Executive Roast

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.

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14 Responses to “Executive Roast”

  1. Peter – nicely explained, many thanks. Generally I don’t like making these political discussions personal, but I can’t resist pointing out a strange paradox. Many of us have known Keith for years and know perfectly how thick skinned, stubborn (persistent) and forceful he is. We thought this was exactly why he would be good for our science. The bottom line (apart from the lack of communication thing) is that his new job is much wider than the old PPARC one, so we can’t expect him to be our stubborn hero.

  2. telescoper Says:

    I can’t deny having a sort of grudging respect for Keith Mason. Few people I know could have survived that sort of treatment and walked away in one piece. But I also have to admit I never thought he was a good choice for a job that involves such fine judgement and political sense. I’m not pleased to have been proved right. His stubbornness is now no longer a virtue. It just makes it almost impossible to get rid of him.

  3. […] Hmm. Seems Telescoper is assuming the mantle of dissecter of STFC politics. And as ever there are about eight hundred people quicker than me at feeding you the hot new […]

  4. The issue of communications kept cropping up throughout.

    One of my initial impressions was that the committee is concerned that Keith has misuderstood the call for better communication. One suspects that they were keen that STFC improve its communications to more effectively engage with the community and staff (as Andy might put it) whereas STFC seems to think that it needs better message control (rather than a better message?) and to place things in a positive light.

    I’m still not sure that KM got that point.

    I also think that his repitition of how ‘relaxed’ he was did little to relax the committee. In his defence (gasp!) I think they were actually talking a little past each other at that point since I think (and I could be wrong) that KM meant that he could work within any system. How it could have been perceived was that he was saying that he thought the current system was fine and saw no need to worry about changing it.

    I’m not sure that he had earned their respect by the end. But I recognise the bias in my own perception.

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    And for those of us who prefer to read text rather than watch videos, the minutes of the Committee session with Prof. Mason are now available at
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmdius/uc171-i/uc17102.htm

    These are uncorrected minutes, hence references to Lord Grayson and the like.

  6. Lord Grayson of Larry?

    Shut that door!

  7. Bryn Jones Says:

    Lord Drayson is the Minister of State for Science and Innovation. He was recently questioned by the Select Committee for Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, as well as Keith Mason, and the uncorrected minutes of that appear at
    http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200809/cmselect/cmdius/uc169-i/uc16902.htm
    He repeated there his views about diverting the science budget towards research of direct economic and social value.

    In contrast, I believe Lord Grayson’s constitutional role may be to order that the door of the House of Commons is slammed in Black Rod’s face at the State Opening of Parliament. Or perhaps not.

  8. Hello. Out of interest, I’d appreciate some details of why you think eMERLIN, SKA, or Jodrell Bank is a zombie/vampire? Is the mixed metaphor deliberate?

  9. My comment wasn’t intended to apply to SKA (which hasn’t even been born yet) but to E-Merlin, which has come back from the dead more times than I can remember.

  10. Thanks for the clarification. As a youngster (sort of) who doesn’t have much historical knowledge about these funding issues, can you tell me when eMerlin died in the past?

    • PPARC attempted to pull the plug on E-Merlin about 9 years ago, but political pressure won out over scientific argument.

      Since your IP address is at Jodrell Bank, I would have thought you would know about these things.

  11. I didn’t bring up where I am at the start because I thought it might affect what you told me. Did you look at my IP address before answering me? I’d rather hear what people think and why than get a filtered view because of any perceptions about me (whether true or not).

    As I said previously, I’m very junior in astronomy and don’t know a lot about the history of the politics of all this stuff. I try to pick up what I over hear from astronomers at different institutions to try to disentangle all the rivalries (scientific and/or personal). That isn’t so easy to do when they know that you’re affiliated with somewhere specific.

    Just so you know, I’m not employed by MERLIN (or e-MERLIN) but you probably worked that out already. 😉

    Cheers

  12. I’ve been thinking about this some more over the past few days. You are right that political pressure shouldn’t be allowed. I also think that individual rivalries/preferences shouldn’t be able to influence funding decisions. The combination of these two factors doesn’t give me trust in the system to arrive at the best scientific choices. I think the system needs some serious improvements to make it more accountable, open, trust worthy and as free of bias as possible.

    Perhaps the STFC executive (and their political bosses) should have less influence in what gets funded. Perhaps the peer review panels should only be formed from those not benefiting from the STFC funding process themselves. When there are vested interests involved, trust can be lost. I’m not sure how to make it better but there must be ways.

  13. […] page is about a visit by Prince Andrew to the Rutherford Appleton Lab. No sign yet, then, of the promised improvement in communication between the STFC Executive and its […]

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