Archive for January 3, 2010

What is to be done?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2010 by telescoper

Just after December’s announcement of huge cuts in spending on science by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the minister responsible, Lord Drayson, issued a Press release that included the following

… it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

I’ve decided to post a few thoughts here under a deliberately bolshie title not because I think I have all the answers, but in the hope that somebody out there will come up with better suggestions.

Superficially the problem dates 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 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 they 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 three 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. Unfortunately, so did the financial problems that are his responsibility. After two years of head-scratching, STFC has finally grasped the nettle and slashed its spending, including research grants,  in an attempt to balance the books.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but that’s exactly what I am doing. Everything that has happened was predictable given the initial conditions. You might argue that STFC wasn’t to know about the global economic downturn. In fact, I’d agree. However, the terrible 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. We still have the aftermath of that to look forward to. Unless something is done, grants will be hit again. Things are bad now, but will only get worse as long as the current arrangements persist.

Now, back to Lord Drayson’s press statement. He is of course right to say that there are tensions in putting large facilities and grant giving roles in the same organisation. That’s particularly true when it’s an organisation run by a one-man disaster area, but the main problem seems to me that actually doing science is very far down the list of priorities for STFC. The point I want to make is that by far the most of the very best science in the United Kingdom is actually done in university groups. Some of these groups use shiny new facilities but some continue to do first-rate research with older gear, not to mention us theorists who need very little in the way of facilities at all. What has happened is that the axe has fallen across the programme, apparently without regard for scientific value for money so that highly rated theory grants are being slashed along with those related to lower priority facilities.

Here it seems appropiate to make an aside to the effect that,  in my opinion, even taking into account the difficult financial circumstances in which it was done, the recent prioritisation review was completely botched. All the STFC advisory panels placed university research grants at the highest priority but the management has slashed them anyway. Moreover, instead of really biting the bullet and making tough decisions to shut down more facilities projects, they have kept as many of them going as possible (although with reduced budgets).  Cutting exploitation grants for the highest priority experiments was a particularly stupid decision. If STFC wanted to put science first, what they should have done is baled out of more facilities but preserved exploitation grants.  If that means abandoning whole areas of astronomy then that’s very sad, but surely it is better to do a smaller number of things well than a larger number of things poorly? Isn’t management meant to be about making difficult decisions?

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 realise that university researchers are not just the icing on the cake when it comes to science. They actually do most of the science. The problem is that the way they are supported is a total 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. The Research Councils already have well-managed systems to judge the quality of research grant applications, so why do we have to have the additional burden of a Research Assessment Exercise every few years on top of that? Just a few millions saved by slashing red tape could restore a large proportion of the physics grant budget.

What we need is a system that recognises the central importance of universities in science research. In order to safeguard this, research grants for all disciplines need to be adminstered organisations that cannot raid the funds allocated for this purpose to offset management failures elsewhere. The funds allocated to STFC under the Full Economic Cost system have already been systematically misappropriated in this way, and things will get worse unless something is done to protect them.

Moving grants from STFC to EPSRC would go part of the way, but I’m not a particular fan of the latter organisation’s heavy-handed top-down management style and gung ho enthusiasm for the  impact agenda which may be appropriate for applied sciences and engineering but surely doesn’t make any sense for, say, pure mathematics. I would prefer instead 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 RAE should be pumped into grants to be administered by the new organisation, reversing the recent savage cuts imposed by STFC.

And what should happen to STFC? Clearly there is still a role for an organisation to manage large experimental facilities. However, the fact that the UK is now going to have its own Space Agency should mean space science is taken out of the STFC remit.  The CERN and ESO subscriptions could continue to be managed by STFC along with other facilities, and it would 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”. I don’t think politicians really appreciate the importance of research in universities, especially if its of the open-ended, blue-sky variety. The self-serving bureaucrats in RCUK and HEFCE won’t like it either, because the’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 things are just going to go from bad to worse. This may be the last chance we have to avert a catastrophe.

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. I’d be interested in comments.