Ensuring that there really will be no jam tomorrow-

Shutting down research facilities today? Does this mean Jam tomorrow? No! No! No!

It’s short-sighted and stupid.

Even Margaret Thatcher knew that… The ISIS facility in Oxfordshire (a neutron source in danger of being ‘mothballed’) was built in 1984 and opened by… Margaret Thatcher – there is a plaque there which shows the Iron lady’s appearance,you can go and see it
Margaret Thatcher

Now George Osborne and Co. want to shut it down. Shame on you, what would the blessed Margaret think? My point is, even the Tories of yore thought it was a good idea, despite their economic policies, which says alot.

The Guardian reports:
John Womersley, director of science programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), told the Guardian it would not be possible to achieve such deep cuts without mothballing a major facility. (N.B. the STFC ‘runs’ several major facilities – Diamond, a synchrotron for X-rays, ISIS – a neutron facility, among others in the UK – one of which might be targeted to shut down. Not to mention the UK’s involvement in CERN.)

Great that Womersley is supporting the STFC, that is really what you need in a director ….

In this same Guardian article shutting down a major facility has been likened (aptly in my view) to building the Olympic stadium and then just deciding not to have the Olympics.

Moreover, former Lib-Dem MP and science advocate Dr. Evan Harris has invoked a call to arms in a Guardian article, where and points out that the Con/Lib government doesn’t even have a Science Advisor! (Correction: I originally mis-quoted this, the government does have a Scince advisor, its theTreasury Department that doesn’t have a Science Advisor see here , apologies)
Similarly, Prof. Brian Cox has written about this as well, in the Sun.

so this is me arming myself in protest, for whatever its worth:

This idea to ‘mothball a major facility’ is so stupid on so many levels, and because I am so angry about this its hard to even comprehensibly write this blogpost. However who will care? Besides the obvious scientists…. Especially now that the DIRECTOR of STFC said lets mothball these things, and if he says so, than there might be the mistaken message this could be a good idea!

So here are my thoughts on why this is A REALLY BAD IDEA!

1 – OK its expensive to run ISIS, Diamond, etc. And maybe making financial changes is needed, but there a couple of points about this – Other EU countries buy into to this, do you think they can just transfer their money to saving the UK economy in some other fashion?

It took billions of £’s, time and effort to build these facilities in the first place, shutting them down wastes all of that money and in the long-term isn’t economically smart.

Private, industrial companies PAY to run experiments at these facilities they don’t necessarily need to use these facilities in the UK, they can go to the US or Japan if they have to and pay them. Maybe, with a little CAREFUL THOUGHT, this private use could be increased?

2 – Short sighted, short-sighted short-sighted –
This kind of wholesale cuts are what the US did in the 70’s. After putting ALL sorts of money into alternative fuel source research, initially, when the oil crisis stopped, they took the money, away?!? Even to the level that Reagan took the solar panels off the White House, which the Carter administration put on! And as a result look where we are now.
Now, we think alternative fuel source research is a GOOD idea, and we missed 30 years of progress that could have been made (both technological and scientific) on this front, and now we are desperately trying to pay catch up in the middle of an economic crisis….

3 – Q-Dos,q-dos, q-dos
NEVER ever underestimate the value of being ‘the best in the world’ ISIS and Diamond are WORLD CLASS Facilities, that means something – people come here from ALL over the world to collaborate and do scientific research at at WORLD CLASS facility. You shut the facilities down, the government looks stupid and they don’t just start back up very easily, everyone has gone somewhere else. So say you decide to shut down a major facility and then you decide to turn them on again in say 2015- ALL of your expertise will be gone! and the UK’s science reputation will be lost – and given that the US and Japan are both building major facilities equivalent to ISIS and Diamond, why would you want to stay in the UK?

I realize there are counter-arguments to all of my points, but this idea of shutting the facilities is over the top, its throwing the baby out with the bath water. Oh and STFC might want to think about a new director…

About Sylvia McLain

Girl, Interrupting aka Dr. Sylvia McLain used to be an academic, but now is trying to figure out what's next. She is also a proto-science writer, armchair philosopher, amateur plumber and wanna-be film-critic. You can follow her on Twitter @DrSylviaMcLain and Instagram @sylviaellenmclain
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5 Responses to Ensuring that there really will be no jam tomorrow-

  1. As a former government economist, a few thoughts on how one might appraise this decision.

    1) Need to avoid the sunk costs fallacy – just because you have a spent a lot of money on something in the past is not a good reason to keep spending. This is year zero – the question is how the costs and benefits stack up from now.
    2) Costs – I have no idea what these are but would love to hear the science/higher ed lobby setting out a clearer message on how it thinks it needs to change in the future to be more efficient and effective. Defending the status quo is not only wrong on the substantive issues, it is also a strategic error. Who is out there in the scientific community talking about real change? Your idea about leveraging more industrial fee-paying income is a good start.
    3) Benefits – ‘world class’ always makes me suspicious. Britain is world class at a whole bunch of things that I wouldn’t want to invest in (Morris dancing?). As you say, we need to drill down into the benefits of being world class – would be interesting to know how important the ‘cluster’ effect of these institutions really is e.g. would highly-skilled individuals (Brits and non-Brits) relocate elsewhere? (Note:although you’d have to consider the likelihood that they would move anyway to the new facilities in the US and Japan, which would surely be a risk if there is no money in the UK for other, supporting, investments such as salaries, research grants for academics who aren’t employed by these institutes).

    It would also be interesting to ask – if you had to shut down one of the three facilities, which one would you choose?

  2. John Womersley says:

    Hold on, I’m certainly not saying this would be a good idea! I am saying that without adequate funding that’s what might have to happen. Right now, we are trying to help Willetts and his colleagues at BIS make the case to Treasury for that funding.

    • sylviamclain says:

      to answer comments from Michael Green and John Womersley – hopefully in one shot…

      First, with regard to the sunk costs fallacy – I would argue this is not year 0, and should not be considered as such, no matter what the budget – ISIS, recently had a big upgrade(£145m) and Diamond is a relatively new facility and as such we don’t know how the benefits vs. cost stack up yet, this I think is rather important.

      Costs – About the sci community having a clearer message: It isn’t easy to get a consensus (even about the status quo) in the scientific community. A clear scientific lobby (even though there are many well-intended advocates, CaSE, and other individuals) might have helped to not be in this position in the first place, but that, now, is a moot point.

      I absolutely agree the scientific community needs to be creative, to find new mechanisms for funding, something orthogonal to what is happening now. Industrial funding increases and fee-paying student increases are not new ideas, these are mechanisms that are already out there but definitely could be exploited better.

      Equally I would say that STFC needs to begin some orthogonal thinking itself, if facing big budget cuts in the disaster scenario of 25%, I would like to think they are considering what can we do INSTEAD of cutting the big facilites – perhaps this is where the discussions about the plans for the future could begin:

      For instance:

      1 – How can we pay for these facilities through Industrial (or charitable partners) could we ask the Wellcome Trust for more money – currently they own 14% of the shares in Diamond, could they say buy 20% more? ISIS is owned entirely by STFC (according to their webiste) – what partners could buy shares in ISIS, similar to the Wellcome trust?

      2 – What industries are out there that might be interested into buying a dedicated beam line for their industrial research, this is obviously a one-time cost, but they would need to contribute to running costs as well, and a big lump sum of money could be used to divert other potential cuts, saving money for an operating budget.

      3 – Where else can we make cuts which don’t involve big facilities? Could we say take pay cuts (for those that make over £100K) to keep jobs for others as some other businesses have done? This is a bit of a flippant answer, I realize, but not knowing the STFC budget breakdown, I cannot make specific attempt to answer this.

      4 – As for which facility I would shut (an answer which belongs here) – Given I don’t think this should be the starting point even if there are 25% cuts, if I were left in a room with a glass of Brandy and a revolver, I would pull out funding from CERN. Even though the EU will be really annoyed (and many physicists), and the UK will loose its ‘interest’ in CERN, I don’t think that the facility itself would be shut down without the UK’s contribution. And there would be the possibility to buy back in (as it would still be running) after the austerity measures were through, we could hope.

      5 – For emergency measures: Can you think of a partial shut down scenario, the number of days the Diamond and ISIS are actually running would be reduced (as they indeed already have been) but can we stagger this in a more productive, efficient way?

      Benefits – I take the point about Morris dancing, but fortunately for big-facilities, there is a better measure of “world-class” such as publication numbers (about 400 per year for ISIS); publication quality; resolution of instrumentation (which can be measured); and others, in this respect both ISIS and Diamond are world class, compared to their international competitors.

      Good point about the benefits of expertise from big UK facilities (both here and abroad). Because international competitors are building new facilities, there is a serious risk not only of evaporation of expertise but also of an increased inability to attract new talent in the future (even the distant future). Even temporarily mothballing facilities such as Diamond or ISIS – will cause evaporation and importantly a necessary hit on reputation. Its much easier to keep a good reputation than try to revive a bad one – a good example of this is the LANSCE neutron facility at Los Alamos, which has, perhaps unfairly, a bad reputation in the scientific community. This is not easy to amend, even though LANSCE is a neutron source which is on par with ISIS in terms of power, they have not achieved the same world-wide scientific reputation as ISIS.

  3. mark says:

    “Even though the EU will be really annoyed (and many physicists), and the UK will loose its ‘interest’ in CERN, I don’t think that the facility itself would be shut down without the UK’s contribution. And there would be the possibility to buy back in (as it would still be running) after the austerity measures were through, we could hope.”

    You will not be able to buy back all the scientists you sacked though….after the Labour cuts to STFC (which put everyone under a lot of stress wondering if they would be the one who lost their job) if the Tories to something like this the message to me as a particle physicists would be abundantly clear: I am not welcome in this country and we don’t think this kind of fundamental research is worth anything. Honestly if I get sacked and find a decent job overseas or in the private sector I would feel I just could not trust the UK government enough to come back into this career in the UK.

    On a side note a lot of physics departments have a lot of particle physics who do teaching (not all of us do, but enough that it would be very noticeable if we vanish) – so what happens to teaching without these people – make the other people in other research fields do it and then they have no time for research?! Maybe we close down some physics departments that don’t have critical mass of enough staff to do the teaching anymore? I cannot believe this country has reached a point where this is something we have to even think about.

  4. sylviamclain says:

    Evaporation is a huge, huge problem – and losing good people is not what I would like to see happen (see last point in my reply to John Wormersley). I think alot of us will be forced to join the exodus if these cuts happen to this extent, and that is a loss that cannot be easily redressed, if it can be redressed at all in the short to medium term.

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