Archive for February 6, 2009

Executive Roast

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on February 6, 2009 by telescoper

The Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (Keith Mason) was recently summoned to the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills. The video of his inquisition is now available for your enjoyment (but not his) here.

(I tried embedding this using vodpod but it didn’t work, so you’ll just have to click the link…)

Notice how in traditional fashion the light was shining in his eyes throughout. I suppose I should really feel sorry for him, but somehow I don’t. He may not be entirely responsible for the budgetary crisis currently engulfing STFC, but he handled the aftermath so badly that the damage done to relations between STFC and the community of physics researchers that rely on it for funding will take a long time to fix.

Anyway, if you can’t be bothered to watch the whole show here are some of the salient points in a summary that was passed to me by an anonymous source; I was too busy laughing to make my own notes, but I’ve added a few comments in italics. For those of you not up with acronyms, DIUS is the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills and CSR stands for the Comprehensive Spending Review.

KM insisted that STFC had been successful in giving the UK unprecedented opportunities for doing world class science, and by the end (though by that stage his most aggressive interlocutor, Ian Gibson, had left) appeared to have earned the committee’s grudging respect (though I suspect that was for the way he played a tricky wicket as much as because he had persuaded them out of their deep concerns about his management of the STFC)

Among the many issues raised were the following:

  • KM agreed to hand over the letter detailing the Science and Technology Facilities Council’s 2007 spending review allocation to MPs for scrutiny.
  • He denied that the external review of STFC had been a “total
    whitewash” on the grounds that it had not been given sufficient time to thoroughly interview a cross section of staff during the review or to do other than take the STFC’s self-assessment document, upon which their work was based, at “face value” without being able to find out if the majority of STFC staff actually agreed with its content. On the contrary staff had made their views known ‘vociferously’.
  • Challenged about the perceived overrepresentation of the executive council on the STFC council KM said that, while it had affected the perception held in the community, it made “no difference” to the outcomes (a point which the committee repeatedly contested). He added that STFC takes full account of community input via the advisory panels and science board. It’s simply not true, he insisted, that the executive dominates the Council;  rather it ensures it is properly informed so that decisions are well founded. However he acknowledged that communications had not been good – hence the new arrangements (Director of Communications appointment); Great, another spin doctor – PC .
  • An extra GBP 9M had been freed up by DIUS reducing STFC’s liabilities to exchange rate variations from the first 6 to 3 m pa over the triennium. Of this 6 would go to exploitation grants and 3 to HEIs to promote knowledge transfer. So 6M will be used properly and the rest wasted – PC .
  • He stated that Jodrell Bank had no long term future in radio astronomy since its location exposed it to too much ‘noise’ – but that was for Manchester University (which STFC would continue to support via E-MERLIN and SKA) to determine. It will take a silver bullet to kill that particular zombie -PC
  • KM also voiced the opinion that here was no tension between being simultaneously responsible for developing STFC labs/campuses and funding HEIs through grants; on the contrary it enabled better utilisation of resources bearing in mind the role of STFC which is BOTH to promote science AND its societal /economic benefits. In other words he wants the flexibility to continue robbing Peter to pay Paul – PC
  • For 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 CSR. Ditto
  • KM argued that  Daresbury was not being treated unfairly in relation to Harwell (there was a good deal of probing about this by North West MPs) .

My own view having watched most of the video is that Professor Mason must have an incredibly thick skin to shrug off such a sustained level of antipathy. Some of it is crude and abusive, but it’s quite impressive how well informed some of the members are.