Wakeham Review

Today is the day of publication of the Wakeham Review of the state of Physics in the United Kingdom. This report was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) against the backdrop of the funding crisis that threatened to engulf the
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in December 2007 and which has led to drastic cuts in research grant funding in particle physics and astronomy throughout the country.

I started blogging a bit too late to join in the chorus of anger surrounding the handling of this crisis by STFC and especially by the behaviour of its Chief Executive, Keith Mason. An investigation of this by a parliamentary Select Committee stated that

Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive”

If anyone was ever given a clear message that he should resign, this was it. But Keith Mason remains Chief Executive of STFC.

I hoped, therefore, to find some comment about this state of affairs in the Wakeham Review. I haven’t had time to read all of it, but most of it seems bland and rather self-congratulatory. It does, however, describe the strengths of astronomy and space science research in the UK, which is one of the areas placed in jeopardy by STFC’s cack-handed management and woeful lack of political nous. On the other hand, the UK has less impressive impact in other areas. Condensed matter physics was the research area in which most University-based physicists in the UK worked in 2001but their impact, at least in bibliometric terms, was and is unspectacular compared with other countries. Perhaps this is the reason why the number of condensed matter physicists submitted to the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 has declined, while astronomy and astrophysics have increased.

The Wakeham review does not come to any clear conclusions on why some areas of physics are more popular than others, citing as possibilities laboratory costs and difficulties of attracting people into cross-disciplinary areas like biophysics or nanoscience. Since I’m not a member I don’t have to mince words like the panel did. I think some fields are popular because they are more interesting. And if people wanted to do chemistry or biology they wouldn’t have become physicists in the first place.

There are two paragraphs specifically about STFC, and they make very specific proposals although falling short of asking the current leadership to step down:

6. There is a need to ensure that there is coherence of planning of physics facilities and the allocation of physics research grants, so that research needs are closely aligned with facility provision. For that reason it is not desirable to separate former PPARC-like physics from the funding of its facilities. For this reason the Panel recommends that the current division of physics funding between Research Councils remains. Whilst recognising recent difficulties, the Panel believes that it is important that facilities provided for particle physics and astronomy researchers be directly tensioned with the budget for the research that will utilise those facilities. The current structure provides this tension in part of its remit. However, the panel believes that adding to this tension a further dimension of national facilities and a government Science and Innovation Campuses is just too much.

This is true but I think it’s only a small part of the problem.

The Panel recommends that:
a) the STFC be required at each CSR to bid for and allocate specific funds to former PPARC facilities and grant funding together.This would avoid the undesired tensioning of these grants and facilities support against national facilities and the project for the development of science and innovation campuses.

Good! But will this happen?

b) the existing structure should be allowed time to develop, given it was founded on the basis of extensive positive consultation. However, at an appropriate point following the review of STFC management currently being conducted by Dr David Grant, DIUS should commission a review to examine STFC operations.

*Sigh* Another review. Great.

The next one is a bit stronger:

7. The STFC’s governance structure must be representative of the community it serves in order to gain stakeholders’ confidence going forward.

“..stakeholders’ confidence going forward”? Ugh! Who wrote that bollocks?

The Panel believes that significant damage has been done to the UK’s international reputation in some areas of the discipline of physics following the furore that was generated by the manner, timescale of changes and announcement of recent STFC funding decisions.

You can say that again.

The Panel were very concerned at the make-up of the STFC Council, both in terms of the over representation of the executive and the lack of representation of the community it serves in comparison with other Research Councils. It is understood that this structure was deliberately adopted to deal with the distinct features of STFC that arose because of its multiple missions. However, this has not best served the scientific community in some branches of science whose input was at one level below the Council. This is in sharp distinction to the practice of other Research Councils.

The Panel recommends to DIUS that the membership of STFC’s Council be broadened to include more of the stakeholders in the science activity at the highest level, and to redress the balance between executive presence and non-executive oversight.

Somebody must have deleted the sentence about having to get a new Chief Executive.

I’m sure there’ll be a lot more on physics blogs when there’s been time to digest the whole report, and if I think I’ve missed anything at a first reading I may post some more myself.

One Response to “Wakeham Review”

  1. […] this reason (as well as reasons of administrative complexity) STFC had rejected Wakeham’s recommendation to ring fence the ex-PPARC budget line in the forthcoming […]

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