Wednesday, 20 October 2010

The science doghouse

Today, scientists in the UK and particularly those in the financially strained Science and Technology Facilites Council are awaiting the toll of the death bell. Well, near enough anyway, as George Osborne is about to announce the spending review. In case you’ve been living under a rock, this government’s actions are anticipated to bring swinging cuts to both higher education and scientific research budgets.

For higher education the outlook is bleak with expected cuts of about £3bn for teaching and £1bn for research. It seems to me that the strength of the top UK universities such as Oxford and Cambridge is their ability to provide first class teaching – especially one to one tutorials. They already struggle to afford this financially. Their other strength of course is their world-leading (and world-beating) research, which is also in trouble as they rely on public funds for much of it.

But the government tries to cheer us up by telling us that the education budget for schools has been ring-fenced. All this tells me is that we’re giving those students who make it through their A-levels a chance to enter universities which are most definitely on the way down in terms of teaching and research.

I’m an optimist but I’m still envisioning UK universities sliding down the ranking tables, being less attractive to international and fee-paying students, a loss of income from these students and basically: a downward spiral. Don’t even get me started on the uncapped fee structure – at this point I’ve concede we’re going to need it to survive.

So now to the science budget, which according to the news is not all doom and gloom. The BBC this morning have announced that science cuts will be ‘less than feared’. In general this is a good thing. But anything other than a real terms increase in cash for the STFC at this stage sends us further into the depression that we’ve entered since its creation.

STFC scientists have been offered what I can only call “carrots” - funding dangled in front of our noses in the vain hope that we'll keep trotting along. I put pledged funding for Diamond light source in this category. Equally though, there have been a number of scare rumours going around about “shutting down an existing facility such as ISIS” – which scares me, as there goes my partner’s job! To most of us, pledged funding in one area just means that its becoming more likely that our area is going to be decimated. No hard feelings to the Diamond team though…

All my fellow PhD students in particle physics and accelerator physics are going to be looking for jobs in the next year or two and I fear that there just won’t be any. Most labs (such as RAL) already have hiring freezes. New post-docs in universities aren’t being created because no new projects are being funded right now. The only option seems to be moving abroad to countries with governments who have some understanding of the economic worth of science.

But what worth is that to the UK? Our taxes pay to put these people through undergraduate and postgraduate degrees and then there are no jobs for them when they finish. It’s cost us the price of a house (or more) to educate them – and we’re just going to let them leave to our competitors!? It seems not just sad to me, it seems downright stupid.

Moving here from Australia back in 2007, I didn’t envision that within the scope of my PhD the UK would move from science powerhouse to science doghouse. It’s a sad day all round for Britain. I think I’m too depressed to work.

1 comment:

  1. Moving to a lab in Germany (DESY?) might be something to consider. Not that the situation is much better there, but it's apparently not as bad.