Archive for Michael Sterling

Honours and Admissions

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on June 18, 2012 by telescoper

Time for a quick comment on the Queen Birthday Honours List for 2012 which, if you’re interested, you can download in full here.

The honours system must appear extremely curious to people from outside the United Kingdom. It certainly seems so to me. On the one hand, I am glad that the government has a mechanism for recognising the exceptional contributions made to society by certain individuals. Musicians, writers, sportsmen, entertainers and the like generally receive handsome financial rewards, of course, but that’s no reason to begrudge a medal or two in recognition of the special place they occupy in our cultural life.  It’s  good to see scientists recognized too, although they tend not to get noticed so much by the press.

First of all, therefore, let me congratulate space scientist, and occasional commenter on this blog, Professor Monica Grady on her award of a CBE. I also couldn’t resist commenting on the award of a knighthood to the Chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council

..Professor Michael Sterling, who has turned round the Science and Technology Facilities Council

according to the official government announcement; the emphasis is mine. The phrase “turned around” is an interestingly frank way of putting it, and a refreshing admission from a very high level  that STFC was in disarray under its previous management.

Although I’m happy to see recognition given to such people, as I did last year on this occasion I can’t resist stating my objections to the honours system for the record. One is that the list of recipients  of certain categories of award is overwhelmingly dominated by career civil servants, for whom an “honour”  goes automatically with a given rank. If an honour is considered an entitlement in this way then it is no honour at all, and in fact devalues those awards that are  given on merit to people outside the Civil Service. Civil servants get paid for doing their job, so they should have no more expectation of an additional reward than anyone else.

Honours have relatively little monetary value on their own, of course so this is not question of financial corruption. An honour does, however, confer status and prestige on the recipient so what we have is a much more subtle form of sleaze. One wonders how many names listed in the current roll of honours are there because of political donations, for example.

I wouldn’t accept an honour myself, but that’s easy to say because I’m sure I’ll never be nominated for one. However, I imagine that even people like me who are against the whole system are probably still tempted to accept such awards when offered, as they generate good publicity for one’s field, institution and colleagues. Fortunately, having less than a cat in hell’s chance of being nominated, I’m never going to be tempted in that way!

(Guest Post) STFC – It isn’t just about money

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

The following piece was written by Professor George Efstathiou, FRS, who is Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology. The views expressed therein are George’s own, but I’m not saying that out of a desire to distance myself from his opinions. As a matter of fact, I was one of the people who signed the petition he describes in the article…

–o–

As Peter has reported on this site, physicists around the country are anxiously awaiting the results of the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. Scientists whose research is supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)  are particularly anxious.  Since its creation, STFC has gone through two difficult scientific prioritisation exercises. Many excellent projects have been cancelled and grants supporting University groups have been cut savagely, by about 35%. STFC science has already descended into the Royal Society’s ‘game over‘ scenario. All of this has happened before the consequences of the economic crisis have hit the science budget. STFC has left itself uniquely poorly placed amongst the Research Councils to absorb further reductions following the CSR.

It is for this reason, that I and a few others organised a petition expressing a loss of confidence in the Chief Executive of STFC. The petition was signed by 916 researchers, including 162 Professors and 18 Fellows of the Royal Society. It was formally submitted to the STFC Chair (Michael Sterling) on 1st July together with an explicit request that STFC Council should review its role in this loss of confidence.

People will have had many different reasons for signing the petition. I made my views public well in advance (see my Letter to Lord Drayson). In all of my letters to ministers and others concerning the STFC ‘crisis’, I have never asked for more money. More money would help, of course, but this is utterly unrealistic in the current economic circumstances. No, over the last three years I have been lobbying for good governance. The strutural difficulties with STFC were easy to identify and I believe that with good governance the STFC programme could have been managed without such a catastrophic loss of science. Over three years, STFC have failed to establish a compelling narrative, strategy and constructive engagement with its science community. When one bears in mind that about 40 % of Physics staff work in areas for which STFC is the primary funding source, the consequences of the STFC crisis for University Departments, and the rest of the science base, are indeed serious.

So, whatever the outcome of the CSR, there are governance issues that we should be concerned about. There are three that I would like to raise here:

1. Fellowships and grants. Senior scientists from outside the UK point to the Fellowships and Rolling Grants as two of the most effective features of the UK funding system. Both are now under threat. I was responsible for making the case for the current 5 year system to PPARC Council. In addition to the evident benefits of continuity and reduction in peer review, Council need to understand that recruitment for postdocs involves a substantial lead time. If we are to compete for the best postdocs around the world (and not lose our best post docs), grant funds must be committed four years in advance. The 5 year rolling grant system, even with tapers, allows groups to advertise posts on an international timetable and to vire funds to maximise science output. Any move to responsive mode 3 year grants is guaranteed to deliver less science for a fixed amount of money. I would vigorously defend the Fellowships. Fellowships encourage scientific independence and provide a valuable “bottom-up” correction to the increasingly narrow “top-driven” science programme of STFC. Attacks on Fellowships and Rolling Grants will inevitably lead to a more introspective and less internationally competitive science programme.

2. The Composition of STFC Council. STFC Council, with a minority of leading research scientists, differs from other Research Councils. I have had several vigorous discussions with Michael Sterling concerning this issue and, in particular, the recent decision by BIS to appoint three new non-academic members to STFC. This led me to write a long letter to Adrian Smith (Director General of the Research Councils) reproduced here. Professor Smith replied that he approved of the present balance of Council and thought that it was compatible with the recommendations of previous reviews. I will leave readers to decide whether they agree. This is not a minor point. My experience on PPARC Council was that `lay members’ can often provide interesting perspectives on problems, but if they lack understanding of the science (sometimes alarmingly so) they will tend to accept the recommendations of the Executive. STFC needs a scientifically strong Council. Competent management is not enough. It is easy to keep within budget – you can be tough about cutting things. It is much harder to maximise the amount of science that you can do on a fixed budget. For that you need a scientific strategy and scientific judgement.

3. The New CEO. The search has begun for a new Chief Executive. There is one school of thought that a suitable candidate may be found from the corporate sector. Someone who may not understand the science, but would be a capable manager and communicator. I think that this would be a disaster. In my view, it is essential that a new CEO have an understanding of the science programme at STFC and should be prepared to act as an enthusiastic advocate for STFC science. We need a CEO who can engage constructively with the academic community and, when times are tough, articulate a strategy to limit the loss of science rather than gloat at our misfortune.

It would be great to have more money for STFC science. But money isn’t everything – we need to pay attention to governance issues as well. If we had been braver back in 2008 and openly challenged the Executive, we might not be in such a weak position now. We should not be so reticent in the future.


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