I’ve now worked my way through the DIUS select committee report (not with a fine toothcomb, though), and there are some extremely interesting conclusions. You can find the whole thing here, or just trust my reading of it.
The meat starts on p20, which discusses the budget left to STFC from the two councils which preceded it, CCLRC (large facilities) and PPARC (particle physics and astronomy). It is true that neither council had a budget deficit when the merger happened, but the committee remind us that
STFC has been left with a bill for the operating costs of Diamond and ISIS that is £75 million … above the sum that was allocated in its budget following the merger.
Diamond and ISIS are large facilities at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, which are used by scientists from almost all disciplines (but have very little relevance to astronomy). Where to find the money to pay for these operating costs? Back to the committee
it is the former PPARC programmes that have been cut rather than the former CCLRC programmes. In other words, the former PPARC community is being penalised by the merger with CCLRC. This is a situation that the Government had promised would not come about.
But wait, why didn’t anyone notice? Oh…
This was noted by the National Audit Office in January 2007, and therefore the Government should have known and should have acted upon it. The fact that it did not has had unfortunate consequences. We believe that the Government should ensure that its original commitment to leave no legacy funding issues from the previous Councils is honoured.
Moving on, past headline stuff including a description of the Gemini confusion, we come to the part that resonated most with me. Over to the report again:
Given the anxiety that grant cuts are causing to the physics and astronomy community, we are dismayed that STFC has been attempting to play down the effects of the cuts on the grounds that reductions in future grants are not problematic. We consider cuts to grants that had already been promised a major problem. We urge STFC to take immediate steps to communicate clearly and comprehensively to its research community the impact of its grant cuts.
which echoes what I’ve said before. Those of us in the UK astronomical community are big enough and, god knows, ugly enough to deal with the situation as is if only someone would tell us what was going on.
I wrote earlier about the issue of waiting until the government’s Wakeham review of physics was published in September. The committee were told this was pointless but
We recommend that STFC wait for the results of the Wakeham review before implementing the cuts proposed in the Delivery Plan and that it use this time to consult with its stakeholders.
And that’s it; the conclusion is nasty – calling for substantial changes in the way the STFC is run, and questioning Keith Mason’s ability to carry out these changes. I know that others will jump on these, and who knows, they may be right to do so. It’s a difficult call from my position, but to be honest I don’t care who is in charge. If we can just hang on until the Wakeham review, then the report would have done a great deal of good.
In theory, I’m pleased with the report. It says clearly a lot of things that needed saying, and should help make the picture clearer. But I’m also an hour or so away from the start of my last night on a telescope on Kitt Peak, an observatory I’ve wanted to visit since a trip here helped inspire me to chose an astronomical career, doing excellent science based on the participation of the Galaxy Zoo volunteers. So you’ll forgive me if I stop letting this distract me and get back to what I want to be doing – it is, afterall, what any of us involved in the argument want to be doing.
(Science available at the Galaxy Zoo blog.)