Letter to Lord Drayson from George Efstathiou

I just had a note from George Efstathiou, Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology at the University of Cambridge, about a letter he wrote to Lord Drayson about the STFC crisis. It’s  very much in line with what I was saying a few days ago. It’s good to see someone with some clout stepping into the ring, taking the gloves off, and not pulling his punches (That’s enough boxing metaphors, Ed.)

With George’s permission, I’m including the full text of his letter below; the added links are mine.

-0-

25 January 2010

Lord Drayson
Department for Business, Innovation and Skills
Castle View House
East Lane
Runcorn, WA72GJ

Dear Lord Drayson,

I would like to make a few comments concerning your structural review of STFC. I was a member of the Astronomy and Planetary Sciences Board of SERC (1991‐1993) and a member of PPARC Council (2001‐2004) and so I have some experience of previous funding systems.

Overall, I support the proposals put forward by the Royal Astronomical Society Forum and the Institute of Physics. It is extremely important that research grants remain in a reorganized Council rather than transferred to EPSRC. A transfer of the grants line to EPSRC, particularly at a severely reduced level following the STFC prioritization exercise, would recreate the difficulties experienced in the days of SRC/SERC that PPARC was designed to solve. (Namely, the long‐term nature of Particle Physics and Astronomy projects and their reliance on large international organizations).

In analysing the nature of a restructured Council, it is worthwhile reviewing some of the reasons for the difficulties at STFC, and the role of the Chief Executive in exacerbating those difficulties.

Firstly, Keith Mason has openly pursued a policy of transferring funds into areas with potential for short term economic impact at the expense of grant funding to Universities. STFC funds have therefore gone into facilities, innovation campuses and initiatives such as the Aurora programme. Together with a sympathetic Chairman and a Council that included three members of the Executive, this policy went (largely) unchallenged for the first two years of STFCs existence, though I know of not a single research scientist who agreed with it. Financial mismanagement of this policy finally caught up with STFC last year, leading to savage cuts of more than 35% in the grants line (the only `flexible’ part of the STFC budget). These cuts are more savage than the deepest cuts experienced during the Thatcher years. Mason’s attempt to downplay these cuts by referring to previous low points in grant funding is, frankly, risible. Government should be indignant at Mason’s attempt to write‐off the investment in science between the years 2002‐‐2007, which was intended (and succeeded) in improving the volume and quality of research in Universities.

As an example of the tension between economic impact and scientific excellence, BNSC published the Space Exploration Review recommending an increase in funding of £150m per annum and highlighting the MoonLITE bilateral mission. A few days later, the STFC prioritization exercise ranked MoonLITE `below alpha’. Any restructuring must tackle the difficulties of tensioning projects which may have economic benefits but little scientific merit against academic excellence. In my view, academic excellence should be the priority for any restructured Research Council.

Secondly, Mason has held the view (most recently expressed at the Astronomy Forum meeting earlier this month) that the UK has too many scientists involved in exploiting facilities in comparison to the number engaged in developing, building and operating facilities. Again, I know of not a single research scientist who agrees with this view. The science budget has increased significantly over the last decade. The expansion of astronomy and particle physics in UK Universities has been a rational response to the increased availability of funding. As a member of the 2008 RAE Physics panel I was able to see at first hand how this investment has translated into research of the highest international quality. The deep STFC cuts to the grants line will inevitably weaken the research base in UK Universities and may even threaten the viability of some Physics departments. The shock wave following these cuts will eventually be felt across the entire UK science base. Any restructured Research Council must sustain an acceptable balance between support of UK Universities and investment in facilities.

STFC has not given high enough priority to scientific excellence. This is the primary cause of the problems over the last three years. It is why scientific excellence will suffer following the STFC prioritization exercise. This unfortunate outcome has been achieved during a period of increased funding to STFC and despite the allocation of financial bailouts.

Any restructured Research Council must have academic excellence at its core. It must also have a Chief Executive who recognises and values academic excellence.

Yours sincerely

George Efstathiou

cc Professor Michael Sterling, Chairman STFC
Phil Willis, Chair, House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

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12 Responses to “Letter to Lord Drayson from George Efstathiou”

  1. steve eales Says:

    A very good letter. Posisbly the only slightly unfair thing is that part of the financial mess is due to the merger between CCLRC and PPARC, which was not really Mason’s fault. But everything else spot on.

    By the way, the best and fairest analysis of the whole sorry mess that I have seen was by a particle physicist (Brian Cox?), who wrote an analysis on the New Scientist blog. He really had followed the money and ended up undecided whether is was cock-up or conspiracy.

    I

    • telescoper Says:

      Steve,

      Perhaps, but Mason went along with it. He could even have been aware of the consequences of the plan. If he was dealt an impossible hand he could have done the right thing and resigned in protest.

      Anyway, I think the articles you are referring to by Brian Cox are here and here. These were in response to a grossly misleading blog post by STFC’s resident spin doctor, John Womersley.

      Peter

  2. George Efstathiou Says:

    Steve,

    I have found it difficult to get a clear picture of exactly how bad the CSR was for STFC. The situation is clouded by uncertainties surrounding
    legacy issues related to the merger and the introduction of FEC. Nevertheless, I believe sincerely that with more sympathetic management, the impact of the CSR on University funding could have been much less severe. Had STFC not received bailouts, our situation would have been even worse!

    George

  3. Guenther Rosner Says:

    Wasn’t Keith Mason CEO of PPARC at the time of the merger?

  4. Chris North Says:

    All,

    One of the most dismaying things about the whole issue at the moment, is the attitude of some (presumably – hopefully – a minority) academics of “well, we had this in the 1980s and survived” [response: well academics did, by definition] and “the good times had to end some time” [response: did they?], along with the (frankly a little insulting) “go get a job in industry and then come back to academia later” [response: I don’t want a job in industry]. I’ve heard these responses from multiple people, both first- and second-hand. The people with these attitudes tend to also have permanent (though admittedly not 100% secure) positions, which seems very insensitive towards those of us with fixed-term contracts.

    This attitude is not helpful in the slightest and to be honest I was very surprised and upset to hear that it existed, even if in a small minority of the audience. It would be slightly more understandable if it was in response to cuts due to the recession, but (and this needs to be shouted in the street, in my opinion) we haven’t even got to the recession-related cuts yet. The whole thing makes me fear a self-destruction.

    Many thanks to George for writing this letter, and to Peter Coles for posting it on the blog.

    Guenther: Keith Mason was appointed Chief Executive of PPARC in August 2005, initially for a period of four years. (http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Nw/Md/Artcl/new_ceo.asp). According to the quotes on that page “the UK is well-positioned to lead in the development of the next generation of global facilities”, though as the header says, the information on the PPARC sites is no longer current.

    Chris

  5. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear George, Peter,

    Beautifully put, George, and thanks to you and Peter for making it available here. Let’s hope that the powers-that-be are more in a listening mode now than before, as seems to be the case.

    Regarding Chris’s point, I hope no-one is holding up the 1980s, or indeed the 1990s, as any sort of example of something that we ought to go through. Those were times that we all thought we had put behind us. For me the main tragedy here is that, as commented by George, for a prolonged period up until around 2007 government policy towards science has been very beneficial to our field and greatly enhanced our abilities and ambitions. Yet in a very short space of time it seems that all that has been thrown away.

    Andrew

  6. Great letter George!

    As to Chris’ letter, I keenly feel the effect this is having on those with fixed term contracts.

    However, I think the simple assumption that cuts have to come because of the recession is something that needs to be examined further. After all, the US, France and Germany are all increasing funding for science and universities as part of the counter-recession stimulus packages. If the UK doesn’t follow suit, and there are no indications that it will, we run the risk of being left behind by our competitors who have wisely made long term investments in these difficult times, rather than just throwing huge wads of cash at Banks to bail them out.

  7. telescoper Says:

    I think one point that risks getting lost here is that the original cuts to the STFC science programme were not related to the recession, as they were imposed before the credit crunch began to take effect. . What happened to STFC three years ago was the result of a policy decision, not the recession. We haven’t really started to feel the effect of the recession yet – and the further cuts which will surely emerge after the election.

  8. John Peacock Says:

    George makes points that Drayson certainly needs to hear. And yet I suspect that the current STFC top brass may be little worse than some past leaders of SRC/SERC/PPARC. With more money in the system, their faults would have been less clearly exposed. So I still think we need to understand the structural reasons why we are so short of cash. As I have commented before, there seem to be two main things that are robbing STFC of several tens of millions a year each: (1) the depreciation payments on Diamond etc.; (2) the large real increase dictated by ministers in what we pay for ESA. Without attention, these problems seem set to grow worse. So while we push for a Chief Executive who will give a proper priority to scientific excellence, let’s make sure they have a stable funding base for science, rather than continuing to have their pockets picked by the Treasury and aerospace industry.

  9. From the other side of the EPSRC/PPARC divide I can only say that i fully support the comments that proposals to re-merge particle physics and astronomy into the EPSRC remit are crazy. The lack of certainty for other areas in SERC caused by the long term committments to huge interenational projects such as CERN caused some significant issues in those areas. In 1991 the number of SERC PhD places was viciously slashed due to an exchange-rate crash. This meant that I could not get PhD funding and had to wait three years before getting an EPSRC funded place. I’m sure other good potential PhD students gave up during those three years. Particle Physics and astronomy have particular issues for their funding that makes joint budgeting with the rest of the physical sciences and engineering impractical. Either shorter term returns on the EPSRC work will look more attractive than long-term PPA work, or PPA long term committments will undermine EPSRC smooth funding streams. A marraiage made in hell for both sides.

  10. Hi Andrew,

    An interesting perspective form the other side of the great divide.

    As I understand it, the favoured plan at the moment seems to be that a move to EPSRC for astronomy research grants would not be accompanied by a move of the subscriptions that fluctuate with exchange rates. These would stay with STFC or move upwards and be covered by RCUK or treasury. At least this is what some of us are hoping for. If this does happen then EPSRC shouldn’t suffer the same problems as it dod in the 80s/90s.

    Of course if we joined the Euro a lot of these issues would go away automagically…

    And welcome to the world of astronomy blogging!

  11. […] George Efstathiou, who has participated in previous funding structures, has also prepared a critique of the present situation. This includes the view held by quite a few that Keith Mason seems to want us to be in the business […]

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