STFC crisis letter

Having read again Ian Pearson MP's dismal response to the STFC young researchers' letter, I finally got round to sending my MP a letter on the subject today, via WriteToThem, which is copied below. Since I'm trying to squeeze understanding this situation in among a lot of other work, I hope I haven't got the wrong end of the stick too much. Also, apologies for the crappy English --- I didn't have time to finesse it, or find a better word than "decimate" for describing 25% cuts.

Anyway, here it is, for the record...

Dear Roberta Blackman-Woods,

I am sure that you have already had several letters in recent weeks about the funding crisis at the Science and Technology Research Council (STFC), not least from your constituents who work in or with the Ogden Centre for Fundamental Physics at Durham University.

While I have been remiss in not contacting you on this issue before now, I feel that the letter to young researchers from science minister Ian Pearson MP is deserving of a response. For your reference, the original letter to John Denham MP from 559 young scientists can be found online at, Mr Pearson's original (and insultingly jumbled) reply can be found at, and a re-sent, tidied-up version here: I'll be referring to the last of these, since it is actually coherent, if misleading.

The letter spends a great deal of time missing the point by emphasising the overall increase in science funding. We are aware of this, but it begs the question of how fundamental science research can be cut at the same time as increasing overall funding. The minister is then careful to describe the STFC budgets in terms of raw sums, without acknowledging the obvious effect of inflation, and less obvious factors such as the concurrent move to full economic costing of research grants, the removal of exchange rate protection on international research subscriptions (e.g. for CERN) and the fact that most of the budget is already ring-fenced. The effect is that the 13.6% increase over 3 years, of which he is remarkably uncritical, translates into an 80m shortfall over 3 years. This is not big money when compared to the costs of many other government schemes, but it threatens the future of this whole area of science research in the UK.

The rub is that this 80M leads to a 25% shortfall in real grants --- an violent blow to a research area in which the UK is internationally prominent and successful. This will create serious problems for Durham University's physics department: we receive more than 50% of our research funding from STFC. To make matters worse, the STFC delivery plan in the face of these cuts involves focusing its efforts on the industrially-connected parts of its research portfolio. This will take more funding away from particle physics and astronomy in universities. We are in serious danger of paying huge subscriptions to international research sites like CERN, but having no money to pay the university research staff who would use them.

The minister also attempts to invoke the Haldane Principle to distance the Government from these problems, by saying that the decisions of where to make cuts have been made purely by STFC. While this may be true, it's obviously rather hard to reconcile the need for cuts in STFC research grants with the "budget increases allocated to it." It's also evident that these decisions would not have been necessary if the budget had been sufficient to cover STFC's operating costs. The DIUS was briefed by the STFC that a flat cash settlement would result in huge and unacceptable cuts to research, and still a flat cash settlement was chosen by DIUS: either this was intentional, contrary to DIUS' own 2006 white paper, Next Steps, or incompetent. With this settlement, since STFC had no freedom to withdraw from the bulk of its ring-fenced expenditures, the result is that they have had very little room to manoeuvre at all. Their decision, to prioritise funding on the more practical and industrially connected aspects of their portfolio, may be understandable, but the fundamental research that was previously funded via the PPARC research council is definitely getting the raw end of this deal.

I should emphasise the importance of this "blue skies" research, for it is not as isolated or irrelevant as it may be perceived to be. Without basic physics physics research, many lucrative and important practical technologies such as the MRI scanner could not have been developed. The World Wide Web was an offshoot of particle physics research. Additionally, particle physics and astronomy are the "poster boy" subjects which encourage young people to get into physics in the first place: most end up either researching in more directly practical areas or taking their numeracy and computing skills into industry. With UCAS intake levels for physics already worryingly low, cutting the very area which most encourages the intake seems completely contradictory to the overall Government policy on education and science.

It's not too late to do something about this situation: interim funding of 20M until the Wakeham review reports in the autumn would avoid going past the point of no return. Given the contradiction between the consequences of this policy and the DIUS Next Steps 2006 white paper, it seems evident that this is an unintentional situation, which threatens to disproportionately decimate the research being done by STFC researchers and the international reputation of Britain as a supporter of fundamental research. Please do what you can to ensure that these dismal predictions do not come to pass.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Andy Buckley
Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology
Department of Physics
Durham University

(Signed with an electronic signature in accordance with subsection 7(3) of the Electronic Communications Act 2000.)


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