Posted by: mattburleigh | May 5, 2010

Who should this astronomer vote for?

The last two years have been a funding nightmare for we astronomers (and for the particle and nuclear physicists). We are pulling out of telescopes and experiments, and looking at a 40% cut in the number of research postdocs. Jobs are already being lost in my Department, and by 2012 I will lose access to some very good facilities (perhaps all telescopes apart from those operated by ESO in Chile). None of this, by the way, is because we are simply taking our fair share of public sector cuts necessary to make a dent in the country’s budget deficit (which is what non-scientist friends immediately assume). Cuts from that have yet to happen. The current funding crisis is a result of an accounting cock-up when the government funding body was created (STFC) in 2007, and/or a deliberate decision to run down investment in “blue skies” activities like astronomy and particle physics by individuals in government, the civil service, and I’m afraid these sciences, for their own reasons. Take your pick of conspiracy or cock-up or a bit of both, and make a guess as to when the conspirators decided to make their move: before the creation of STFC? Or after? In any case, without feeling the need to constitute some democratic nuisance like an independent, comprehensive review of the subject in the UK. So the coming election is of special interest to scientists, especially astronomers and particle physicists.

Back in March, long before I knew about the damage ash may or may not do to airplane engines, I attended a commons debate (held in a Westminster Hall) on “The future of physics funding”, organised by the Lib Dem spokesman on science, Dr Evan Harris. Unfortunately, the debate was scheduled at the same time as the Royal Space Force UK Space Agency was launched. So precisely two physicists (both of us astronomers) attended: me and Paul Crowther (who maintains this excellent website about our funding crisis). It was my first time attending a debate at Westminster, and a very interesting experience. The “public gallery” consisted of a few chairs at the back, while the debate took place under commons rules (all that “member for Trumpton and Chigley” stuff). Only a handful of MPs were there: Evan Harris (LD), Adam Afriyie (Consv. shadow science minister), David Lammy (Lab. Higher Education Minister), filling in for the Science Minister Lord Drayson, who was launching the Her Majesty’s Interplanetary Command UK Space Agency, Lembit Opik (of course, LD, though he disappeared quite early, presumably to also bathe in the glow of some astronauts), and a couple of interested back-bench Labour MPs.

Evan Harris spoke first, and gave an excellent and impressive summary of the issues we face. Two points he made stood out for me. Firstly, he said that astronomers and particle physicists were now faced with a stark choice: accept the planned cuts and start again at the much-reduced funding level, or refuse to accept the serious damage currently being done and continue to fight for a return to the previous level of investment. He also emphasised the viscious circle of not enough students choosing A level Physics, hence too few going onto Physics degrees, hence not enough going into research, high tech industry, and especially teaching, and hence not teaching and inspiring the next generation. I’ve been banging on about this latter point for years to anyone who will listen, and many more who’d prefer I’d shut up.

Adam Afriyie gave an intriguing little speech. Frankly I was expecting him to be disinterested: I have no confidence that the Conservatives’ will care about science funding. Instead, I got the impression that Afriyie himself did have a lot of sympathy for Harris’ arguments, and for the put-upon astronomers etc. But when pressed by Harris, Afriyie had to basically admit what we all know: an incoming Conservative govt will hold an emergency budget and slash the public sector. The euphemism “efficiency cuts” means funding cuts, and science is an easy target, especially for a party with, historically, little interest in it. The TImes reports that Afriyie has now said “major science budget cuts are inevitable”.

For Labour, the Higher Education Minister David Lammy was, frankly, awful. He wittered on about how wonderful Labour had been for science in the UK compared to the Tories 1979-97, which no-one disputes, but failed miserably to address any of the issues surrounding the cuts to astronomy and particle physics. I don’t think he had a clue what he was talking about, nor cared.

Since then we’ve had the party manifestos, each of which has had something to say about science funding. Indeed, each party leader has responded in writing to the Campaign for Science and Engineering on a set of questions about science funding issues. This is very welcome, although unfortunately none of them have promised to give astronomy its money back, and indeed they are all pretty vague on the subject. You can read the party’s illuminating responses in the Guardian .

It’s clear that whoever emerges victorious (or not) on Friday will almost certainly cut the science budget further. The question is the degree, and how this might affect my already maligned area. Labour have done enormous damage already and, worryingly, Lord Drayson has disappeared during this election campaign. I don’t trust them to put anything right. The Conservatives will be an absolute disaster. We already know they will cut the public sector in general far more than the other parties, and given their history, science will get it in the neck. Another big cut to STFC’s astronomy and particle physics budgets could conceivably spell ruin for those subjects in the UK, with very damaging knock-on effects for Physics departments like my own. At the leaders debate last Thursday, Cameron said all the right words about the importance of science and technology to the UK economy. But like most politicians, and certainly those of his background, he simply does not see the link between the huge public enthusiasm for “blue skies” subjects like astronomy (cf Brian Cox’s recent series, the best watched BBC2 documentary for a decade), the way it inspires young people to study science and become the technology entrepreneurs of the future (and the City brains…), and the need therefore to properly fund it. Unfortunately, science (and the whole higher education sector) will be a big target for the Tories.

The only party I trust to even remotely consider looking after science funding are the Lib Dems, and their excellent, knowledgable and enthusiastic science spokesman Evan Harris. They’ve got my vote, and for countless other reasons (Saint Vincent of Cable). Pray God, Harry and Saint George for a Hung Parliament.

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