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A stunning end to the IYA

The year 2009 is almost over, and it has been an amazing one for astronomy. I've done more outreach and talked to more people than I can count, and it's been brilliant. The International Year of Astronomy has resulted in enourmous amounts of outreach around the entire planet and huge numbers of people getting their first look through a telescope. But, for many astronomers in the UK, this has now been overshadowed by the latest in the great STFC saga.

In an announcement posted on the STFC website on Wednesday last week, the outcome of the latest reprioritisation exercise was revealed. On the chopping block are numerous facilities that are currently doing good science, some that are in construction, some which are only in the planning stages, as well as a significant number of studentships and fellowships. This has been coming for some time now, and has involved a long consultation with the community (so, some progress since last time then). Here's the full PPAN list from the announcement:

Projects to be funded:
Astronomy: Advanced LIGO, JCMT (to 2012), Gemini (until end 2012), ING (to 2012), KMOS, VISTA, Dark Energy Survey, E-ELT R&D, SKA R&D, SuperWASP, e-MERLIN, Zeplin III; Total cost of £87m over 5 years.
Particle Physics: ATLAS, CMS, GridPP, nEDM, Cockroft Institute, IPPP, LHCb, MICE, SuperNEMO, T2K, John Adams Institute. Total cost of £155m over 5 years.
Nuclear Physics: NUSTAR. Total cost of £11m over 5 years.
Space: Aurora, GAIA, Herschel, JWST-MIRI, LISA Pathfinder, Rosetta, Planck, ExoMars, Hinode, Cosmic Vision, Solar Orbiter, Stereo, Swift, Bepi-Colombo. Total cost of £114m over 5 years.

Current PPAN projects subject to discussions leading to managed withdrawal:
Astronomy: Auger, Inverse Square Law, ROSA, ALMA regional centre, JIVE, Liverpool Telescope, UKIRT. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £16m. Total savings of £29m over 5 years.
Particle Physics: Boulby, CDF, D0, eEDM, Low Mass, MINOS, Particle Calorimeter, Spider, UK Neutrino Factory. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £25m. Total Savings of £32m over 5 years.
Nuclear Physics: AGATA, ALICE at CERN, PANDA. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £2m. Total Savings of £12m over 5 years.
Space: Cassini, Cluster, SOHO, Venus Express, XMM. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £28m. Total Savings of £42m over 5 years.

That's a lot of cuts. Why are we losing so much? This goes back a couple of years now, to the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) in 2007. A combination of the move to full economic costing, the loss of protection on exchange rate fluctuations on international subscriptions, inadequate allowance for inflation and GDP fluctuations, cost overruns on existing projects, and the merger process itself, resulted in a large gap between what was being funded and what we could actually afford as a community.

The first indication many of us had that anything was wrong was when, with no warning or consultation, STFC pulled out of the Gemini collaboration back in November 2007. Since then there have been numerous develoments, not many of which have given the astronomical community in the UK much cause for optimism. This hasn't just hit astronomers either, particle and nuclear physics are also facing rather devastating cuts as a result of all this. The whole sorry affair has been documented in extraordinary detail by Paul Crowther, an astronomer in Sheffield.

So what do the politicians have to say about all this? In Gordon Brown's fist (and, to date, only) speech about science on February 27th 2009 he said:

"Some say that now is not the time to invest, but the bottom line is that the downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future. And so we will not allow science to become a victim of the recession - but rather focus on developing it as a key element of our path to recovery."

This statement seems at odds with what is currently happening. You've got to wonder if the PM is aware of the magnitude of the current situation with STFC and the very real impact it will have on the research community. How much science are we losing for what is really a small amount by government standards? (How much does a single Eurofighter cost?) Yes, we are in an economic downturn. Yes, there are many demands on a much-tightened budget. But destroying whole fields of research seems like a really good way of hobbling the country even further during a recession which is going to need scientists and engineers to help pull us out of.

The current science minister, Lord Drayson, does seem aware that this is now a serious situation. He put out a statement on the same day as the STFC announcement which contained the following:

"...it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010."

I've written about the STFC troubles before, but it is still deteriorating. It looks like it could get even worse before it gets better. The outcome of the recent prioritisation exercise seems to have puzzled many in the community. Some projects which were ranked low are still funded, while all of the highly ranked facilities will still have to deal with cuts. Add to that the significant reduction in PhD scholerships and postdoc positions, and the UK stands to lose a large proportion of its promising talent, both to other careers and overseas.

From my point of view, currently working overseas and shortly to start looking for my next post, the future does not look promising. A part of me was hoping that I might be able to find a position back in the UK - I miss the hills, the snow, and my family - but this now looks like a vanishingly small prospect. What incentive is there to return? Not much that I can see, from a career perspective. If I did go back, chances are that it would not be to academia. Now, we don't train up so many astronomers expecting them all to stay in academia: it benefits industry when students take the skills they learn in research and apply it to real world problems. But, honestly, I have no idea what else I might do since I've never wanted to do anything else. So, as long as I can find work in astronomy, it looks like I will stay overseas for the forseeable future.

Read the RAS response to this in their press release, and more on the whole situation on various blogs around the intertubes, watch the #stfc hashtag on Twitter, and keep an eye on Paul Crowther's website for updates as they happen.

Posted by Megan on Sunday 20th Dec 2009 (12:30 UTC) | Add a comment | Permalink


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