Science, Money, and Derring Do

July 11, 2013

Lots of readers for NAM and the Knife Edge, but only one comment. Maybe its a summer thing. The other Professor L expressed his surprise that I didn’t get whingeing about the Edinburgh footie victory.

Meanwhile, over in US-land, less than flat cash for the NSF is being hailed as a major victory. Typical government cuts are 5%, but NSF has “only” 2.1%. Thats before inflation folks. It includes $232M for Astronomy in FY2013, as we can see here. This is probably stage 7B in the 11 stage horse trading process or something. US politics and bureaucracy is very hard to follow. Anyhoo. I am crossing fingers for the LSST kick-off.

Back in the realm of her Brittanic Majesty, if you really want to see how research funding works, the NAO (isn’t that the Nautical Almanac Office? – Ed.) has released a very informative report which you can find here. I think the bottom line is that our R&D per unit GDP is slightly better than Kazakhstan or something like that. This perfectly simple flow diagram explains everything.

How R&D funding works in the UK

How R&D funding works in the UK

Because science funding is so depressing, I have been retreating into entertainment. Rather than my usual habit of finding old records, I went out and found some old books. I just read a 1930 copy of the 1916 book Greenmantle, the Ripping Yarn that John Buchan wrote after The Thirty Nine Steps. Its a spy story set in the middle of the First World War, climaxing at the battle of Erzerum. Interesting and confusing. I kind of expected an Edwardian book to be written in turgid and complicated sentences, kinda like Dickens or Scott I suppose, but in fact its in short punchy very lively style. It really rattles along. I also expected it to be jingo-istic and full of racist stereotypes. Well it is. But it is also full of surprising insights and sympathies for ordinary Germans, and for Islam. A very interesting post was written on this topic by Jeremy Calder at the Liberal England blog. I can’t say it better, so visit that if you are interested. It seems really surprising that Greenmantle has never been a movie.

Science in spending review : story so far

June 26, 2013

Quick off the mark Beeb summary here. The real McCoy here, for patient readers. (In standard government fashion, much blether and very repetitive…)

Headline (1) Science budget flat cash.  Could have been worse but not exactly good.

Headline (2) Capital budget increased – extra 500M 2015-16.

Detail (1) Increased capital budget is

…enabling significant investment in projects including autonomous robotics, Big Data, and major upgrades and new facilities at Harwell Science and Innovation Campus


Detail (2) : MRC budget apparently not moved to Department of Health.

Most important point… just the beginning boys and girls. Research Council carve-up not yet announced, and maybe not even fixed. Fate of QR (see Peter’s blog post from yesterday) and student finance etc still unknown. Gird your loins and buckle up your breastplate.

EPSRC : a capital affair

February 2, 2011

I just came back from an EPSRC roadshow presentation to our University. Interesting to compare this to the STFC one we got a week or so back. Possibly the most striking thing, given that EPSRC is the biggest research council (budget 760M), is that the attendance was smaller than for the STFC show, and there was a much larger fraction of finance and admin people as opposed to scientists. I think this shows that despite all the troubles of the last few years, astronomers and particle physicists still think of STFC as “their” research council, whereas other physicists, chemists, engineers etc think of EPSRC as a remote government body that holds some money they can ask for.

Of course EPSRC are full of impressive sounding noises about “strategic choices” and “nurturing leadership” and “concentrating excellence” and so on, but the truth is they have very few levers, and no coherent community to converse with, so I doubt if the fuzzwords will have much impact. Talking of which, they also talk of “embedding impact” and “driving cultural change”, but in fact what they (and the rest of RCUK) are doing is slowly broadening and loosening the meaning of “impact” so we can all do some. Fine by me.

So whats the big budget picture ? EPSRC are facing a 3% cut in cash year on year, so when deflated, thats looking a bit grim. Of course, as the EPSRC chappie told us, these are the best of times; in cash terms, they are at a maximum, and even when deflated, 2010 is as good as 2004. But we are looking at the downward slope. For many people its worse than that. About half the EPSRC budget is in those societal themes – energy, digital economy, health etc – and they are being protected. Normal disciplinary grants – now cutely called “National Capability” are now at 458M, next year 427M, and 400M the year after that.

Scarier still, for some, is that capital cuts are severe – down by a factor two from about 100M to about 50M. Problem is, about half that 50M is tied up in Culham fusion stuff. So getting big equipment from EPSRC is going to really tough. In fact, they are talking about moving some money back into equioment – by taking it from grants of course.

Meanwhile, they are trying to apply pressure for people to do equipment sharing, as per the Wakeham Efficiency Review. This made my condensed matter and chemistry chums a bit cross. According to them, they are pretty good at this, whereas the medics waste lots of money this way – every group has to have its own equipment, and their labs (according to my colleagues..) are full of things that are used one or two days a year. Anybody know if thats true ?

Making Enemies

September 15, 2010

I am getting a bit perturbed by this Cable bashing thing. Maybe we are unwittingly making an enemy of someone who means to help.

After his Radio Four blunder, and the related speech at QMUL,  the BBC smelled rebellion in the air; the Twittersphere went into overdrive, as described in Roger Highfield’s S-word post; Peter Coles concluded that big cuts were signalled ; Brian Cox told Sun readers that Cable’s plans might be “wiping out 50% of UK research”; now Robert May says Cable is being “just plain stupid”.

Even The Daily Mail is worried about the lunacy of cutting science budgets. Crikey.

Lets get some context. The whole coalition government drastic cuts thing has me fuming. It is an ideological exercise aimed at rolling back the state, with the fiscal deficit employed cynically as a handy way to keep the public on side. The UK should be going for a mixture of modest cuts, tax rises, and infrastructural stimulus spending. Well, thats my personal opinion. But we are where we are. In that  context, Cable, a sound economist and all round good Liberal, is in a very difficult position. Every minister is saying “my Department is an exception !!”. Osborne ain’t accepting that.  What would you do in that position ? Well maybe you would talk tough while quietly protecting things that matter.

On Radio Four, speaking live, Cable implied that a large fraction of research grants are below world class. That is palpably wrong and was an appalling error. I hope he is wriggling in shame over that. Read the QMUL speech and there is no doubt what he really meant – that only 55% of the teaching staff employed at Universities are actually doing the world class research that the UK is justly famous for. But those folk already get 90% of the HEFCE/HEFCW/SFC research funding, and nearly all the RCUK grant funding. We are already pretty much doing what Cable argues for. So what is in his mind ? Clearly further steepening of the QR funding, maybe even removing QR from the lower end completely.

This could be bad, but is it “wiping out 50% of UK research” ? Of course not. Could it be misunderstood as wanting to do that ? Well yes, but only if you are looking to pick a fight.

Sometimes picking a fight is the right thing to do. Things are getting savage, and you need to establish that you ain’t a sucker to be victimised. What Cox and Highfield and others have been doing speaking up for science has been tremendously important and valuable. More please. But painting Vince Cable as Mr Evil ? Doesn’t smell right.

Put your tin hat on …

September 13, 2010

… its going to get a bit rough. Everybody is getting twitchy as the spending review approaches. The trade unions are polishing their breastplates and preparing the battle plan. Special pleaders are lining up – not just us bossy science types, but for example our Arts colleagues – defend the arts ! On the radio this morning I think I heard the military getting their US chums to say that defence cuts would damage the special relationship. And so on and so forth. Meanwhile the banks claim they are protecting the future by agreeing a “radical” new limit on capital-to-lending despite the fact that most banks are already safely inside that limit, and bonus culture is still rampant.

I can’t be doing with all this worrying about spending cuts. I have eight million students to interview this week. Mind you it is a bit depressing, especially the recent Vince Cable “45% of UK science is rubbish” fiasco. (Follow the links at Peter Coles’ excellent article and comment stream)

If we understand what Cable really meant – take QR away from the weakest departments – its contentious but not staggering. Yes we have the usual “shock horror half results below average” rubbish, but we all knew three years ago that such a QR shift was threatened, and it implies a cut of only a few percent. What really got the science world up in arms however was the fact that he mistakenly referred to “grants”. Research grants demonstrably go ONLY to excellent research.  The impression Cable left was very badly wrong. I can’t believe he doesn’t know this. It may be almost however in the current climate for him to make anything approaching a correction or apology.

Where I part from Peter is over his insistence that government should fund what can’t be funded elsewhere, i.e. only proper science,  not commercially relevant research, leaving that to investors etc.  I get the point of course, but that way we end up in a few years with EPSRC+AHRC having the same budget as AHRC.

GB review : deadline approaches

July 27, 2009

Like many others, I got an email this week with a link to notes from the Ground Based review Town Meeting. You can find this linked at the official GBFR page.  There is nothing very unexpected from that debate, but Michael Rowan-Robinson stressed that we should all pitch in. At the time of the town meeting, there were 95 responses. To make the powers that be pay attention, MRR says we need at least 400, similar to the number that responded to the Ward panel. I know some of you may be thinking “what difference does it make ?” but unless there is a large response, there will be every justification for thinking that ground based facilities don’t matter very much. So get your response in !

The panel have also made it clear that they can accept unsolicited papers, as long as these are within two pages. General rants won’t help at all, but if you have a specific proposal, make sure its known.

MRR also noted that somehow we have to make our economic impact case. In various places, senior STFC folk have made it clear that “the case for space” is made, and indeed there has been a fair amount of PR recently about space and the UK economy and the new Harwell ESA centre, and indeed a consultation has been launched. It seems a bit rough to split off “astronomy in space” from other astronomy, as astronomy overall could have made a good economic impact case. Note however that most of the space industry is not about astronomy, so if space-based astronomy gets bundled up, thats good. But the lesson is that we can’t allow “astronomy on the ground” to be forced into an unfunable ghetto. Must be some trick here we haven’t thought of.