Wednesday, February 01, 2006

Slash and burn

The bad news about the UK's Centre for Ecology and Hydrology got a mention on PM's Question Time today (might not be on "listen again" for a few hours, but as an alternative here's the NERC press release). I'm surprised this story hasn't popped up previously in the blogosphere (where was Stoat?). It concerns an outrageously audacious slash and burn by the new NERC Chief Executive to wipe out up to half of the UK's research capability in this area. Oh, NERC = Natural Environment Research Council, ie the main governmental funding agency in this area with a ~UKP300million annual budget.

CEH is one of these "virtual centres" that have been increasingly fashionable in the UK in recent years. It doesn't exist as a physical entity, but is an administrative and scientific concept currently linking 9 sites across the UK. But no more, as 4 of them are planned for closure (and the admin department, which was separately located, is moving too). About 1/3 of the 600 staff are likely to lose their jobs. That's a significant chunk of the UK's environmental science community.

According to the newspaper reports, this UKP45million plan is expected to save UKP1million a year. It's clearly not an economically-justifiable decision, but instead forms part of NERC's long-term strategy to divest itself of any in-house capability for research. It's no secret that NERC intends to become a purely administrative funding body that contracts out its research to universities. That's more "responsive", because they don't have any long-term liabilities such as tenured staff or lab facilities to worry about. Of course, it also means that national research capabilities are increasingly fragile and disintegrated, and it pretty much kills morale and productivity for however long the process takes.

(Disclosure: I'm a former employee of the NERC POL lab, where similar - athough less extreme - events played out several years ago.)


William M. Connolley said...

The stoat is known to be an elusive creature, especially when it wants to be :-)

More seriously, I tend to get my UK news from (a) R4 and (b) The Grauniad. I don't recall (b) mentioning it, and I suspect you listen to (a) better in Japan than I do here.

There was some mention of this ?over coffee at work? but in a rather resigned way. My recollection is that CEH has, in some way, mismanaged its budget and this is a desperate attempt to save itself.

James Annan said...

I heard it from a horse's mouth some time ago, but didn't realise it was public at that time. According to Google, most of the coverage is local newspapers talking about their local lab closure.

As for the justification, NERC holds the purse strings and as that sci.env sig so nearly says:

We must create a budget crisis in order to ensure that there is no alternative to a smaller research establishment.

NERC's long-term agenda to divest itself of its institutes is not a secret. Probably BAS is too big and too politically valuable (foothold on Antarctica) to be at direct risk, but who knows what schemes they might dream up, such as making you a branch of the Foreign Office or MoD. Where do the Falklands fit in?

EliRabett said...

In something like this you have to look for the second order effects. For example when Thatcher turned the poly's into Universities it was obviously the first step in killing off research departments in most of the universities outside of a few top departments.

This is the same sort of thing. With enough of a protest they will transfer the people and the money to universities, and then cut back the money slowly leaving the people stranded.