Merry Fucking Christmas

December 15, 2009 — Leave a comment

Sorry about the blog post title – it’s one my favourite South Park Christmas songs and it is in my head at the moment. It is also fairly apt for tomorrow’s announcement by the STFC. Their council of elders met today to discuss the research council’s future direction and tomorrow at 2pm they’re dropping the bomb. UK astronomy is looking at devastating, era-defining funding cuts as the STFC attempts to ‘prioritise’ where its money goes. They are widely expected to reveal a plan for the next 5 years that puts facilities ahead of people and there are many UK astronomers bracing for the news that their jobs will very soon cease to exist. Merry Fucking Christmas!

I’m not one to engage in STFC politics – I’m far too vulnerable and ignorant as a PhD student. There are much better blogs to read about that sort of thing. However in light of the prospect that I might shortly head into this funding minefield to try and get a job, I figure I may as well make a few observations. It is also worth spreading the word around the blogosphere. Most of my readers are from outside the UK and are likely unaware of the disaster unfolding in UK astronomy.

The funding gap is an astonishing £70 million which itself begs some explanation. How on Earth did it come to this? As I understand it, the STFC is going from around £100 million of annual spending power to just £30 million. That is a massive drop and although I understand where some of it came from (exchange rates and loans, for example), it always seems to hark back to a more general problem of bad management. The merger of PPARC and the CCLRC was clearly a disaster – you cannot merge two financial entities, remove a huge chunk of money and expect everything to be hunky-dory.

The management of the fallout from that merger was also appalling and confusing. The best example was in a town hall meeting at the 2008 National Astronomy Meeting. A student who asked why he should ‘take the risk’ of studying solar physics when there were now going to be no UK jobs in the field was told by the head-honchos of UK astronomy that he could either wait ten years or go and work abroad. Brilliant.

The STFC – like many other organisations and individuals – isn’t standing up and fighting for science enough. With the current economic climate you can see how education and hospitals might get defacto precedent over radio telescopes and PhD grants – but the truth is that there IS money around still – just not as much. If astronomy doesn’t fight for it then someone else will obviously get it – we shouldn’t just willingly roll over and perish. If the STFC won’t argue the case for the benefits to society from astrophysics research then who will?

Finally there is the issue of people vs. facilities. Job security in UK astronomy is rock-bottom right now and not just because of these looming budget cuts. The rolling grants that sustain many researchers in the UK  – including many of my friends at Cardiff University – are reducing dramatically and coming up for review more often. In short many people no longer know if they’ll have a job from one year to the next. This is terrible for recruitment and terrible for morale. I have joked before about the deathly way in which we are sometimes told of colleagues ‘leaving astronomy’ – something that is almost always a one-way shift – but for many UK astronomers at the moment this is likely the sound option if you have a family or a mortgage. It usually pays better too.

The tragedy is that as 2009, the International Year of Astronomy, comes to a close, astronomy in the UK sits under an ironic cloud. Having spent the year trying to inspire the country to become excited by astronomy, many professional astronomers may go into 2010 as financial analysts, software developers or web designers. This country has an incredible astronomical history and, although I’m sure that will continue in the long term, it will be a very sad thing if tomorrow we learn that 70% of UK astronomy is no more. There is surely some other approach to the problem than slashing budgets, culling jobs and pretending that this is the direction we were aiming for all along.

If anyone on the STFC Council is reading – and I doubt they are – how about holding steadfast to the people instead of the facilities? You can always buy back into some telescope down the road but you’ll not get back the postdoc who is forced to leave to go work for a bank. How about making the case for UK astronomy and fighting for more money from the government?

Just a few observations. Like I say, I don’t know enough about all this. I’ve probably oversimplified it and brushed over the details. But it affects me and my family, it affects my country and my future and since I have a voice in this blog, I might as well use it. I hope I’ve got it all wrong and I await the news tomorrow afternoon. But I have a feeling this Christmas will be a crappy one for far too many astronomers.

UPDATE: In view of Amanda’s comments below I’d thought I’d add that if you want to try to help save astronomy you should visit http://www.saveastronomy.org.uk/ and take a look around. You can write to your MP, as I have done, and just tell people about it. They have examples of letters, links to online petitions and general information. You can also read Paul Crowther’s website which explains every part of this disaster in stunning detail.

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