Two Cheers for Lord Drayson

The long awaited announcement of Lord Drayson‘s review of the structure of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC)  has finally appeared together with parallel announcements by STFC and RCUK. There’s already been a lot of reaction on Twitter about this, and it has also reached the  BBC News.

There’s actually not much in the announcement that’s particularly surprising.  The plan is to insulate STFC from the effects of currency fluctuations on its subscription commitments to international organizations, and also to share the cost of large domestic facilities across the whole science programme rather than just STFC on its own. In the shorter term (i.e. 2010-11) STFC will continue to receive some help to deal with the uncontrollable external pressures on its budget.

In the longer term it is anticipated that the subscription to the European Space Agency will move to a new UK Space Agency anyway.

These moves are all good news, and will probably help STFC to reach some level of stability. I am certainly grateful to Lord Drayson for getting involved in this process. It will be a while before we find out how it will work out in practice, but at least it’s a start.

The big problem I see is that STFC may well reach “stability”, but the position of equilibrium looks likely to be one with a very low level of grant funding for astronomy and particle physics. Perhaps I’m being excessively cynical, but it still looks to me like this financial crisis was deliberately engineered in order to squeeze fundamental research by 25%. That has now been achieved, so the grey men of the Treasury can now remove the straitjacket. I don’t see any signal that our grants will return to a sustainable level, however, so the astronomy community will probably continue to wither away. The Drayson review may staunched the flow of blood, but the patient will remain  dangerously  ill unless additional measures are taken. (Too many metaphors, Ed.)

Which brings me to a final point. Having a sensible management structure for STFC isn’t the same as having a sensible STFC management. I know I’m not the only astronomer in the UK to have lost all confidence in the current Chief Executive, Keith Mason. As long as he remains in charge I’m suspicious that any structural modifications will amount to no more than window-dressing and astronomy and particle physics will continue to be neglected in favour of technology-driven projects.

We might – just might -  have stopped going backwards, but in order to start going forwards we need a new leader.

PS. For  the best compilation of sources on the STFC crisis, see Paul Crowther’s pages here.

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19 Responses to “Two Cheers for Lord Drayson”

  1. “(Too many metaphors, Ed.)”
    ..and not enough verbs and adverbs.

    “The Drayson review staunch the flow of blood, but the patient is still dangerous ill. (Too many metaphors, Ed.)”

    “staunches” and “dangerously”.

  2. Natasha Says:

    Don’t forget nuclear physics! I believe that’s had an even heftier fraction of it axed ~40% right?

  3. The BBC page seems to have been grammatically corrected now (or corrected grammatically). The section heading still reads “Staunch the flow of blood” though … for now.

  4. telescoper Says:

    I emailed the BBC chap and asked nicely he would help make me look slightly less stupid by fixing the errors I made in the earlier version and which made their way into the BBC story. It was very nice of him to take the trouble to respond.

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Peter,

    Congrats on the Beeb quote, but weren’t you simply employing archaic usage? “The Drayson review staunch the flow of blood, but the patient is still dangerous ill” sounds like something from around 1700. (A century earlier and it would have been “stauncheth ye flowe of bludde”.)

    Anton

  6. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    I note also that “staunch” can be spelt “stanch”, which I didn’t know before today.

    The original phrase for some reason reminds me of A Midsummer Night’s Dream “methinks I am marvellous hairy about the face”.

    Peter

  7. [...] including the BBC, the Times Online and has already been covered in various blogs such as the telescoper, Leaves on the Line, and The S [...]

  8. [...] there is a message from the blog of Professor Peter Coles, which is closest to my own feelings on the matter. This [...]

  9. And v trendy of the BBC to quote from Twitter; one can only hope for a shout-out on 6 Music next.

  10. telescoper Says:

    What’s 6 Music?

  11. Anton Garrett Says:

    6 Music is one of the two radio stations tyhat the BBC has decided to axe, in preference to cutting its own bureaucracy and the salaries thereof (not to mention star’s salaries and getting out of local radio, which should never have been its business).

  12. Anton Garrett Says:

    Which is one good reason for it to go, given that you are someone who is aware of what goes on in the world. But I doubt it will save much and it’s a bit like local government – vwhen funding is cut, town halls cut services rather than themselves, even though they are heavily overstaffed. That is one good reason for privatisation of services, incidentally (they were originally private), although there are worthy counter-arguments too.

  13. Bryn Jones Says:

    Peter has stated the central problem with any likely solution today to the S.T.F.C. crisis: any new system may well lock in the current squeeze to astronomy, space science, particle physics and (acutely) nuclear physics. Shifting the E.S.A. subscription to a new U.K. space agency may lose an inflated subscription from the S.T.F.C. budget (the subscription in sterling has been increased by the recent fall in the value of the pound), but the funding for it will move at the inflated value. In the longer term, the fall in the pound will reduce the gross-domestic product of the U.K. and consequently the E.S.A. subscription, but it will some time for this to take effect. This may benefit the space agency, but it may damage the science remaining with the S.T.F.C.

  14. Mark McCaughrean Says:

    I must admit that I share Bryn’s analysis.

    Taking the ESA subscription out of STFC’s hide in the near future (if the UKSA is established soon) will do so at a time when it’s very large in sterling (given the current pound-euro exchange rate), removing a large sum from STFC. While the Treasury will reap any benefits of a rise in the pound against the euro in the future (i.e. they’d have to pay less in pounds to meet the euro subscription to ESA) and the likely fall in the ESA subscription due to a drop in the UK’s GDP, I’d very much doubt that STFC would receive any a posteriori compensation.

    (Of course, although the standard received wisdom that the euro is over-valued [Greek and Portuguese bail-outs on their way, etc.], I wouldn’t be surprised to see the pound tank even further after the election. Despite the pain already being experienced by cuts to the universities, for example, I reckon Brown is pulling all possible tricks to keep things more generally afloat until May. Thereafter, all bets are off.)

    That said, I’m not sure that the timing of the excision of the ESA subscription from STFC is deliberate. Just unfortunate.

  15. [...] less important than the technology and the facilities. Although the Science Minister Lord Drayson recently announced a proposal that purports to fix some of STFC’s difficulties, this seems more than likely to keep grant [...]

  16. [...] immediate reaction from researchers has been muted so far, in part because the new arrangements do not restore the grants funding that was cut in [...]

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