Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence


  The apparent funding uplift in the CSRO7 settlement for STFC actually falls well short of covering the responsibilities assigned to STFC following the merger of PPARC and CCLRC. This shortfall is only marginally offset by the increased expenditure on Full Economic Costing, which was itself introduced as a result of the Government's creditable recognition of the previous systematic underfunding of research.

  In the very short term, the ensuing programme cuts might appear to benefit the UK, since we expect the well-trained physicists made redundant by these cuts will be snapped up within the broader economy, in all major areas from high technology to finance. However, such precipitous cuts will surely cripple the training environment for future generations of scientists. The threat of many staff redundancies is already causing widespread depression amongst students and this mood can be expected to infect the prospective student population, causing a reduction in the flow of trainee scientists. The combination of a sudden loss of research funding and the accompanying reduction in student numbers will then likely lead to the closure of physics departments. Such an outcome is particularly perverse at a time when other Government funding is providing uplift specifically to increase the ability of physics departments to recruit and train students. Indeed, it surely undermines some of the Government's laudable initiatives to generate a substantial science-trained workforce.

  STFC funding of pure science benefits the economy through training scientists and more directly through knowledge transfer to high-technology areas. These range from advanced software and cutting-edge medical imaging to such practical technology as airport luggage scanners and number-plate recognition. A reduction in research volume will necessarily impact on these economic benefits.

  The Standing Conference of Astronomy Professors requests that the following practical proposals be urgently considered by the Government to rectify this unfortunate situation, and that appropriate safeguards be put in place to avoid any recurrence.

  1.  Balance between financing facilities and exploitation in STFC. A significant contribution to the current situation has been the financial structure of STFC's responsibilities. In particular, the "near cash" element of STFC's budget is much smaller than for the other research councils. This imbalance means that relatively modest cost changes in the non-cash element of the budget have a disproportionate effect on the near-cash budget which provides the only flexibility for changing expenditure patterns. Since scientific exploitation for astronomy and particle physics dominates this element, it is this exploitation that will be lost through the funding fluctuations that we are now seeing. Such fluctuations are particularly problematic because they can arise from non-cash shortfalls in subjects that have nothing to do with the areas of exploitation research that STFC supports through grants. It therefore appears to be fundamentally impossible in practice to ensure an appropriate balance between facilities and exploitation within a particular field. To mitigate this problem, we propose that for accounting purposes the non-cash elements of STFC's budget be devolved to the research council that makes use of the facility: for Diamond, for example, appropriate costs should be included within the MRC budget. STFC would, of course, retain its overall management role for facilities, and thus achieve the primary benefits of a single facilities structure for which it was set up.

  2.  International Subscriptions. The risk that has now been placed on STFC to deal with changes in international subscriptions puts a further inappropriate squeeze on its ability to deliver science, since these risks must be met entirely from the small near-cash budget that funds exploitation. Since the subscriptions exist not only to deliver science but also to raise the country's profile on the international stage and to generate revenue from the contracts that are placed with UK industry, it is not appropriate for STFC to fund the entirety of any fluctuations. The situation is particularly perverse in the case of subscriptions that are linked to GDP, since an increase in the nation's wealth leads to a corresponding rise in subscription and a balancing cut in our ability to carry out scientific research with these facilities. The SCAP therefore suggests that this element of the STFC budget should be paid directly from the Treasury as a reflection of its geopolitical nature.

  3.  Measurement of Economic Impact. It is generally accepted that pure science areas can have a dramatic economic impact in the long term (one need look no further than the creation of the worldwide web in CERN), and that they have further less-tangible effects through inspiring future generations to engage with science, and through training of mathematically and scientifically literate, high-quality graduates. However, these hard-to-quantify benefits have not been generally factored into discussions of the importance of funding science. Rather, measurement of economic impact has tended to focus on more direct knowledge transfer and near-market impact. The SCAP recommends that serious consideration be given to establishing a methodology for including the wider effects in the calculation of the economic impact of science, before they are squeezed any further out of the equation and their benefits are lost to the country.

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