After my little trip to Denmark last week, it’s now time to settle into the routine of academic life. Teaching starts tomorrow, and I’m actually quite looking forward to it. I find teaching very rewarding, in a way that’s quite different from research, to the extent that I would hate to see further separation between the two in British universities. Call me old-fashioned.
Inevitably, though, it’s been research that’s been occupying my mind for the past few days. I’ve posted a couple of times recently about the ongoing review of the way astronomy and particle physics research are funded here in the United Kingdom (see here and here). The Science Minister, Lord Drayson, seems keen to find a way to stop research grants being massacred by overruns elsewhere in the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). His aim appears to be come up with a plan before the end of February to find a way of preventing the situation from getting any worse for science. No doubt the idea of a dedicated British Space Agency will also be thrown into pot, so that the bit of STFC’s current portfolio that deals with space things will probably be hived off elsewhere.
The major question that is occupying the minds of scientists – but perhaps not those of the bureaucrats – is whether the research grants currently dispensed by STFC will continue to be held by whatever STFC morphs into or whether they should go elsewhere, probably to EPSRC. I sense a predisposition towards the former possibility among many of my colleagues. I recognize that the EPSRC route is not without its problems, but I fear that if we remain with STFC then not only is there a very strong probability that recent history will repeat itself but that the damage done by the current STFC structure will be irreparable.
Behind all this is the issue of why STFC is in such a mess in the first place. When it came into being in 2007, it was immediately saddled with an £80 million operating deficit. Why? There are two theories. One is that it was a mistake, resulting from inept STFC management. The other is that the creation of STFC presented various grey eminences that inhabit the superstructure of British science politics represented by RCUK with an opportunity to slash expenditure on “useless” science (i.e. particle physics and astronomy) without having to go through the tedious rigmarole of public consultation. I don’t know which of these is the truth but, given the choice, I’d put my money on the latter.
Note the behaviour of STFC’s Chief Executive after the yawning gap was discovered in his organization’s finances. If it was a result of management incompetence then he should have been fired. If he was stitched up by RCUK then the only honorable thing to do for someone with the best interests of science at heart was to resign in protest. Neither of these things happened. This leads me to the interpretation that Professor Mason was a willing participant in the game, a point of view that is supported by his performance at the Town Meeting in December 2007 where the STFC’s delivery plan was presented to an audience of scientists. The document containing the delivery plan is notable for its upbeat and self-congratulatory tone containing no hints of the financial catastrophe engulfing the organization. It was clearly designed to say exactly what the Chief Executive’s political masters wanted it to say. The gross dishonesty of this publication was revealed by Professor Mason’s presentation, wherein he told us scientists something rather closer to the truth, that STFC was facing financial oblivion. It was an appaling performance.
After a botched and panicky initial attempt to cut science projects, and a public dressing down by the House of Commons select committee, it took another two years for its latest Programmatic Review to emerge. Once again, though, the management of STFC put an absurdly glowing light on the wreckage of UK astronomy, nuclear and particle physics; calling it “Investing in the Future” and making light of the devastating cull of research grants and projects that it is proposing. The message that I glean from all this is that STFC’s problems stem from deliberate policy at a high level, probably at the Treasury, and carried out enthusiastically by a hierarchy of yes-men who will do whatever they are told regardless of what it means for science. Some of these creatures may have started out as scientists, but they’ve definitely gone native when lured into the Whitehall jungle.
Of course the public purse is limited. We have to decide how much to spend on different bits of science. Astronomy or particle physics (or any other discipline, for that matter) has to make its case. Somehow a balance must be struck between all the competing demands for cash. Maybe Britain does have too many astronomers. Or too many particle physicists. Who knows? My point is: who decides? This kind of thing is too important to be settled behind closed doors by individuals who lap up whatever their masters feed them like mother’s milk.
The STFC debacle is just one manifestation of the rampant managerialism that is strangling British civil society. Gone are the days when scientists knew best about science, doctors knew best about medicine and teachers knew best about education. Now we’re all subservient to managers who think they know best about everything. Things are no better at EPSRC, an organization notorious for its top-down structure, mania for meaningless initiatives, and wholehearted endorsement of the ill-considered impact agenda. What I am saying is that the Haldane principle is dead and buried.
While I was in Copenhagen last week attending the inauguration of the Discovery Center I was struck by the differences between how research is funded in Denmark and in the United Kingdom. This new initiative in particle physics and cosmology is funded as a rolling programme by the Danish National Research Foundation (Danmarks Grundforskningsfond). Way back in 1991, Denmark part-privatised its pension system and a large chunk of the resulting cash was invested in scientific research. The organization funds programmes across an entire range of disciplines (including arts and humanities) for periods of10 years (or, more precisely, 5 years with an extension to 10 after satisfactory performance; most get extended). The primary criterion for funding these programmes is scientific excellence and the vast bulk of the funds goes to funding PhD students and postdoctoral researchers at Danish universities.
A representative of the foundation (whose name I have regrettably forgotten) spoke at the official inauguration of the Discovery Center to describe the parent organization’s philosophy. In a nutshell his message was: “You’re the scientists. You know about science. We don’t. We’re here to help you hire the best people, then get out of your way. Excellence is what we want to fund, wherever it lies. That’s our only agenda.” As it happens, two out of the nine programmes funded in the last round, including the Discovery Center, were in particle physics.
Of course I was jealous. I was also struck by how similar this organization sounds to the suggestion I made in a blog post before christmas. Of course Denmark is a much smaller country than Britain and it has a very different economic structure. I’m not saying we could simply copy what the Danes have done without any modification. But the real reason why such an organization could never get set up in Britain, is that The Management would never allow it…