 2006, grant funding has plummeted. It is now 50% of the 2006 peak
  • Its not just that we have fallen compared to the historic maximum. Grant funding is now at two thirds of the 2000 baseline.
  • At any one time, about one academic in three is in possession of an RA

Wearing my chairman’s hat, I can tell you that I showed this plot to PPAN, and an earlier version to Keef and Wadey in private conversation. Note that none of this tells the sceptical politician what the correct level of astronomical grant funding should be. But I hope at least it adds a bit of clarity to an often confused discussion.

Three scary stories

October 28, 2010

Comments are still dribbling along on my previous post, but drifting somewhat. Folks are determined to talk about ESO. Meanwhile I have been writing lecture notes and going to a workshop on sky survey data management. So here is a brief restart.

Just as we thought the groves of academe had gotten off lightly, we start to learn the awful truth. Following the Twitter trail yesterday (where would I be without Paul Crowther ?) led to three scary stories.

Scary story number one : teaching budget timing. A few days back that nice Mr Clegg told us he still had some principles and wouldn’t allow infinite fees, just much bigger fees. We should probably should have guessed something because the announced cut was 40% not 80%. But now it seems the cuts will come in before universities are allowed to raise their fees, leading to a temporary but huge shortfall. Only places with big reserves will survive. Of course this makes the “err… what will happen in Scotland ?” question even more complicated than ever.

Scary story number two. Spiralling JWST costs. Nature News call JWST “the telescope that ate astronomy”. Don’t hold your breath for that exciting new WFIRST. Maybe 2022 if you are lucky. One of the odd things is that the graph in that article seems to show the US astrophysics budget rising to a massive peak during the Bush years. Shome mishtake shurely ? I showed this to some Arizona colleagues last night and they were mystified.

Scary story number three. Capital problems. So “we” only get cut 10%. But…. MRC seem to be promised flat funding in real terms, and thats a big slice. And…. capital budgets will fall by 44%. But…. the new medical centre thingy and Diamond upgrade will go ahead, so even less left. And…. subscriptions come partly out of capital budgets. Its worth quoting Nature here :

That money pays for everything from radio telescopes to Antarctic research stations. In particular, the cuts will hit the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds particle physics and astronomy. The council, which has struggled financially for years, has been told to prepare for its capital funding to fall by a third, according to documents seen by Nature. That could jeopardize Britain’s participation in organizations such as the European Southern Observatory.


Place your bets

October 18, 2010

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.

INAF disaster

May 28, 2010

Scary breaking news : it seems the Italian Government are seriously considering closing INAF, the National Institute for Astrophysics.Warning : the material below is a mixture of fact, rumour, and speculation, so treat with caution until more facts emerge.

In the wake of the Greek situation, budget cut fever is sweeping Europe, including Italy as well as Britain of course. Berlusconi has announced a 24bn euro programme of austerity measures. As well freezing the salaries of civil servants, teachers and professors for four years, they are seriously considering closing INAF. The rumour I hear is that tenured staff will move to CNR (the National Research Council), with non-tenured staff being “sent home”.  Worried speculation is that Italian astronomy spending may be cut by 50% overall, and Italy may even leave ESO.

The INAF web site has a link to a letter from the Director, Tommaso Macccaro, to the Italian President. Those of you who speak Italian may be able to figure out a bit more.

This decision apparently happened overnight, without warning, and so has Italian astronomers in a state of shock. But I hear that the hit list of institutions has been changing daily, so who knows what may happen, and there may be cause for hope.

Appropriate addresses for letters of support etc :

Minister Maristella Gelmini
FAX no. +39-06-58492057,

INAF Chair Tommaso Maccacaro

Giorgio Napolitano, Italian Republic, The  President,
FAX no. +39-06-46993125

The President, as opposed to Berlusconi, is believed to be a friend of Universities and Research and trying to protect them.

Stay of Execution

May 24, 2010

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.