Archive for March 4, 2010

Two Cheers for Lord Drayson

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on March 4, 2010 by telescoper

The long awaited announcement of Lord Drayson‘s review of the structure of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC)  has finally appeared together with parallel announcements by STFC and RCUK. There’s already been a lot of reaction on Twitter about this, and it has also reached the  BBC News.

There’s actually not much in the announcement that’s particularly surprising.  The plan is to insulate STFC from the effects of currency fluctuations on its subscription commitments to international organizations, and also to share the cost of large domestic facilities across the whole science programme rather than just STFC on its own. In the shorter term (i.e. 2010-11) STFC will continue to receive some help to deal with the uncontrollable external pressures on its budget.

In the longer term it is anticipated that the subscription to the European Space Agency will move to a new UK Space Agency anyway.

These moves are all good news, and will probably help STFC to reach some level of stability. I am certainly grateful to Lord Drayson for getting involved in this process. It will be a while before we find out how it will work out in practice, but at least it’s a start.

The big problem I see is that STFC may well reach “stability”, but the position of equilibrium looks likely to be one with a very low level of grant funding for astronomy and particle physics. Perhaps I’m being excessively cynical, but it still looks to me like this financial crisis was deliberately engineered in order to squeeze fundamental research by 25%. That has now been achieved, so the grey men of the Treasury can now remove the straitjacket. I don’t see any signal that our grants will return to a sustainable level, however, so the astronomy community will probably continue to wither away. The Drayson review may staunched the flow of blood, but the patient will remain  dangerously  ill unless additional measures are taken. (Too many metaphors, Ed.)

Which brings me to a final point. Having a sensible management structure for STFC isn’t the same as having a sensible STFC management. I know I’m not the only astronomer in the UK to have lost all confidence in the current Chief Executive, Keith Mason. As long as he remains in charge I’m suspicious that any structural modifications will amount to no more than window-dressing and astronomy and particle physics will continue to be neglected in favour of technology-driven projects.

We might – just might –  have stopped going backwards, but in order to start going forwards we need a new leader.

PS. For  the best compilation of sources on the STFC crisis, see Paul Crowther’s pages here.