A Letter to Lord Drayson

As reported in the Times Higher, the five chairs of the advisory panels that took part in STFC‘s recent prioritisation exercise have circulated an open letter to Lord Drayson. I’ve taken the liberty of posting the entire letter here.

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UK fundamental science at a crossroads

An open letter to Lord Drayson, Minister for Science

On 16 December the Science and Technology Facilities Council announced the outcome of its “programmatic review”. The results present a dismal future for researchers in fundamental science: particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics. In order to balance its books STFC announced cuts to these frontier science discovery areas amounting to about £28m per annum starting in 2012. Although STFC’s total annual budget is more than £450m, the cuts have been targeted at the roughly £175m annual spend on UK projects in these fundamental science areas. The cuts include:

  • an across-the-board reduction of 25 per cent for training of our brightest young scientists;
  • termination of involvement in more than 20 cutting-edge science projects in which the UK plays leading roles;
  • cancellation of support for an additional 20 projects, currently at the early R&D stage, which were planned to form the foundations of the future science programme 10-20 years from now, and in which the UK has international leadership.

 

Even those projects lucky enough to be continued will face cuts advertised at between 10 and 25 per cent, and this on top of cuts to STFC’s university physics grants, announced in the past 12 months, of 25 per cent across the board.

As chairs of STFC’s science advisory panels we represent the several thousand members of the UK’s particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics communities. On 21 December we wrote to Professor Michael Sterling, chair of STFC Council, to express, on behalf of our communities, dismay at this terrible outcome. We pointed out the obvious consequences:

  • the waste of much of the significant prior investment made by the UK in forefront science;
  • the loss of hard-won UK leadership in many significant areas;
  • the lack of opportunity for developing future UK strategic opportunities for advancing the scientific frontier, with relevant knowledge exchange impact, on the 10-20 year horizon;
  • the extremely negative message to bright young people about the importance the UK places in cutting-edge, fundamental science, and the career opportunities that follow from training in these areas.

 

The Prime Minister has publicly stated his commitment, which we strongly agree with, to preserve funding for science, seeing it as a key part of the solution to the current economic difficulties. Given that, how could more than 40 internationally leading science projects, and hundreds of studentships, be identified for the chop?

The problem stems from the setting up of STFC in April 2007 as an agency for funding both fundamental science and large (mainly accelerator- and laser-based) facilities used by scientists in other disciplines: for example, biologists and chemists, whose research is funded by the other UK research councils. By December 2007 STFC was already in financial difficulty and announced the need to save £80m over the following three years. The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee investigated and concluded that STFC had been set up with a shortfall of funds needed to support both the science programme and development and operation of the facilities, and that it had managed the situation very poorly. These problems, inherent at STFC’s inception, have led inexorably to its pre-Christmas announcement to cut the science funding in order to support the operation of its facilities.

The situation has been exacerbated by the collapse of the pound against major currencies: STFC pays about £200m annually in subscriptions (in Euros and Swiss francs) for UK scientists to access major European research centres: CERN, the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory and others.

Unless the Government takes action, STFC’s science cuts will almost inevitably lead to:

  • irreparable damage to the high international reputation of the UK in these areas: we will be perceived as an untrustworthy partner in global projects;
  • a “brain drain” of the best UK scientists, university lecturers and professors to positions overseas;
  • a weakening of our capability to attract the best of overseas scientific talent to the UK;
  • a consequent reduction in the provision and quality of UK university physics teaching and training that are essential for the UK’s economic future.

 

It is obvious that STFC cannot continue to stagger between financial crises on an almost annual basis. It is structurally incapable of managing both an internationally leading fundamental science programme and domestic facilities that are used primarily by scientists funded by other research councils. Both the science programme and the facilities operations need to be properly supported by dedicated agencies, and the UK’s globally leading research in particle physics, nuclear physics, astronomy and space physics needs to be protected against exchange rate fluctuations.

Philip Burrows (University of Oxford) – Particle Physics Advisory Panel

Michele Dougherty (Imperial College London) – Near Universe Advisory Panel

Martin Freer (University of Birmingham) – Nuclear Physics Advisory Panel

Philip Mauskopf (Cardiff University) – Particle Astrophysics Advisory Panel

Bob Nichol (University of Portsmouth) – Far Universe Advisory Panel

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18 Responses to “A Letter to Lord Drayson”

  1. From afar, I’m impressed by the campaign the UK physicists have been waging. One suspects it won’t lead to an increase in funding but it may save the field from yet further savagery.

    The tragedy is that this was so unnecessary. PPARC was a pretty good example of how a research council should function. It certainly wasn’t perfect but it did manage to balance the competing needs of the astro and particle communities. In Sweden it enjoyed an extremely good reputation. To destroy PPARC was the first example of scientific vandalism. As I understand it, this decision came from the treasury as a first shot in the move towards the “value for money” agenda. Its yet another sad example of decisions taken by people with grand ideas but no knowledge of how things actually work in reality. Altogether a recipe for disaster.

  2. telescoper Says:

    There’s some debate about whether the funding gap created with STFC was deliberate or just down to incompetence. I think it was the former, which is what your message also suggests.

  3. @telescoper. I don’t think it can’t be both!

  4. The only lights in the tunnel are (a) the science minister Lord Drayson reviewing the structure of STFC in which facilities themselves compete for funding against the exploitation of those facilities, with a report due in February, and (b) the prospect of a general election. Of course, at least one of these could be the approach of an oncoming train. And the underlying problem as many have argued has been the underfunding of the PPARC+CCLRC merger followed by the flat cash Comprehensive Spending Review settlement (predating the global financial crisis!), not the structural conflicts in themselves, so Lord Drayson’s review may rather miss the point.

  5. Steve: There’s also the new Space Agency, another Drayson initiative, which could potentially bring more money if the government pays any attention to recommendations of the House fo Commons Select Committee on Science.

    I agree with Prof Brian Cox’s comments in New Scientist that we have to make science funding – and not just PPARC/STFC science funding – an election issue. I know there are people who are members and have contacts with all three major parties likely to be reading this. You know what you have to do.

  6. Good point Dave. A UK space agency needs additional funding, which could come from extra government funding, or from redirecting money from existing projects, so this is another light at the end of the tunnel with potential to be an oncoming train.

    Yes, this needs to be an election issue. We need to be careful not to give the impression of a sense of entitlement to other people’s money for our pet projects – this is not what it’s about, but it’s how it might be portrayed. Instead we need to emphasise the 6.4% of UK GDP depending on Physics, the huge industrial contracts from ESA and other big science projects, while research council facility decisions mean the UK research councils are no longer reliable international partners, and the pinch on fellowships and facility exploitation grants is explicitly encouraging talented people to leave the UK. The argument is not “this science is great” but “the economy needs this long-term investment particularly in this financial crisis”. The sums involved are relatively small but I suspect that comparisons with Trident or Iraq or bank bail-outs do nothing to help the cause of science investment, while laying us open to the criticism (justifiable or not) of being politically naive and failing to see bigger pictures. Instead we should focus on how the sums involved (however large or small) lead to multiple times that in increased GDP. But the most important thing, I think, is to get newspapers on-side on this economic argument for science investment. We do very often have a tendency as scientists to assume naively that evidence alone is enough to sway a public policy argument. I don’t think that’s enough, or we wouldn’t have so many climate change deniers or anti-vaccination pundits.

  7. While it might sometimes be more useful to tout the economic advantages of funding science, this a) shouldn’t be the real reason for funding it and b) could backfire if someone demonstrates that the return on investment is not as good as something else. Also, if scientists themselves bring up this argument, the people paying for it can say “OK, I see your point; we thus want to fund those projects which have the biggest economic impact”.

  8. We are already in the situation of “we thus want to fund those projects which have the biggest economic impact”: this is explicit in research council grant funding and in REF QR income. Even the bluest of blue skies researchers can and increasingly must argue for the economic impact of their teaching and public engagement, at the very least. Also, do you really believe that politicians fund science mainly because they are interested in the Higgs mechanism or dark matter? “This is important and fundamental” is all very well but even a single satellite launch costs hundreds of millions, and that’s without the cost of the satellite itself. Schools for children and hospitals are also crying out for funding, and blue-skies science funding is measured in giga-£, so arguing the economic justification is inescapable and has been for some time.

  9. If you resort to economic justification, you have already lost not just the battle, but probably the war.

  10. It’s not that there isn’t a cultural argument to be made, but it’s not a route to significantly more money. The UK Arts & Humanities Research Council funding (2007 £316.7m) is much less than STFC (2007 £1905.6m), the Medical Research Council (2007 £1971.0m) or the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (2007 £2453.0m). I suspect that the war in the sense that you mean it was conceded a very long time ago, perhaps even before either of us were born. What do you imagine justifies national involvement in ESA?

  11. I don’t know the justifications for various programmes in the UK. Of course, the arts generally need less money to produce the same gain, so this needs to be factored in. A poet just needs a stipend to live on; for a high-energy physicist, his living costs are a small part of the total.

    As to when the war was lost in various places, I don’t know, especially since there are many different reasons people want science to be supported and these usually aren’t documented anywhere.

    OK, the motivation wasn’t “cultural” (it was political), but neither was the motivation for the US space programme in the 1960s an economic one (though it might have helped the economy as a side effect, even if it didn’t produce any Teflon).

  12. Bryn Jones Says:

    There has a been favourable reference to PPARC in these comments, so I feel an urge to lob a brick.

    PPARC was broadly competent in some of its activities, in contrast with the STFC’s unique ability to produce crises virtually everywhere. Nevertheless, conditions under PPARC were far from ideal, or in some areas, even acceptable.

    Under PPARC we saw the outright closure of the RGO, with the loss of some of some of its research programmes, and the transfer of its historical archives to a private university library. The scientific activities of the ROE were moved to rolling grants and essentially transferred from council to university ownership, and therefore from long-term to medium-term support. PPARC (or more senior civil servants) wanted to scrap Starlink, so it instituted review after review of software support until eventually one review gave PPARC a quarter of an excuse for closing Starlink down.

    PPARC operated a class system in which permanent staff (plus some people on 5-year fellowships) were empowered to take leadership roles, but nearly everyone on short-term contracts were disempowered, unconsulted and dependent on getting patronage from people on the other side of the class divide for the furtherance of their careers.

    PPARC experienced periodic funding crises that hit the grants line, with greatly reduced numbers of grants being awarded in some rounds; this was hidden from community scrutiny with the use of some smoke and mirrors. Above all, the careers crisis persisted and worsened, with the decision in the council’s later years to increase the number of PhD studentship just making things even worse.

    Of course the STFC is much worse than PPARC was, but PPARC was pretty hopeless.

    So that is my brick thrown at PPARC’s gravestone.

  13. What is the “successor” to Starlink? Being a VMS person, I never used the Starlink stuff (but rather software running on VMS, which Starlink had moved away from), but the idea seemed logical (have the same software suite at all locations, buy in bulk etc).

  14. Bryn Jones Says:

    There is no real successor to Starlink. PPARC expected people to use observatories’ own software for data reduction, and general software, such as Iraf and IDL, for data analysis. Some of the Starlink funds went to the Astrogrid or to support for software for projects involving ESO, UKIRT, VISTA and others. (The U.K. Astrogrid also obtained substantial extra money from Government.)

    The JAC in Hawaii managed to find funds to maintain existing Starlink software, which was impressive. Unfortunately, that may end if UKIRT is closed.

    There was a justified debate in the 1990s over whether Starlink should write its own software, rather than provide software written by other organisations in a consistent way. However, Starlink also had an important role as a provider of software licences, software configuration, support, advice, astronomical system management and bulk purchasing. Those aspects were also lost when PPARC closed Starlink.

    There was a stong feeling that PPARC wanted a justification to close Starlink down. PPARC instituted review of software policy after review. Each report was supportive of Starlink. So PPARC would institute yet more reviews. Eventually one review was slightly more equivocal, and PPARC closed Starlink down. There were many losses from this, but I’ll refrain from listing them here.

  15. Bryn: Of course the person leading the review which finally killed Starlink was none other than our esteemed STFC chief executive, Keith Mason.

    As to the ‘class system’ that you mention, my understanding is that the only research council in the UK to not run in this way is ESRC. For all the others you have to have an ‘established post’ to be able to apply for a grant, with the minimal exception that, in STFC/PPARC’s case, Advanced Fellows can also apply (the expectation being that they will move to an established post at the end of the fellowship).

    This apartheid, which I’ve argued against for a long time, is endemic to the British system and is not something unique to PPARC.

  16. Bryn Jones Says:

    Dave,

    I had not remembered who was the person who led the last PPARC review of Starlink, the review that gave PPARC the pretext to close Starlink. That is interesting.

    The sharp division between people with permanent contracts and the rest is a weakness of British astronomy. It greatly limits the ability of those without permanent contracts to compete, and probably limits more gifted researchers more than the mediocre. Admittedly, I did once apply for funding for a PDRA on a rolling grant while I was a fixed-term lecturer, after effectively being told to do so by the head of the group, but that was, unsurprisingly, unsuccessful (indeed the group did not get its long-standing rolling grant renewed).

    Bryn.

  17. The sharp division between people with permanent contracts and the rest is not unique to British astronomy.

  18. Bryn Jones Says:

    A sharp division between people with permanent contracts and the rest affects universities in many countries. (The discussion here concerned science funding in Britain, hence the discussion of the acute class system in British universities.)

    It is difficult to list countries where the restrictions on the activities of fixed-contract researchers are not so severe. I have, however, noticed that researchers in the United States seem to manage to get grant funding while on fixed-term contracts. This puts them at an advantage when competing for jobs, including permanent positions, including internationally. A fixed-term researcher of ability with grant income will be at a substantial advantage when competing, for example, for a lectureship in Britain or Germany, over researchers in those countries of similar ability who have been frozen out of the grant system by hierarchies and funding council restrictions.

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