Our Day in Court : Part two

February 21, 2008

Yesterday was the second session of the IUS Select Committee investigation into the Science Budget Allocations, with the comittee grilling the Science Minister Ian Pearson, and Research Council Supremo Keith O’Nions. You can listen to the live recording of the proceedings. I reported on the first session here, and you can find the transcript here.

Pearson and O’Nions were completely truthful throughout, but placed shall we say a certain gloss on matters. Likewise, in places they were interestingly helpful, and in others were careful to silently drive round certain holes in the road. Lets have a go at summarising/paraphrasing some of the key statements made by Pearson and O’Nions, and reversing back over the potholes.

Crisis ? What Crisis ? Its all over blown. Everything is fine.

I know this will have annoyed a lot of people, but lets not waste time on it. Politicians can’t agree there is a crisis in public. They never do. Would you ?

No grants cuts. There is an impression abroad of swingeing cuts, but actually they are staying broadly level.

Andrew King nailed this one in his piece in Research Fortnight the other day. First, it is true that in 2006 and 2007 astronomy grant awards went up; so the size of cut depends on what baseline you compare to. Second, grants last several years; O’Nions was quoting RAs in place, which will take about three years to show the full effect. This round, according to Andrew K, 88 RAs are leaving and 82 RAs are arriving. Those 88 however mostly come from the 2005 low year; if the awards stay at 82, then the un-replaced fraction will be going up over the next two years. After three years, the effect on RAs in place will be pretty much the 25% cut that STFC in December asked every University in the country to be ready for.

There is more money for Universities. Including FEC, money for astronomy grants is going up 67% over the CSR, and 43% for Particle Physics.

Absolutely correct. Don’t just shout at Keith Mason and Keith O’Nions. Get inside your University committee system and find out where the money is going. This is related to the next point : O’Nions was asked “so who is that extra money being taken away from” ?

Inappropriate unfunded research. FEC is not a shift from QR. Its real extra money. What was happening in the past was that Universities were doing underfunded research, and taking the money effectively from teaching and from not fixing the roof etc. This is what FEC is for.

Absolutely correct. However, as I said last time, watching the pea under the cup is tricky; its not clear enough extra money has been allocated to the Research Councils for this purpose, unless they cut grant volume.

This is only part of Physics. Not every area of Physics is damaged, or complaining. Some people are indifferent.

This was in fact a subtle but important understatement by O’Nions. My condensed matter and photonics colleagues (some of whom I know read this blog) are not just shrugging their shoulders and saying “nothing to with us”. They believe that any day now they will have to close down beamlines and so on because of problems originating in Particle Physics and Astronomy – uncontrollable subscriptions, huge project commitments, grants that had been going up. And they were made very nervous by STFC announcing that they would make £120M cuts to solve an £80M problem. Finally, they get annoyed by us guys referring to “core physics” and behaving as if STFC were the same thing as PPARC but gone a bit wrong. Even finally-er, they score points on KT and we don’t. (I know thats wrong in a deep way, but thats the way it looks).

Think on this hard as we come up to Wakeham. Is its remit “to look at the health of particle physics, astronomy, and nuclear physics” ? Nope. Its “to look at the health of physics.” Firm voices will be heard to argue as follows :

The essential problem is that university physics departments rely too much on astronomy and particle physics. For twenty years, universities have been hiring astronomers because it gets bums on seats; the number of academic astronomers has grown considerably. That army of astronomers of course demands more RAs and more telescopes, insisting that RC funding follow the same trend. But this is in the opposite direction to government policy towards more practical and economically focused research. This has to stop. Universities cannot blackmail the government in this way.

Answers on a postcard please.

STFC did not inherit any problems from the merger.
The budget of the merged council was the same as the sum of the two. An NAO report before the merger did due diligence and did not find either PPARC or CCLRC to have any deficits.

This really was economical with the actuality. The merger happened just in time before the deficits hit CCLRC. This is unambiguously stated in the NAO report and the later proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee. By 2003, the Diamond and ISIS-2 teams had correctly estimated the predicted operating costs, but the CCLRC projected budget did not have enough to cover these costs. This is what the NAO report says about CCLRC :

The anticipated total increase in its operating costs is in the region of £25 million per annum at 2006-07 prices or around 12 per cent of the Council’s current annual operating expenditure. If the Council does not secure additional resources, this degree of cost growth could exacerbate existing constraints….

That last bit means “they would have to shut down ISIS and Diamond half the year”. Now you see why our condensed matter chums are worried.

The STFC budget was increased. On the basis of flat-cash plus FEC, STFC had the second largest increase, after MRC. The net increase was 3.2%. NERC was 2%; EPSRC and AHRC were -1%.

This is very useful and fascinating in various ways. First, EPSRC and AHRC are probably worst off because they are completely dominated by grants, whereas NERC and STFC have a significant fraction of facilities costs. Second, it does indeed look like FEC has been slightly underfunded. Third, STFC, did indeed get a perfectly decent settlement. So what went wrong ? The answer is bleedin’ obvious, and is contained in the section above. Everything would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that STFC inherited from CCLRC an unfunded overcommitment of £25M/yr.

I can fine tune this a little. A colleague of mine recently got someone pretty knowledgeable in The Machine to say privately that “the CCLRC overcommitment is about 70% of the problem”. OK, so STFC got net 3% over three years, i.e. 1% per year, so an extra 6M/yr-ish. Thats about a quarter of of 25M/yr.

So in round terms, three quarters of our problem is inherited Harwell campus overcommitment, and one quarter is other stuff – loss of subscription protection etc. Keep repeating this mantra.

Daresbury has a healthy future.
We are absolutely committed to building up Daresbury as a Science and Innovation Campus. Every day new companies are signing up.

OK, we believe you. But as various committee members stressed, this policy may fail if there is negligible core science there. The SRS has gone and they didn’t get Diamond. ILC work has gone out the window. The future of the 4GLS concept is uncertain. They have a vague promise of 50M for a supercomputer centre (the Hartree centre) but does that make sense now ?

Pearson and O’Nions got lots of hard questions along these lines, and persistent pressure on whether there should be a policy of regional development. Mutter Mutter Haldane. By contrast, the discussion of ATC took ninety seconds. Blah Blah understand useful discussions going on about closer links with University etc etc. Wasn’t sure what to think about this. Keep my head down or climb up and wave the Scottish Banner ? Somewhere in between maybe.

Lessons learned in communication. The fuss made by certain parts of the physics community has been unfortunate, and obviously orchestrated. We must think about how to handle this better next time. There has been a lot of criticism of the STFC advisory process. It did not look anomalous from where we were sitting, but obviously this is something we can look at.

By Civil Service standards, this was actually quite strong stuff. “My underlings screwed this up. But I want you to understand it wasn’t my fault.”

That’ll do for now. Watch out for news from Council Feb 28th, and the Science Board Town Meeting on March 3rd. That is when the blood-fest starts.


Our day in Court

January 23, 2008

So the Select Committee hearing on the Science Budget Allocations finally came and went. You can listen to the proceedings
at the Parliament web site. There are postings at the Astronomy Blog and at Chris Lintott’s Universe . There are already all sorts of angry comments on earlier posts of mine here and here . STFC have put out a positive news spin on the BBC , but Ken Peach has produced a Panglossian parody of this . I didn’t know Ken was quite so erudite. (My daughter once asked what “erudite” meant. I told her it described the kind of person who knew what “erudite” meant).

So what have we learned ? Here’s my take.

It was all a mistake.

Oh no it wasn’t.

“Unintended consequences” was the line taken by Michael Rowan-Robinson and Peter Main, who were utterly cogent overall – but wrong on this point. This was a conscious act by DIUS. To be fair to Keith Mason, he says this consistently and firmly. The priority was medicine. Who is going to argue ? And they had to fund FEC, and the subscriptions; and meeting the costs of Diamond and ISIS. Fine. Tick, as MRR said. STFC and DIUS knew that this left the rest of the programme in a hole. They could then have added just a wee bit more. They chose not to. They chose not to because astronomy and particle physics did not make a strong enough case; and some people believe genuinely that University departments are too reliant on particle physics and astronomy.

Whatever short term help we may or may not get, this is the big message. We aint getting the message across, and unless we do, at the next CSR we are utterly sunk. Mason et al have screwed up in all sorts of ways, but on this basic issue they have told the truth repeatedly.

But the hearing was depressing because it sounded like Keith agreed with this government view of astronomy.

FEC : watch the lady

Paying for Full Economic Costing really is a problem. And it is going to be worse for EPSRC, as they are grants dominated. If you are doing condensed matter physics, don’t be smug … EPSRC will probably start announcing cuts a few months from now. But how can this be ? Surely the whole FEC thing should be cost neutral ? It looks like the Government has not passed enough money to the Research Councils to pay for FEC .. so this is really a hidden cut that we hadn’t understood.

But there is some extra money here … and its flowing to our Universities. Where will it go ? Its meant for infrastructure, not PDRAs, but we should asking our admins for that lab refurbishment and extra server and so on that we might have put on grants … Don’t wait until that new Management School Building appears and you wonder where it came from …

Diamond is not the problem .. or is it ?

Diamond is not the problem. CCLRC underprovisioning is. The Diamond and ISIS guys are professionals. By 2003-4 they had accurate operating cost estimates, and have stuck to them since. But CCLRC never had enough money in their budget to cover this : they were £25M/year short, as explained in the National Audit Office report. They were crossing their fingers. It seems they were right to trust in God. Eventually, God agreed that exploiting Diamond and ISIS was top priority and just had to be paid for. At the hearing, it was pointed out that the consequences of this were stated clearly in the Delivery Plan. I quote from page 7 :

Our ability to fully exploit the facility will depend on the success in making the savings elsewhere in this plan.

Remember, this what they had to write after their bid for that wee bit extra had failed.

Was PPARC Science damaged by the merger ?

Of course it was. At the hearings, Keith denied this, pointing out that their initial budget was equal to the sum of the two old Research Councils. But as explained above, the CCLRC budget had a £25M/yr hole in it. Derrrh.

Should we go for a vote of no confidence ?

I am not going to go for personal criticisms in my blog, although I won’t stop other’s comments unless they are really over the top. I don’t think its the right place.

What do we do ?

Either back room deals are happening or they’re not. Most of us can’t do much about that. Hopefully they are, and it will produce enough money to smooth over the chaos.

But get ready for the future. Make the case for fundamental science. Brain Cox can’t do it all.