Shortfall translates to reduced grants

December 21, 2007

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has confirmed that it is planning to cut grant funding available to university researchers by at least 25 per cent to balance its books after its budget settlement, writes Zoe Corbyn.

Further details of where cuts to the STFC's budget will fall were given during a marathon "town meeting" held last week in London by the beleaguered research council. "However you package it, this isn't good news," Keith Mason, the chief executive of the STFC, told the audience. "It will cause damage to our science, and it will cause damage to people's careers."

During the meeting, which lasted nearly three hours, some 120 researchers grilled the STFC executive over its lack of consultation on the cuts and a three-year government budget settlement which, despite an increase of 13.7 per cent in cash terms by 2011, leaves the STFC with an £80 million shortfall over the period.

The grant cuts will save about £40 million, half the shortfall. The STFC has also said it wants to save an additional £40 million to create "headroom" in the budget for UK involvement in new projects.

Last week it was confirmed that major projects and research areas would be cut, including the UK's involvement in the International Linear Collider particle accelerator and the Gemini Observatory. Grants here will also go.

Professor Mason said the volume of new responsive mode grants to be awarded from April 1 next year would be cut by a quarter and the council was calling for voluntary redundancies of in-house research staff.

He asked the community whether research studentships should be immune from cuts.

Michael Rowan Robinson, the president of the Royal Astronomical Society, described the cuts to grants as "disproportionate" and at odds with the STFC's prioritisation of international subscriptions. "Grants are how international subscriptions are exploited," he told the meeting.

The shortfall is mostly the result of an underestimate in the operating costs of the new Diamond Synchrotron radiation source and the Isis neutron source upgrade.

While some researchers privately blame Professor Mason for not pushing harder for more government funding, Professor Mason said the structure of the system, which provides specific funding to build new research facilities but not to finance their operation, was at fault.

"We have to have a more sensible way of funding the operation of facilities from capital money," he told the meeting, adding that it was something he intended to take up in the physics review announced by the Government last week.

The underestimate of operating costs was first publicly revealed in a National Audit Office report in January - although Professor Mason said they had been reassessed in 2003 and central Government made fully aware. "Someone should have accounted for that differential," he told The Times Higher.

Opinion, page 12.

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