Reality Check

I’ve been interviewing candidates for postdoc and PhD positions in particle physics at UCL. This against a backdrop of the start of high energy physics at the LHC, ongoing STFC cuts and government responses to them, and a general election in which science and higher education are at least occasionally noticed, now we realise we can’t rely entirely on the City of London to keep the UK economy in the top ten.

I have been alternately uplifted and depressed.

Uplifted by the large number of highly qualified and motivated applicants. After selecting only the good, serious candidates, we were oversubscribed by a factor of twenty. These are smart people, coming (mostly) through our educational system with a love of physics and the intellectual drive and capability to do research at the forefront of fundamental physics.

Depressed because we have less to offer them,  since the government underfunded STFC in 2007. More than £50M per year will have been removed from the budget for particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy by 2012 under current plans. Once the international subscriptions have been paid, this budget was only about £200M, so this is a massive cut which inflation makes even worse.

What did Labour ever do for us?

The LHC, as well as the strong supply of candidates, can be seen as triumphs of UK investment and endeavour spanning several governments, but in particular under Labour since 1997. As is well documented, this investment was betrayed in the spending review of 2007, well before the recession, with the ill-conceived merger of two research councils to form STFC. A combination of a miscalculated budget, currency fluctuations and the large and inflexible costs associated with running big facilities have squeezed the life out of our future.

These are dramatic words. But consider – under current plans for “managed withdrawal“, the UK will stop searching for the Dark Matter which makes up 25% of the universe, will stop developing energy-frontier experiments after the LHC, will not even participate in the next stage of two of the existing LHC experiments, and will not carry out R&D for future neutrino experiments. This is a devastation of a whole field, and there is a comparable or worse situation in nuclear physics, astronomy and astroparticle physics.

The science minister, Lord Drayson, showed every sign of being a genuine champion for science in cabinet. He recognised the problem, held a review, and produced a set of good proposals. Except that the fix for currency fluctuations still has to be agreed with the Bank of England (and, I guess, the Treasury), and the horrific future planning lines under which particle physics, astronomy and nuclear physics are suffocating still show the impact of the facilities running costs. Lord Drayson may be a champion, but the words he has spoken have yet to have an impact on the ground, and with the election rolling on, it may well be too late. One has to suspect either his civil servants or his senior colleagues don’t share his enthusiasm. As things stand, there is no commitment from Labour to stop any of the damage they claim to have unintentionally inflicted on their own legacy. At best there are fairly vague proposals to stop it happening again.

What next?

There are some fine words about the importance of science to the economy in all three of the major party manifestos, and I’m glad about that. There are more in the replies from David Cameron and Nick Clegg to the CaSE letter – Gordon Brown has yet to reply. Clegg even mentions the STFC crisis specifically and promises to say more on this, which I look forward to. Maybe Gordon Brown is working on a reply to CaSE which will really firm up Drayson’s intentions and therefore save our future science.

There is even some acknowledgment that you can’t have the benefits of science in the economy without funding ground-breaking, exciting science. The conservatives have promised to postpone the use of economic “impact” predictions in university funding decisions at least until their “impact” is better understood, and the LibDems have a specific manifesto commitment to “Reform science funding to ensure that genuinely innovative scientific research is identified and supported, instead of basing funding decisions on narrow impact factors.”

This is good. But at the risk of sounding like a broken record, massively disproportionate damage is being done right now to some of the most exciting, attractive areas of science where the UK is genuinely a world leader. The futures of students graduating now are blighted. Skilled technical and scientific staff are losing their jobs. Brilliant scientists are being shuttled between pointless budget-free committee meetings while their international competitors and colleagues forge ahead. All from a stupid mess which predates the economic crisis, and which, since Labour denies any intent, we must ascribe to incompetence.

I know there are many other issues on which people will make their choice on May 6th. Even amongst science issues, STFC is not the whole story. And I know I have a strong vested interest here. But the issue is an indicator as to the meaning of the rhetoric all three big parties have produced on science and technology.

I would love to see Labour put in place a concrete budgetary fix. Lord Drayson’s proposals basically need to appear in the forward planning for STFC.

The conservatives have not acknowledged the special nature of the problem with STFC. The LibDems have, and have promised to say more. Both parties should be piling on the pressure on this. If Labour can’t fix this, why should we trust them to deliver any of their proposals? And if the other parties can’t see it, appreciate its importance, and fix it, why should we trust them to do better?

[Note 11am 27 April: A tighter version of this is now on the New Scientist's S-Word. I love professional editors :-) ]

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About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics Prof working on LHC, dad, dodgy guitarist, Man City fan in exile.
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