Archive for Lord Mandelson

Spazio Commerciale

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by telescoper

So here we are then. The United Kingdom has its own brand new Space Agency, courtesy of Lords Mandelson and Drayson (or Peter and Paul as they’re known to their fans). It was launched today at a glitzy do in Westminster attended by everyone who’s anyone in space science, which obviously doesn’t include me. There’s even a new logo.

According to the BBC, the new agency will be “muscular”, but I’m not really sure what that means. Perhaps brains might be more useful than brawn in this context (unless it’s Werner Von, geddit?) In fact I’m not at all sure what the new agency is about at all. The UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA) and a big slice of the new agency’s budget will presumably be eaten up by the ESA subscription. Much of what we do in space exploration and astronomy is dictated by decisions at the ESA level so I don’t think the new UK Agency will have much impact on that. On the other hand, the only current UK space agency is the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which is an organisation notable only for its irrelevance. I’m not even sure whether it exists at all as anything other than a logo and an accommodation address above a chip shop in Swindon.

It’s somewhat easier to see what the new UK Space Agency isn’t about. The accompanying press release doesn’t mention astronomy at all, so it’s clearly not going to help us lowly scientists who would like to use space observatories to do interesting science. It seems that it is primarily aimed at commercial space activities, and the science bit will continue to be managed mismanaged by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

I’ve got nothing against the commercial exploitation of space, in principle, although it did provoke my feeble attempt at an Italian joke in the title of this post. The French, Germans and Italians spend much more than we do and this is obviously an area of great potential growth. I don’t object to the government using public money to help the space sector grow, either. In principle. The problem is that in these tough times the money has to be taken from somewhere else in the budget. Many of us were still hoping that the government might intervene to reverse the awful cuts we’ve suffered in physics and astronomy recently, but hiving space science off into a separate pot will probably make life even tougher for those of us left with the rump of STFC. I fear it means even less money in future going into fundamental science, and our decline is therefore set to accelerate even further.

There have always been tensions within the astronomy and space science community. Space exploration has scored many recent triumphs – such as the joint ESA-NASA Cassini-Huygens probe – but there are always difficult questions about the scientific value for money involved in sending things pottering around our backyard in the  solar system compared to, e.g., building observatories (either in space or on the ground) that can see things across the other side of the Universe. It’s difficult to see what the implications of the new agency are for this, but it seems likelyto me  that increasing amounts of public money will go on exploration at the expense of observation. I’m biased, of course, but I think there’s a lot more interesting science in the distant universe than there is nearby. In fact there’s more of everything further away than there is nearby! We may end up killing off ground-based astronomy in order to put a British flag on the Moon. That would be very sad.

But maybe this is too pessimistic. We don’t know yet how things will be divvied up between the new agency and the old STFC. Will there be any science  in UK Space, or will it be entirely commercial? Perhaps new missions and experiments will be funded through that route while exploitation continues to be  (under)funded by STFC?

Or maybe, since the new agency comes into existence on 1st April 2010, it’s all just an elaborate joke?

And while I’m being facetious, I wonder how many of you are thinking that the new logo looks like it was taken from the opening credits of Dad’s Army? I wonder if that choice was awfully wise, Captain Mainwaring?

STFC Chief Executive Keith Mason is very keen on the new outfit and is looking forward to working with it.  I know what Private Frazer would have said. We’re doomed.

PS. Andy Lawrence was there, and invites you to pump him  in the debriefing room over at the e-astronomer.

PPS. The new agency has now got a wikipedia page. It says there that the space agency will take over responsibility for space technology and instrumentation funding from other research councils. Presumably exploitation of space missions will either remain the responsibility of STFC or there won’t be any at all, which may amount to the same thing.

Life Cycles

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2010 by telescoper

This was a strange Saturday. Usually I don’t do very much on the weekend, except for a bit of shopping, tidying up, and of course the crosswords. Today, however, was one of our undergraduate Open Days wherein prospective students visit the department (usually with their adoring parents) in order to have a look around, learn about our research, and meet some of the staff that will be teaching them if and when they come here.  Our usual Open Days are Thursdays, but some people find it very difficult to get here on a weekday – parents working, school commitments, etc – so we have a few Saturdays too. Since I live within walking distance of the department I don’t mind taking part.

Bizarrely, my job today was to act as a tour guide around the experimental physics labs. I must be one of the least qualified people in the School to do that, as I’m a theoretical astrophysicist. As it happens, we had two groups to show around today and the other guide was Ant Whitworth, also a theoretical astrophysicist (though one who works on star formation, not cosmology like I do). Ours not to reason why. I got a free lunch out of it anyway, and also managed to find most of the places I was supposed to take the visitors to, most of which I’ve never seen before!

Anyway, it was nice to meet and chat with so many young people interested in physics. I hope to see at least some of them in October. Funding will be very tight this year for new undergraduates and although we’ve asked the University to increase our quota to take more students in, we haven’t so far been allowed to do so. I think that is the situation around much of England too, so I think some might not find a place at their chosen institution. I hope there aren’t too many disappointments when the A-level results come out.

The recruitment of undergraduates for next year is part of the cycle of academic life. We’re currently doing the same thing with postgraduates, although fewer people are involved in that case. The end of term comes up next week, then it’s the Easter break. Soon after that we’ll be back into examinations. Some will be graduating this year and we’ll have to say goodbye to them as they make their way into the big wide world. Others will leave for the summer and return to continue their studies next year.

The cycle of academic life is embedded within that of the seasons too. Today was a beautiful spring day in Cardiff. We’ve had sunny weather for a week or so already, but yesterday and today were the first days mild enough in temperature to be called spring. Yesterday evening as I walked home I noticed it wasn’t dark at 6pm, a sign that the days are getting longer. Soon I’ll be able to walk home through Bute Park,  which I can’t do at present because the gate on the east side is closed at sunset. I did, however, go back that way this afternoon after the Open Day activities were over.

There’s a lot of construction work going on, associated with Cardiff City Council’s plan to turn Bute Park into Bute Lorry Park, and one has to complete an obstacle course to get into it on foot these days. Still, once away from the affected areas the rest of the Park is shaping up again for spring and summer and there was quite a crowd there today, just quietly enjoying it for it’s own sake. You know, like a Park should be. I’m not looking forward to having to dodge juggernauts on the way, which is what is what the future seems to have in store.

Apart from the seasons and the cycle of academic life, I also thought on the way home about another cycle that is about to unfold. A General Election is due to be held this year. It seems like yesterday that I cast my vote in the last one, while I was living in Nottingham. Now the politicians are gearing up for the interminable months of electioneering that inevitably presage such events. I’m not at all sure at this point who I’m going to vote for. I’m disillusioned with the main parties and skeptical of the alternatives.

I heard last night on Twitter of a story that Lord Mandelson has promised that “The Science Budget will be spared from cuts”. That’s interesting because we’ve already suffered plenty. Perhaps the word “further” was accidentally omitted. Not that I believe him anyway. Why should I? It’s obviously just electioneering. Science Minister Lord Drayson also recently announced on Twitter that under the next Labour government, the UK will be the best place in the world to do science. I don’t believe that either, although I do have a little more faith in Drayson than I do in Mandelson.

I think the deep cuts already made to fundamental physics have in any case guaranteed the exodus of a huge number of talented scientists. And that’s emphatically not the result of the recession. It’s the result of deliberate government policy, sustained since 2007. I won’t believe New Labour’s claims about science until they own up and reverse the damage they have done, which I don’t think they’re going to do.

I have to admit that I am very fearful not just for the future of astronomy in the UK, but for the UK as a whole. Although people talk about the country being out of recession, the fact remains that we’re teetering on the brink of insolvency. I have a deep-seated feeling  that this election is critical. Very difficult decisions will have to be made over the next two to three years, and if we get them wrong, we could be propelled into a catastrophic decline. The trouble is, I don’t trust any political party to deliver a coherent plan for the recovery. The more I think about it, the more my optimism ebbs away. I hope I’m proved wrong.

Now after all that I haven’t done the Guardian crossword yet! Where’s my pen?

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , on January 2, 2010 by telescoper

Today is the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, which traditionally marks the end of the Christmas holidays. In fact, I was going to watch Bristol City versus Cardiff City which was due to be shown live for free on Welsh channel S4C. However, the pitch is frozen and it’s been postponed. So I’ll be taking down the Christmas decorations instead…

Now that it is no longer the season to be jolly, I’ve decided to return to the theme of doom and gloom that prevailed before Christmas. In particular, you may recall that just before Christmas, Lord Mandelson wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to announce a package of £135 million cuts for next year. It has now been confirmed – see the story in the Times Higher – that these cuts are on top of huge cuts arising from decisions announced in the pre-budget statement, earlier in December. Altogether these cuts will amount to over £900 million being taken from the Higher Education budget over the next three years, or about 12.5% of the total.

The reduction in budget amounts to a cut in the “unit of resource” paid by the government directly to universities, and with a review of tuition fees currently being carried out by Lord Browne, the likelihood is that students will have to pay much more in future to make up the difference if the sector is to survive at its current level. This would require lifting the cap on tuition fees, a decision on which will almost certainly be postponed until after the next General Election (due by summer 2010). The combination of immediate cash cuts and uncertainty about the future will cause widespread unease and apprehension throughout the university system, and I think it won’t be long before we start hearing of more closures.

We won’t know what the situation will be in Wales until the Welsh Assembly announces its allocations to HEFCW, the Welsh counterpart of HEFCE. I can’t say I’m optimistic, especially after reading their recent discussion document on the future of higher education in Wales. Things might work out rather better in Scotland, where the university sector seems to be valued more highly than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Physics will be hit particularly hard by these cuts. It’s an expensive subject to run, and attracts only modest numbers of students paying customers. Savage cuts in research grants and postgraduate funding from STFC will have sent a clear message to university administrators that this is a risky subject to be investing in, a point of view likely to be reinforced by the inexplicably poor showing of physics in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.  The outlook for physics and astronomy  looks even bleaker than for the rest of the university system, at least in England and Wales.

But my fears for the New Year are even wider than that. The deep cuts that have been imposed on Higher Education will save less than £1billion over the next three years. Compare that with the estimated budget deficit for 2009/10 of £178 billion and you’ll realise that it’s a drop in the ocean. The problem is that there’s an election coming up and the government is scared of trying to tackle the problem because of fears it will alienate voters. It has ring-fenced expenditure on politically sensitive things like schools and hospitals so the only things that it can cut are things that potential labour voters don’t care so much about, such as universities. And of course it realises that doing the sensible thing  and putting up income tax would be electoral suicide, although it is absolutely certain that whoever wins the next election will have to do it.

The biggest danger with the strategy of waiting until after the election before deciding to start tackling the debt crisis properly is that before long the international markets are going to realise that Britain is basically insolvent. It is true that the stock market has  recovered from its low point in March 2009, but only slowly and uneasily. The government seems to be assuming that  the markets will politely wait until Britain has gone to the polls before passing judgement on the longer term futue. However,  if sovereign debt rather than private debt becomes a major concern, I don’t think the UK economy will survive until the election without at least one major market correction, and off we’ll be into another, probably deeper, recession. It might not be the UK that sparks this off, but the levels of sovereign debt in Central and Eastern Europe could trigger a market panic that engulfs Britain too. The prospect of a hung parliament could easily give investors the jitters too.

There have been considerable increases in the level of government investment in UK universities over the last decade.  Admittedly, not all of it has been useful – much has been wasted in extra bureaucracy, pointless initiatives and ever-growing Human Resources departments – but at least years of neglect were being reversed.  Now the next few years offer the prospect of all the increases in funding being reversed. Higher education was one of the last sectors to benefit from extra government spending, and it is the first to have it taken away again.

Another kick in the teeth…

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , on December 23, 2009 by telescoper

I shall  attempt to beat the weather tomorrow and fly up to the North-East for Christmas break. This blog will therefore be offline for a few days (if I succeed in getting airborne). I wish I had a bit of good news to post before the holiday, but I’m afraid there’s even more bad news. Yesterday, Lord Mandelson (yes,  another unelected member of the government) has written to the Chairman  of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) outlining their budget for 2010-11.

The letter confirms £180 million in efficiency savings from the 2009 Budget and an £83 million deduction following last year’s grant letter. On top of those there’s another cut of £135 million ““the higher than expected costs of student support during the economic downturn”. Of this cut, £84 million will be switched from capital baselines, leaving a £51 million cut in teaching grant.  The letter says these savings should be delivered “in ways that minimise impact on teaching and students”, but doesn’t say who should bear the maximum impact. It also says “greater efficiency, improved collaboration and bearing down on costs will need to be combined with a commitment to protect quality and access”. In other words, all we have to do is supply a high-quality service at bargain-basement prices. Easy.

The research element of the funding is held roughly constant (at the obvious expense of teaching): “we have agreed to switch £84 million from your capital baselines, so that the reductions to the teaching grant can be held to £51 million.” Although the research funding is maintained in level, Mandelson says “securing greater economic and social impact will be important over the next year”. Not thinking in the short term, then. Next year will do.

The letter also asks HEFCE to develop proposals on:

  • Creating a more diverse higher education landscape, by increasing the range of alternatives to the full-time three year degree;
  • Maximising the impact that higher education makes to the economy by supporting the programmes with highest economic and social value;
  • Supporting research concentration to underpin our world class ranking, while continuing to support excellence in research;
  • Developing a standard set of information about higher education, so that all students can exercise informed choice about courses and institutions.

What these points really mean is:

  • Realising that slashing student support and increasing fees is going to deter many students from doing a degree, Mandy wants us to make up for it by offering more part-time degrees so students can work full-time as well as studying. Bad news for laboratory-based subjects.
  • Impact again. I’ve explained what that means already
  • In the letter, Mandelson makes clear the “Government’s presumption in favour of more, rather than less, research concentration”. Apparently they don’t care about doing the best research possible, just doing it in a smaller number of places. Idiotic. More worryingly still, Mandelson asks HEFCE to suggest how to achieve this in the 2010-11 allocations. In other words he wants HEFCE to tweak the funding  allocations arising from the 2008 RAE even further to stamp out excellence that isn’t sufficiently “concentrated”.
  • One size clearly fits all in Mandy’s Discount House of Higher Education.

Finally, Mandelson leaves us with the following message of goodwill

Over the next year, moving towards a sustainable position on pensions within the sector will be a key challenge

In other words, “I’m after your pensions too….”

Merry Christmas, Lord Mandelson. It’s a good job you’ll be out on your ear after the next election. But then I assume you’ve got a nice fat pension stashed away already.