Batteries not included

The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is currently taking evidence from stakeholders on an inquiry into the UK's science budget. One recent submission of evidence came on behalf of STFC's Science Board, chaired by Prof Alison Davenport of the University of Birmingham. You can read the full document here, or download the PDF. With George Osborne promising to push on with his programme of austerity unencumbered by pesky coalition partners, and the research councils once again under review, the science community (myself included) are concerned about the future of the science budget in the UK. It's always good to have some numbers and facts at hand when trying to argue such things, and this document provides a useful insight into how the science budget in the coming years will affect STFC science, including astrophysics, in a concrete way.

For 5 years, the UK science budget has been protected from cuts. Given rising costs this still means a real-terms cut of around 10%, however given the scale of the austerity programme across the board science has fared pretty well these last years. The Conservatives highlighted science and innovation as a top priority in their election campaign, but their funding strategy does not always yield the best results for UK science, which requires long-term sustained funding for people as well as facilities.

It's fantastic to hear ministers speak proudly of flagship projects the UK plays a leading role in, such as the Square Kilometer Array, but science is more than buying into a collaboration or paying for a shiny new building. We need the resources to keep the lights on, fill the buildings, run the experiments, train the students, and bring the science home. It's astonishing to read that a facility like ISIS, a world-leading neutron and muon source facility at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is now only operated for 90 days a year, down from the optimal number of 200, for lack of funding. Without an increase in funding, ISIS faces closure in 2019/2020, and Diamond will see a decline to 70% of optimal capacity even if the flat cash arrangement is maintained, without even considering the additional operating costs required for its newest beamlines.

This is a recurring theme in Davenport's report, using the expression ``Batteries not Included'' for this funding strategy: substantial investment in new world-class projects such as high performance computing and international physics and astrophysics projects like the European Spallation Source (ESS) or the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), but no money to hire the technical and scientific staff necessary to bring the exciting new science and technology to our universities. And the country's investment in science affects far more than our scientific excellence. Our experimental physics facilities provide important services to physical and life sciences industry, and astronomers collaborate heavily with industrial partners on new projects. The whole economy can suffer.

A third of internationally-recognised astronomers in the UK now receive no funding from STFC, the number of STFC PhD studentships has declined by 25% since 2008, and fellowship schemes have been terminated. UK astronomy does extremely well in securing EU funding, but the UK's position there too faces a precarious future in the next few years. The best students and postdocs are being snatched up for trendy data science jobs, and experienced technical personnel leave for more secure and better paid positions in industry. There is little room for innovative and high-risk projects, and our credibility as reliable long-term partners in international collaborations is under threat. The report estimates that an additional £18m per year in STFC's annual resource budget of £400m would restore the programme to healthier (but still squeezed) 2010 levels - a pretty modest rise.

Politicians speak highly of UK excellence in science, but our current reputation is the result of investment 10-20 years ago - the LHC in the 1990s, Diamond in the early 2000s. The true consequences of the decline in funding since 2010 will only be felt in the next decade. The UK's science spend has dropped to the lowest level in the G8 countries as a percentage of GDP. Science and innovation are a long-term game, and it's important that we raise awareness as a community of the consequences of the current research funding climate. I note that the Science is Vital group is once again stepping up to the plate, with an event planned on 26 October at Conway Hall in London. I'm out of the country that day sadly and many times zones away, but I'm sure it'll be a worthwhile evening for all those who care about the future UK science.