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