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By John Womersley

During the past six months, I’ve seen something I never thought I would: stories about science on the front pages and op-ed pages of major British newspapers, and scientists interviewed on prime time BBC current affairs programmes. The only problem is that these stories have all been about funding shortfalls, cuts to grants and potential cessation of support for prominent projects. And this is happening despite a government which claims to strongly support science. What is going on?

Most scientific research in the UK is funded through research councils, which receive their money from government on a three-year cycle. Particle and nuclear physics, astronomy, space, and large facilities for the physical and life sciences like synchrotrons and neutron sources, are all funded through the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). STFC was created in 2007 by merging two former councils, one responsible for particle physics and astronomy and the other for national laboratories and facilities. In autumn 2007, the government announced its funding for STFC for 2008-2011. Once various mandatory commitments have been taken out (increased support for university researchers, depreciation costs on fixed assets, and so on) the budget is roughly flat cash (“flat-flat” in US terms) for the next three years. By STFC’s calculation, this leaves it £80M short of what it needs for its “core” activities and £120M short of what would be needed to have enough headroom to start new projects. In a total three-year budget of £1.9 billion, such shortfalls might seem manageable, but STFC carries large commitments to international subscriptions (CERN, ESO, ESA and so on) and to projects that can’t be renegotiated easily.  

STFC’s Council (its governing body) therefore made some strategic decisions to withdraw or limit involvement in projects. One of the most visible of these decisions was to cease to participate in the International Linear Collider (though in fact we are maintaining support for generic electron collider work at a reduced level). We initiated a programmatic review of all of our ongoing projects and facilities in order to potentially reprioritise them within a more tightly constrained budget. This review was carried out by our science advisory panels, who did an excellent job in very difficult circumstances. As may be imagined, the research community was not at all pleased with the overall situation and in particular felt that decisions were being made without sufficient community input, so a subsequent phase was added in which an open consultation was conducted and ad hoc panels of researchers were convened in each subject area to make suggestions on alternative ways to prioritise projects. This process has concluded and the results have been announced on our website (www.stfc.ac.uk). STFC has implemented a restructuring plan which will see significant reductions in its laboratory staff and tight squeezes on facility spending. Partly in response to the unhappiness caused by reduced funding, the government has instituted a review of physics which will look at such things as the sustainability of support for university physics departments. While some are hoping that this review will result in additional funding becoming available, we have been told publicly that this will not happen.

While tempers are still high and the consequences are still playing out, I think there are already a number of lessons to be drawn from all this. The first is that a research programme can be squeezed, but the process is very painful and damaging. Relationships were frayed over the past six months which may take years to repair. The second is that a science case is not a business case.  STFC Council did not question the science case for the Linear Collider; they questioned the wisdom of investing in R&D towards it, given their assessment of its funding model, construction start, and indeed its overall likelihood of going ahead.   

The third lesson is that even when the overall climate for science seems good, one cannot assume that everyone will gain.  Governments do set priorities and sometimes these priorities reflect public policy considerations as well as science. In fact, one of the difficulties STFC has faced is that it must now make priority choices of its own–between support for light sources and for particle physics, for example–that used to be the domain of government when they were funded separately. The science community is not yet comfortable with such choices and often almost seems happier to see these decisions made by politicians, though this may change as familiarity grows.   

The last and most important lesson is that when bad things happen to funding, there is a strong tendency to look for an immediate cause. It is assumed that one bad decision, or one person’s poor performance, is responsible, and if that person were just to be replaced, all would be fine. I don’t subscribe to this view–I believe that when bad things happen to funding it usually means that an underlying climate exists in which funding for that area of research is not seen as being as important as other ways the money could be spent. Changing this underlying climate is much harder work, and will take much longer, but unless it can be done the situation will not fundamentally shift, and the next funding settlement may be even less pleasant. The good news, at least in the UK, is that the media have demonstrated an interest in science and its support and a willingness to devote resources to the story. This is a great opportunity. To take advantage of it will require the research community and funding agencies to move past recent strong disagreements, and it will require talking about the science opportunities we are pursuing as well as the ones that we regretfully are not able to. If we can’t do this, and do this together, we will all deserve whatever happens to us.  

John Womersley is Director of Science Programmes for the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

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