Those who hold the purse strings for science funding in the UK aren’t doing any favours to anyone recently. Not to themselves and certainly not to researchers early in their careers like me. The minutes from a recent meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) made their way to my desk this morning. Their contents? Most troubling.
“Things are bad – but are going to get worse.”
A lot of people will probably know about the ongoing saga of the STFC. The STFC (Science and Technology Funding Council), as has been noted in the past, formed from a merger of two previously existing research councils. Upon their formation, they promptly slashed the budget from physics and astronomy — apparently to cover the funding deficit incurred by other areas. This prompted much furore and a few official investigations. Seemingly, things aren’t set to change much any time soon.
Very simply, there’s more talk of planned budgetary reductions on top of the shortfall from previously (which is still taking its toll on UK astronomy). The RAS, understandably, are greatly concerned about all of this and how it might affect the future of astronomy in the UK. The biggest concern is that while the UK is currently one of the world leaders in astronomy research (in some areas, we are the world leader), uncertainty over funds could be highly damaging. The worst part is that the STFC themselves seem to be under the impression that they’re already spending plenty (if not too much) on astronomy. Which… is frankly rather a ridiculous assertion. While some people might study purely to get qualifications which will afford them a better salary in industry, others amongst us are doing what we’re doing because we enjoy doing active research, and wish to carry on as academics. Unfortunately, we’re the ones who might well suffer as a result of this if postdoctoral jobs start to dry up. Some of us are here because we don’t want to take our transferrable skills and work in industry. That’s why we’re happy to take already low salaries and a lack of immediate job stability to do what it is we want to do. The STFC speak of minimising the flow of talent to academic careers in astronomy overseas, but in all fairness, they’re not giving us much of an incentive to remain here. Ironically, those in charge of these research councils should be well aware of this, having been though much the same situation earlier in their careers!
Members of the RAS council are also seemingly concerned that leading figures in the STFC are starting to believe that the UK astronomical community has grown too large. Which seems strange to me. We’re not exactly the largest of scientific fields by a long shot. Indeed, it’s a relatively small scientific community, split into even smaller sub-communities. Which is part of why I like it, to be honest.
Long story short, the RAS are unhappy about the arrangements of the research councils. Not surprisingly. It’s times like this when I’m glad I’m interdisciplinary and get my funding from the EPSRC instead…