Archive for Lord Drayson

Should UK Research Funding Be Reorganized?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by telescoper

A couple of recent news items spurred me on to reflect a bit about the system of research funding in the UK. The first of these was an item I noticed a while ago in Research Fortnight about the (ongoing) Triennial Review of the research councils, and specifically, input from the Wellcome Trust to that review that was rather critical of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and suggested it might be dismantled.

For context it’s probably a good idea to look back to the formation of STFC in 2007 via the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Previously, PPARC had looked after particle physics and astronomy (including space science) and CCLRC had run large experimental facilities in other branches of science. The idea of merging them wasn’t silly. A large chunk of PPARC’s budget went on managing large facilities, especially ground-based astronomical observatories, and it was probably hoped that it would be more efficient to put all these big expensive pieces of kit under the same roof (so to speak).

However, at the time, there was considerable discussion about what should happen in general with science grants. For example, physicists working in UK universities in areas outside astronomy and particle physics previously obtained research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), along with chemists, engineers and even mathematicians. Some experimentalists working in these areas used facilities run by the CCLRC to do their work. However, astronomers and particle physicists got their grants from PPARC, the same organisation that ran their facilities and also paid subscriptions to international agencies such as CERN and ESA. These grants were often termed “exploitation”  or “responsive mode” grants; they involved funding for postdoctoral researchers and staff time used in analysing observational or experimental data and comprised relatively little money compared the the cost of the PPARC facilities themselves. PPARC also funded PhD studentships and postdoctoral fellowships under the umbrella of its Education and Training division, although needless to say all the Education and Training involved was done in host universities, not by PPARC itself.

The question was whether the new merged organisation, STFC should continue giving grants to university groups or whether the responsibility for doing this should be moved elsewhere, perhaps to EPSRC. At the time, most astronomers were keen to have their research grants administered by the same organisation that ran the facilities. I thought it made more sense to have research scientists all on the same footing when it came to funding and in any case thought there were too many absurd divisions between, say, general relativity (EPSRC) and relativistic astrophysics (PPARC), so I was among the (relatively few) dissenting voices at the time.

There were other reasons for my unease. One was that, during a previously funding squeeze, PPARC had taken money from the grants line (the pot of money used for funding research groups) in order to balance the books, necessarily reducing the amount of science being done with its facilities. If STFC decided to do this it would probably cause even more pain, because grants would be an even smaller fraction of the budget in STFC than they were in PPARC. Those EPSRC physicists using CCLRC facilities seem to have managed pretty well so I didn’t really see the argument for astronomy and particle physics being inside STFC.

The other reason for me wanting to keep research grants out of STFC was that the (then) new Chief Executive of PPARC, Keith Mason, had made no secret of the disdain he felt towards university-based astronomy groups and had stated on a number of occasions his opinion that there were too many astronomers in the United Kingdom. There are two flaws with this argument. One is that astronomy is essential to the viability of many physics departments because of its appeal to potential students; without it, many departments will fold. The other problem is that Mason’s claim that the number of astronomers had grown by 40% in a few years was simply bogus.  This attitude convinced me that he in particular would need only the slightest excuse to divert funds away from astronomy into areas such as space exploration.

It all seems a very distant memory now, but six or years ago UK physics (including astronomy) was experiencing a time of relative plenty. The government had introduced a system whereby the research councils would fund research groups on the basis of the Full Economic Cost of the research, which meant more money coming into research groups that were successful at winning grants. The government increased funding for the councils to pay for this largesse and probably diminished the fear of another funding pinch. Astronomers and particle physicists also felt they would have more influence over future strategy in facility development by remaining within the same organisation. In the end what happened was that STFC not only kept the portfolio of astronomy and particle physics grants, but also acquired responsibility for nuclear physics from EPSRC.

But then, in 2007, just after STFC came into existence,  a major financial disaster broke: that year’s comprehensive spending review left the newly formed STFC with a huge gap in its finances. I don’t know why this happened but it was probably a combination of gross incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive and deliberate action by persons higher up in the Civil Service. The subsequent behaviour of the Chief Executive of STFC led to a public dressing down by the House of Commons Select Committee and a complete loss of confidence in him by the scientific community. Miraculously, he survived, at least for a while. Unfortunately, so did the financial problems that are his legacy.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but that’s exactly what I am going to dp. Everything that happened was predictable given the initial conditions. You might argue that STFC wasn’t to know about the global economic downturn.As a matter of fact I’d agree. However, the deep cuts in the science budget we have seen have very little to do with that. They all stem from the period before the Credit Crunch even started. Although Prof. Mason was eventually replaced (in 20111), the problems inherent in STFC are far from solved.

The last Comprehensive Spending Review (2010) was less bad for STFC than some of us feared – with a level cash settlement which still holds. In real times the funds are now being eroded rather than being slashed further, but the situation remains very difficult because of past damage. I don’t think STFC  can afford to settle for flat cash at the next spending review. The new Supreme Leader  Chief Executive of STFC, John Womersley, said much the same thing at last night’s RAS dinner, in fact.

I know this preamble has been a bit long-winded, but I think it’s necessary to see the background to what I’m going to propose. These are the steps I think need to be taken to put UK physics back on track.

First, the powers that be have to realize that university researchers are not just the icing on the cake when it comes to science: they actually do most of the science. I think the new regime at STFC recognizes this, but I’m not sure the government does. Another problem is that  that the way scientists are supported in their research is a complete mess. It’s called the dual support system, because the research councils pay 80% of the cost of research grants and Higher Education Funding Councils (i.e. HEFCE in England) are meant to provide the other 20%. But in reality it is a bureaucratic nightmare that subjects researchers to endless form-filling and costs hundreds of millions in wasteful duplication. This was true enough of the old Research Assessment Exercise, but has been taken to even higher levels of absurdity by the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, the decisions coming out of which will be more influencing by guesswork and institutional game-playing than actual research excellence.

The Research Councils already have well-managed systems to judge the quality of research grant applications, so do we really needed the REF on top of them?  The second article I referred to in the introduction, on a study showing that Research Council grant income, appeared in last week’s Times Higher. That study shows -at least at institutional level – that the two streams are pretty closely correlated. While REF/RAE income is awarded on a retrospective basis, and grant awards are based on proposals of future activity, it should be a surprise that people with a good track-record are also good at thinking up interesting new projects. Moreover, panels such as the STFC Astronomy Grant Panel (of which I am a member) certainly take into account the applicants’ track-record when assessing the viability of research proposals.

So if we don’t need two systems, what could we have instead? Moving grants from STFC to EPSRC, as some proposed in the past,  would go part of the way, but EPSRC has many problems too. I would therefore prefer to see a new organisation, specifically intended to fund blue-skies scientific research in universities. This organisation would have a mission statement that  makes its remit clear, and it would take over grants, studentships and fellowships from STFC, EPSRC and possibly some of the other research councils, such as NERC.  The new outfit would need a suitable acronym, but I can’t think of a good one at the moment. Answers on a postcard.

As a further suggestion,  I think there’s a strong case to be made that HEFCE should be deprived of its responsibility for research funding. The apparatus of research assessment it uses is obviously  flawed, but why is it needed anyway? If the government believes that research is essential to universities, its policy on selectivity doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if it believes that university departments don’t need to be research groups then why shouldn’t the research funding element be administered by a reserch organisation? Even better, a new University Research Council along the lines I have suggested  could fund research at 100% of the Full Economic Cost instead of only 80%. The substantial cash saved by scrapping the REF should be pumped into grants to be administered by the new organisation, reversing the  cuts imposed we’ve endured over past years.

So what should  STFC become after the Triennial Review? Clearly there is still a role for an organisation to manage large experimental facilities. However, the fact that the UK now has its own Space Agency means that some activity has already been taken out of the STFC remit.  The CERN and ESO subscriptions could continue to be managed by STFC along with other facilities, and it could in some cases commission projects in university research groups or industrial labs as it does now. Astronomers and particle physicists would continue to sit on its Board.  However, its status would change radically, in that it would become an organisation whose job is to manage facilities, not research. The tail will no longer be wagging the dog.

I very much doubt if these suggestions are at all in line with current political “thinking” nor with those of many of my colleagues. The input to the Triennial Review from the Institute of Physics, for example, is basically that nothing should change. However, I think that’s largely because most of us working in STFC area,  have much greater confidence in the current management than we did in the previous regime rather than because the structure is right. Some of the bureaucrats in the Treasury, RCUK and HEFCE won’t like my suggestion  either, because they’ll all have to go and do something more useful.  But unless someone stands up for the university sector and does something to safeguard future funding then the ongoing decline in funding levels will never be reversed.

I very much doubt if many of my fellow physicists or astronomers agree with my suggestion either. Not to worry. I’m used to being in a minority of one. However, even if this is the case I hope this somewhat lengthy post will at least get you thinking. As always, I’d be interested in comments..

Spazio Commerciale

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on March 23, 2010 by telescoper

So here we are then. The United Kingdom has its own brand new Space Agency, courtesy of Lords Mandelson and Drayson (or Peter and Paul as they’re known to their fans). It was launched today at a glitzy do in Westminster attended by everyone who’s anyone in space science, which obviously doesn’t include me. There’s even a new logo.

According to the BBC, the new agency will be “muscular”, but I’m not really sure what that means. Perhaps brains might be more useful than brawn in this context (unless it’s Werner Von, geddit?) In fact I’m not at all sure what the new agency is about at all. The UK is already part of the European Space Agency (ESA) and a big slice of the new agency’s budget will presumably be eaten up by the ESA subscription. Much of what we do in space exploration and astronomy is dictated by decisions at the ESA level so I don’t think the new UK Agency will have much impact on that. On the other hand, the only current UK space agency is the British National Space Centre (BNSC), which is an organisation notable only for its irrelevance. I’m not even sure whether it exists at all as anything other than a logo and an accommodation address above a chip shop in Swindon.

It’s somewhat easier to see what the new UK Space Agency isn’t about. The accompanying press release doesn’t mention astronomy at all, so it’s clearly not going to help us lowly scientists who would like to use space observatories to do interesting science. It seems that it is primarily aimed at commercial space activities, and the science bit will continue to be managed mismanaged by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

I’ve got nothing against the commercial exploitation of space, in principle, although it did provoke my feeble attempt at an Italian joke in the title of this post. The French, Germans and Italians spend much more than we do and this is obviously an area of great potential growth. I don’t object to the government using public money to help the space sector grow, either. In principle. The problem is that in these tough times the money has to be taken from somewhere else in the budget. Many of us were still hoping that the government might intervene to reverse the awful cuts we’ve suffered in physics and astronomy recently, but hiving space science off into a separate pot will probably make life even tougher for those of us left with the rump of STFC. I fear it means even less money in future going into fundamental science, and our decline is therefore set to accelerate even further.

There have always been tensions within the astronomy and space science community. Space exploration has scored many recent triumphs – such as the joint ESA-NASA Cassini-Huygens probe – but there are always difficult questions about the scientific value for money involved in sending things pottering around our backyard in the  solar system compared to, e.g., building observatories (either in space or on the ground) that can see things across the other side of the Universe. It’s difficult to see what the implications of the new agency are for this, but it seems likelyto me  that increasing amounts of public money will go on exploration at the expense of observation. I’m biased, of course, but I think there’s a lot more interesting science in the distant universe than there is nearby. In fact there’s more of everything further away than there is nearby! We may end up killing off ground-based astronomy in order to put a British flag on the Moon. That would be very sad.

But maybe this is too pessimistic. We don’t know yet how things will be divvied up between the new agency and the old STFC. Will there be any science  in UK Space, or will it be entirely commercial? Perhaps new missions and experiments will be funded through that route while exploitation continues to be  (under)funded by STFC?

Or maybe, since the new agency comes into existence on 1st April 2010, it’s all just an elaborate joke?

And while I’m being facetious, I wonder how many of you are thinking that the new logo looks like it was taken from the opening credits of Dad’s Army? I wonder if that choice was awfully wise, Captain Mainwaring?

STFC Chief Executive Keith Mason is very keen on the new outfit and is looking forward to working with it.  I know what Private Frazer would have said. We’re doomed.

PS. Andy Lawrence was there, and invites you to pump him  in the debriefing room over at the e-astronomer.

PPS. The new agency has now got a wikipedia page. It says there that the space agency will take over responsibility for space technology and instrumentation funding from other research councils. Presumably exploitation of space missions will either remain the responsibility of STFC or there won’t be any at all, which may amount to the same thing.

Life Cycles

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on March 13, 2010 by telescoper

This was a strange Saturday. Usually I don’t do very much on the weekend, except for a bit of shopping, tidying up, and of course the crosswords. Today, however, was one of our undergraduate Open Days wherein prospective students visit the department (usually with their adoring parents) in order to have a look around, learn about our research, and meet some of the staff that will be teaching them if and when they come here.  Our usual Open Days are Thursdays, but some people find it very difficult to get here on a weekday – parents working, school commitments, etc – so we have a few Saturdays too. Since I live within walking distance of the department I don’t mind taking part.

Bizarrely, my job today was to act as a tour guide around the experimental physics labs. I must be one of the least qualified people in the School to do that, as I’m a theoretical astrophysicist. As it happens, we had two groups to show around today and the other guide was Ant Whitworth, also a theoretical astrophysicist (though one who works on star formation, not cosmology like I do). Ours not to reason why. I got a free lunch out of it anyway, and also managed to find most of the places I was supposed to take the visitors to, most of which I’ve never seen before!

Anyway, it was nice to meet and chat with so many young people interested in physics. I hope to see at least some of them in October. Funding will be very tight this year for new undergraduates and although we’ve asked the University to increase our quota to take more students in, we haven’t so far been allowed to do so. I think that is the situation around much of England too, so I think some might not find a place at their chosen institution. I hope there aren’t too many disappointments when the A-level results come out.

The recruitment of undergraduates for next year is part of the cycle of academic life. We’re currently doing the same thing with postgraduates, although fewer people are involved in that case. The end of term comes up next week, then it’s the Easter break. Soon after that we’ll be back into examinations. Some will be graduating this year and we’ll have to say goodbye to them as they make their way into the big wide world. Others will leave for the summer and return to continue their studies next year.

The cycle of academic life is embedded within that of the seasons too. Today was a beautiful spring day in Cardiff. We’ve had sunny weather for a week or so already, but yesterday and today were the first days mild enough in temperature to be called spring. Yesterday evening as I walked home I noticed it wasn’t dark at 6pm, a sign that the days are getting longer. Soon I’ll be able to walk home through Bute Park,  which I can’t do at present because the gate on the east side is closed at sunset. I did, however, go back that way this afternoon after the Open Day activities were over.

There’s a lot of construction work going on, associated with Cardiff City Council’s plan to turn Bute Park into Bute Lorry Park, and one has to complete an obstacle course to get into it on foot these days. Still, once away from the affected areas the rest of the Park is shaping up again for spring and summer and there was quite a crowd there today, just quietly enjoying it for it’s own sake. You know, like a Park should be. I’m not looking forward to having to dodge juggernauts on the way, which is what is what the future seems to have in store.

Apart from the seasons and the cycle of academic life, I also thought on the way home about another cycle that is about to unfold. A General Election is due to be held this year. It seems like yesterday that I cast my vote in the last one, while I was living in Nottingham. Now the politicians are gearing up for the interminable months of electioneering that inevitably presage such events. I’m not at all sure at this point who I’m going to vote for. I’m disillusioned with the main parties and skeptical of the alternatives.

I heard last night on Twitter of a story that Lord Mandelson has promised that “The Science Budget will be spared from cuts”. That’s interesting because we’ve already suffered plenty. Perhaps the word “further” was accidentally omitted. Not that I believe him anyway. Why should I? It’s obviously just electioneering. Science Minister Lord Drayson also recently announced on Twitter that under the next Labour government, the UK will be the best place in the world to do science. I don’t believe that either, although I do have a little more faith in Drayson than I do in Mandelson.

I think the deep cuts already made to fundamental physics have in any case guaranteed the exodus of a huge number of talented scientists. And that’s emphatically not the result of the recession. It’s the result of deliberate government policy, sustained since 2007. I won’t believe New Labour’s claims about science until they own up and reverse the damage they have done, which I don’t think they’re going to do.

I have to admit that I am very fearful not just for the future of astronomy in the UK, but for the UK as a whole. Although people talk about the country being out of recession, the fact remains that we’re teetering on the brink of insolvency. I have a deep-seated feeling  that this election is critical. Very difficult decisions will have to be made over the next two to three years, and if we get them wrong, we could be propelled into a catastrophic decline. The trouble is, I don’t trust any political party to deliver a coherent plan for the recovery. The more I think about it, the more my optimism ebbs away. I hope I’m proved wrong.

Now after all that I haven’t done the Guardian crossword yet! Where’s my pen?

Two Cheers for Lord Drayson

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on March 4, 2010 by telescoper

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.

Letter to Lord Drayson from George Efstathiou

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , on January 25, 2010 by telescoper

I just had a note from George Efstathiou, Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, about a letter he wrote to Lord Drayson about the STFC crisis. It’s  very much in line with what I was saying a few days ago. It’s good to see someone with some clout stepping into the ring, taking the gloves off, and not pulling his punches (That’s enough boxing metaphors, Ed.)

With George’s permission, I’m including the full text of his letter below; the added links are mine.

-0-

25 January 2010

Lord Drayson
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Castle View House
East Lane
Runcorn, WA72GJ

Dear Lord Drayson,

I would like to make a few comments concerning your structural review of STFC. I was a member of the Astronomy and Planetary Sciences Board of SERC (1991‐1993) and a member of PPARC Council (2001‐2004) and so I have some experience of previous funding systems.

Overall, I support the proposals put forward by the Royal Astronomical Society Forum and the Institute of Physics. It is extremely important that research grants remain in a reorganized Council rather than transferred to EPSRC. A transfer of the grants line to EPSRC, particularly at a severely reduced level following the STFC prioritization exercise, would recreate the difficulties experienced in the days of SRC/SERC that PPARC was designed to solve. (Namely, the long‐term nature of Particle Physics and Astronomy projects and their reliance on large international organizations).

In analysing the nature of a restructured Council, it is worthwhile reviewing some of the reasons for the difficulties at STFC, and the role of the Chief Executive in exacerbating those difficulties.

Firstly, Keith Mason has openly pursued a policy of transferring funds into areas with potential for short term economic impact at the expense of grant funding to Universities. STFC funds have therefore gone into facilities, innovation campuses and initiatives such as the Aurora programme. Together with a sympathetic Chairman and a Council that included three members of the Executive, this policy went (largely) unchallenged for the first two years of STFCs existence, though I know of not a single research scientist who agreed with it. Financial mismanagement of this policy finally caught up with STFC last year, leading to savage cuts of more than 35% in the grants line (the only `flexible’ part of the STFC budget). These cuts are more savage than the deepest cuts experienced during the Thatcher years. Mason’s attempt to downplay these cuts by referring to previous low points in grant funding is, frankly, risible. Government should be indignant at Mason’s attempt to write‐off the investment in science between the years 2002‐‐2007, which was intended (and succeeded) in improving the volume and quality of research in Universities.

As an example of the tension between economic impact and scientific excellence, BNSC published the Space Exploration Review recommending an increase in funding of £150m per annum and highlighting the MoonLITE bilateral mission. A few days later, the STFC prioritization exercise ranked MoonLITE `below alpha’. Any restructuring must tackle the difficulties of tensioning projects which may have economic benefits but little scientific merit against academic excellence. In my view, academic excellence should be the priority for any restructured Research Council.

Secondly, Mason has held the view (most recently expressed at the Astronomy Forum meeting earlier this month) that the UK has too many scientists involved in exploiting facilities in comparison to the number engaged in developing, building and operating facilities. Again, I know of not a single research scientist who agrees with this view. The science budget has increased significantly over the last decade. The expansion of astronomy and particle physics in UK Universities has been a rational response to the increased availability of funding. As a member of the 2008 RAE Physics panel I was able to see at first hand how this investment has translated into research of the highest international quality. The deep STFC cuts to the grants line will inevitably weaken the research base in UK Universities and may even threaten the viability of some Physics departments. The shock wave following these cuts will eventually be felt across the entire UK science base. Any restructured Research Council must sustain an acceptable balance between support of UK Universities and investment in facilities.

STFC has not given high enough priority to scientific excellence. This is the primary cause of the problems over the last three years. It is why scientific excellence will suffer following the STFC prioritization exercise. This unfortunate outcome has been achieved during a period of increased funding to STFC and despite the allocation of financial bailouts.

Any restructured Research Council must have academic excellence at its core. It must also have a Chief Executive who recognises and values academic excellence.

Yours sincerely

George Efstathiou

cc Professor Michael Sterling, Chairman STFC
Phil Willis, Chair, House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

The Management

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by telescoper

After my little trip to Denmark last week, it’s now time to settle into the routine of academic life. Teaching starts tomorrow, and I’m actually quite looking forward to it. I find teaching very rewarding, in a way that’s quite different from research, to the extent that I would hate to see further separation between the two in British universities. Call me old-fashioned.

Inevitably, though, it’s been research that’s been occupying my mind for the past few days. I’ve posted a couple of times recently about the ongoing review of the way astronomy and particle physics research are funded here in the United Kingdom (see here and here). The Science Minister, Lord Drayson, seems keen to find a way to stop research grants  being massacred by overruns elsewhere in the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). His aim appears to be come up with a plan before the end of February to find a way of preventing the situation from getting any worse for science. No doubt the idea of a dedicated British Space Agency will also be thrown into pot, so that the bit of STFC’s current portfolio that deals with space things will probably be hived off elsewhere.

The major question that is occupying the minds of scientists – but perhaps not those of the bureaucrats – is whether the research grants currently dispensed by STFC will continue to be held by whatever STFC morphs into or whether they should go elsewhere, probably to EPSRC.  I sense a predisposition towards the former possibility among many of my colleagues. I recognize that the EPSRC route is not without its problems, but I fear that if we remain with STFC then not only is there a very strong probability that recent history will repeat itself but that the damage done by the current STFC structure will be irreparable.

Behind all this is the issue of why STFC is in such a mess in the first place. When it came into being in 2007, it was immediately saddled with an £80 million operating deficit. Why? There are two theories. One is that it was a mistake, resulting from inept STFC management. The other is that the creation of STFC presented various grey eminences that inhabit the superstructure of British science politics represented by RCUK  with an opportunity to slash expenditure on “useless” science (i.e. particle physics and astronomy) without having to go through the tedious rigmarole of public consultation. I don’t know which of these is the truth but, given the choice, I’d put my money on the latter.

Note the behaviour of STFC’s Chief Executive after the yawning gap was discovered in his organization’s finances. If it was a result of management incompetence then he should have been fired. If he was stitched up by RCUK then the only honorable thing to do for someone with the best interests of science at heart was to resign in protest. Neither of these things happened. This leads me to the interpretation that Professor Mason was a willing participant in the game, a  point of view that is supported by his performance at the Town Meeting in December 2007 where the STFC’s delivery plan was presented to an audience of scientists. The document containing the delivery plan is notable for its upbeat and self-congratulatory tone containing no hints of the financial catastrophe engulfing the organization. It was clearly designed to say exactly what the Chief Executive’s political masters wanted it to say. The gross dishonesty of this publication was revealed by Professor Mason’s presentation, wherein he told us scientists something rather closer to the truth, that STFC was facing financial oblivion. It was an appaling performance.

After a botched and panicky initial attempt to cut science projects, and a public dressing down by the House of Commons select committee, it took another two years for its latest Programmatic Review to emerge. Once again, though, the management of STFC put an absurdly glowing light on the wreckage of UK astronomy, nuclear and particle physics; calling it “Investing in the Future” and making light of the devastating cull of research grants and projects that it is proposing. The message that I glean from all this is that STFC’s problems stem from deliberate policy at a high level, probably at the Treasury, and carried out enthusiastically by a hierarchy of yes-men who will do whatever they are told regardless of what it means for science. Some of these creatures may have started out as scientists, but they’ve definitely gone native when lured into the Whitehall jungle.

Of course the public purse is limited. We have to decide how much to spend on different bits of science. Astronomy or particle physics (or any other discipline, for that matter) has to make its case. Somehow a balance must be struck between all the competing demands for cash. Maybe Britain does have too many astronomers. Or too many particle physicists. Who knows?  My point is: who decides? This kind of thing is too important to be settled behind closed doors by  individuals who lap up whatever their masters feed them like mother’s milk.

The STFC debacle  is just one manifestation of the rampant managerialism that is strangling British civil society. Gone are the days when scientists knew best about science, doctors knew best about medicine and teachers knew best about education. Now we’re all subservient to managers who think they know best about everything. Things are no better at EPSRC, an organization notorious  for its top-down structure, mania for meaningless initiatives, and wholehearted endorsement of the ill-considered impact agenda. What I am saying is that the Haldane principle is dead and buried.

While I was in Copenhagen last week attending the inauguration of the Discovery Center I was struck by the differences between how research is funded in Denmark and in the United Kingdom. This new initiative in particle physics and cosmology is funded as a rolling programme by the Danish National Research Foundation (Danmarks Grundforskningsfond). Way back in 1991, Denmark part-privatised its pension system and a large chunk of the resulting cash was invested in scientific research. The organization funds programmes across an entire range of disciplines (including arts and humanities)  for periods of10 years (or, more precisely, 5 years with an extension to 10 after satisfactory performance; most get extended). The primary criterion for funding these programmes is scientific excellence and the vast bulk of the funds goes to funding PhD students and postdoctoral researchers at Danish universities.

A representative of the foundation (whose name I have regrettably forgotten) spoke at the official inauguration of the Discovery Center to describe the parent organization’s philosophy. In a nutshell his message was: “You’re the scientists. You know about science. We don’t. We’re here to help you hire the best people, then get out of your way. Excellence is what we want to fund, wherever it lies. That’s our only agenda.” As it happens, two out of the nine programmes funded in the last round, including the Discovery Center, were in particle physics.

Of course I was jealous. I was also struck by how similar this organization sounds to the suggestion I made in a blog post before christmas. Of course Denmark is a much smaller country than Britain and it has  a very different economic structure. I’m not saying we could simply copy what the Danes have done without any modification. But the  real reason why such an organization could never get set up in Britain, is that The Management would never allow it…

A Letter to Lord Drayson

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , on January 12, 2010 by telescoper

As reported in the Times Higher, the five chairs of the advisory panels that took part in STFC‘s recent prioritisation exercise have circulated an open letter to Lord Drayson. I’ve taken the liberty of posting the entire letter here.

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UK fundamental science at a crossroads

An open letter to Lord Drayson, Minister for Science

On 16 December the Science and Technology Facilities Council announced the outcome of its “programmatic review”. The results present a dismal future for researchers in fundamental science: particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics. In order to balance its books STFC announced cuts to these frontier science discovery areas amounting to about £28m per annum starting in 2012. Although STFC’s total annual budget is more than £450m, the cuts have been targeted at the roughly £175m annual spend on UK projects in these fundamental science areas. The cuts include:

  • an across-the-board reduction of 25 per cent for training of our brightest young scientists;
  • termination of involvement in more than 20 cutting-edge science projects in which the UK plays leading roles;
  • cancellation of support for an additional 20 projects, currently at the early R&D stage, which were planned to form the foundations of the future science programme 10-20 years from now, and in which the UK has international leadership.

 

Even those projects lucky enough to be continued will face cuts advertised at between 10 and 25 per cent, and this on top of cuts to STFC’s university physics grants, announced in the past 12 months, of 25 per cent across the board.

As chairs of STFC’s science advisory panels we represent the several thousand members of the UK’s particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics communities. On 21 December we wrote to Professor Michael Sterling, chair of STFC Council, to express, on behalf of our communities, dismay at this terrible outcome. We pointed out the obvious consequences:

  • the waste of much of the significant prior investment made by the UK in forefront science;
  • the loss of hard-won UK leadership in many significant areas;
  • the lack of opportunity for developing future UK strategic opportunities for advancing the scientific frontier, with relevant knowledge exchange impact, on the 10-20 year horizon;
  • the extremely negative message to bright young people about the importance the UK places in cutting-edge, fundamental science, and the career opportunities that follow from training in these areas.

 

The Prime Minister has publicly stated his commitment, which we strongly agree with, to preserve funding for science, seeing it as a key part of the solution to the current economic difficulties. Given that, how could more than 40 internationally leading science projects, and hundreds of studentships, be identified for the chop?

The problem stems from the setting up of STFC in April 2007 as an agency for funding both fundamental science and large (mainly accelerator- and laser-based) facilities used by scientists in other disciplines: for example, biologists and chemists, whose research is funded by the other UK research councils. By December 2007 STFC was already in financial difficulty and announced the need to save £80m over the following three years. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee investigated and concluded that STFC had been set up with a shortfall of funds needed to support both the science programme and development and operation of the facilities, and that it had managed the situation very poorly. These problems, inherent at STFC’s inception, have led inexorably to its pre-Christmas announcement to cut the science funding in order to support the operation of its facilities.

The situation has been exacerbated by the collapse of the pound against major currencies: STFC pays about £200m annually in subscriptions (in Euros and Swiss francs) for UK scientists to access major European research centres: CERN, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory and others.

Unless the Government takes action, STFC’s science cuts will almost inevitably lead to:

  • irreparable damage to the high international reputation of the UK in these areas: we will be perceived as an untrustworthy partner in global projects;
  • a “brain drain” of the best UK scientists, university lecturers and professors to positions overseas;
  • a weakening of our capability to attract the best of overseas scientific talent to the UK;
  • a consequent reduction in the provision and quality of UK university physics teaching and training that are essential for the UK’s economic future.

 

It is obvious that STFC cannot continue to stagger between financial crises on an almost annual basis. It is structurally incapable of managing both an internationally leading fundamental science programme and domestic facilities that are used primarily by scientists funded by other research councils. Both the science programme and the facilities operations need to be properly supported by dedicated agencies, and the UK’s globally leading research in particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics needs to be protected against exchange rate fluctuations.

Philip Burrows (University of Oxford) – Particle Physics Advisory Panel

Michele Dougherty (Imperial College London) – Near Universe Advisory Panel

Martin Freer (University of Birmingham) – Nuclear Physics Advisory Panel

Philip Mauskopf (Cardiff University) – Particle Astrophysics Advisory Panel

Bob Nichol (University of Portsmouth) – Far Universe Advisory Panel

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