UK big science – tough decisions possible, but horrible compromises too.

Some parts of British public life (Serious Fraud Office, Poet Laureate) have titles that are designed to attract attention. Others are named with just one aim – to call them something so dull that people will forget their existence.

One such is the Science and Technology Facilities Council. It is one of seven UK research councils. The other six have names that more or less tell you what zone of knowledge they toil to expand – here medicine, there the natural environment, over yonder, the arts and humanities. But “facilities?” The poor STFC can’t even use the hashtag #STFC because Swindon Town Football Club got there first. (They went for #STFC_Matters.) Bizarrely, both bodies are in Swindon, UK. The name is derived from Swine Town.

The reason for this modesty is simple. The STFC is a place where all the uncontrolled financial risks of British big science go to sit. The LHC, one of the world’s biggest scientific instruments, and in just about the world’s most expensive place, is only the start of it. Currency-risk telescopes in the dollar and Euro zones add to the excitement, as do new and interesting commitments to expenditure in SA Rand and in the Aussie dollar, one of the world’s most soaraway currencies thanks to the national policy of sending the top 100m of the country to China in the name of mineral exports. And of course, top-flight science projects are not known for predictable cost implications in any currency.

Indeed the STFC is the linear descendant (although nothing is ever quite that simple) of earlier bodies called the Central Council for the Laboratory of the Research Councils (even more magnificently dull than STFC) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (terrible title, tells you what it does).

These bodies were created (starting with CCLRC) because the Treasury panicked at the risk to the science budget of uncontrolled foreign currency risks. However, UK science spending is a single unit in the eyes of the moneybags in SW1. So this risk cannot simply be put aside by the announcement of a new structure and the printing of fresh compliment slips.

But this week there were definite signs that the STFC is showing some leadership. There has been uproar from the Royal Astronomical Society at the STFC announcement that it is largely getting out of its commitment to big telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii. Fair enough, these machines are highly productive and have many decades of discovery left in them. But it is much better to have a planned campaign of withdrawal from these sites than to have a massive cash crunch, the third in recent STFC-and-ancestor history. (One bad point about the STFC announcement – absolutely no numbers were given. Let’s hope they exist.)

After all, this decision was inherently taken when the UK decided to join the European Southern Observatory and put its energy and cash into ESO’s Chilean mountaintops. The island telescopes will probably survive on some new basic and keep doing good things.

But. This announcement came hot on the heels of another, on the location of the new Square Kilometre Array radio telescope. There had been high excitement and mega-lobbying for months, because SKA will be a fantastically great telescope as well as bringing jobs and cash. The fight was between Australia (+ NZ) and South Africa (+ some neighbours). Only problem is that the developers fluffed the decision and awarded it to both bidders.

This is not a UK decision as SKA is a world machine. But a lot of the management is here, because of the big UK role in radio astronomy. It is project management 101 that a budget cannot survive big changes of direction such as the decision not to have a single site. This may well provide further justification for the island telescope decision. Certainly it means that SKA has entered a new era of financial and management uncertainty. Fortunate that SKA is a modular machine and even a small bit of it will be able to do great science.

About Martin Ince

UK-based science and higher education journalist, big strengths in universities and university ranking, futures, media strategy and training, Earth and space sciences
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