07
Mar
08

Jodrell Bank in jeopardy

Whispers have been circulating about the possible closure of Jodrell Bank, as another fall out from the STFC funding shortfall announced last year. Professor Sir Bernard Lovell, who founded the facility, was interviewed in The Times today, condemning the cut backs, and outlining the threat to the viability of the e-Merlin project.

Science and research facilities, and universities in the UK have been fighting against this shortfall, since it first appeared. Paul Crowther, from Sheffield University, has a page documenting the entire history and development of the issue here.

Curiosity led me to dredging through Hansard this morning, because I was sure that I remember a speech from Gordon Brown (pre the big promotion), outlining his intention to increase scientific spending, and it’s key importance to the UK economy. Sure enough, in last years budget speech:

“My view is that, in all the advanced industrial economies, public and private investment in the great new drivers of growth—innovation and education—will need to rise towards 10 per cent. of national income. As part of our plan to double investment in science, I can announce that in the next four years public investment in science will rise from £5 billion this year to £6.3 billion by 2010—a 25 per cent. cash increase in the science budget of our country.”

So why are university labs, and facilities like Jodrell Bank having to fight for their future? At the centre of all this, there seems to be a standoff between government, and the STFC. For whatever reason, the shortfall was not spotted in the original factoring. But rather than acknowledge the mistake, government are using this as a stick to beat the STFC. In response, the STFC have to start making cuts, but perhaps decided that by putting a high profile facility on the firing line, it will garner more public support. The issue certainly has been understated in the press, which tends to keep politicians off the hook.

In any event, there shouldn’t be a shortfall, and science facilities shouldn’t be under threat. The government can’t be claiming poverty, when they are about to spend £5.4bn on paranoia? (or is it now £4.4bn?) 2% of that could plug the STFC shortfall, and there’d still be 98% of it left over to plunge into other issues.

While I won’t have to face losing a job because of the funding crisis, I am however studying again as a mature undergraduate in physics. I’ll probably never get to the dizzy heights of research, where a move like this has a direct impact on my daily life, but even I can recognise that by withdrawing support for scientific growth eventually the access to education and the quality of the material degrades. That will then filter down to A levels, GCSE, and on. What’s the point in driving people to education, and encouraging young people into science, if at the end of it all, there is nothing for them to get their teeth into?

Finally on Hansard, I found another instance of Gordon talking about the importance of science and education, this time from December 06.

“Let me summarise: Asia is already out-producing Europe. China alone is manufacturing half the world’s computers, half the worlds clothes, and more than half the world’s digital electronics and, this Christmas, more than 75 per cent. of children’s toys. But in the next10 years, the competitive challenge is even more profound. Once responsible for just one eighth of the world’s growth, China and India will soon capture almost half. And increasingly they are competing not just on low cost, but on high skills. Every year, Britain adds 75,000 engineers and computer scientists, while India and China add half a million. Annually, Britain turns out a quarter of a million graduates; India and China 4 million. Economies like ours have no choice but to out-innovate and out-perform competitors by the excellence of our science and education, the quality of infrastructure and environment, the flexibility of our economy, and our levels of creativity and entrepreneurship.”

You see, I would vote for that. I won’t vote for this.

P.S. For all that they are worth, there is a petition, and I urge you to take five minutes to sign it:

http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/jodrellfunding/

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