For the price of a banker’s bonus

The UK parliament’s Science and Technology Committee will today publish a report warning that Britain’s high international standing in astronomy could be at risk following government plans to reduce funding by 21% over the next four years. By 2015, spending in astronomy and particle physics – the two biggest big-science spenders – will be around 50% lower than in 2005.

When asked how much it would cost to maintain access to northern hemisphere observatories, funding for which is to be withdrawn in favour of continued support for the European Southern Observatory, astrophysicist and Royal Society president Roger Davies replied £2–3 million a year. The Institute of Physics president and pulsar discoverer Jocelyn Bell Burnell – probably the best Nobel laureate we never had – likened this modest sum to a “banker’s bonus”.

With parliamentary inquiries of this nature, there is always a great deal of lobbying and pleading from various ‘stakeholders’, and as a result it can be a challenge to come to a balanced view of policy developments. With this latest report on astronomy and particle physics, the committee is highly critical of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the agency responsible for funding astronomy and particle physics, with STFC executives and other civil servants damned by the parliamentarians for their lack of transparency and “silo mentality”.

While some of the criticism is warranted, STFC chief executive Keith Mason and his colleagues are caught between a rock and a hard place. They have some tough choices to make on future funding that will inevitably displease influential sections of the UK research community.

What will come of this parliamentary review of big science funding? Not a lot, most likely. There is currently little public sympathy for state-funded scientists, and the government has a considerable degree of ideological momentum behind its drive for spending cuts and an overall reduction in state responsibilities. Research impacts and immediate economic returns are the order of the day, and it could take a decade or more to overturn this new political orthodoxy.