The Stitch-up Continues…

Interesting news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Following the retirement of Professor Mike Edmonds from his post of Professor of Astronomy at Cardiff University – enabling yours truly to take his office! – he decided to resign his position on STFC Council. Yesterday, STFC announced that he would be replaced on its highest-level governing body, not with one person but with three, taking the membership of the Council to 12.

The new trio consists of  Mr Will Whitehorn (President of Virgin Galactic), Dr Michael Healy (President of the navigation business division of Astrium), and Mrs Gill Ball (Finance Director at the University of Birmingham). Given the catastrophic shambles of STFC’s current financial situation, the last appointment seems to make good sense. On the other hand, what on Earth is going on with the first two?

The new UK Space Agency came into existence today, 1st April 2010 – no joke. This is supposed to take overall control of all our national space activity, including commercial ventures as well as those parts (such as the subscription to the European Space Agency and funding for space instrumentation) previously under the control of STFC. Since space has now been hived off into another organisation altogether, why does  STFC now have  two commercial space gurus added to its Council?  The only explanation I can think of is that the STFC Executive is going to focus even further on space exploration rather than on basic research. These appointments were made by the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, who was the driving force behind the creation of the new UK Space Agency and they strongly suggest that he wants the emphasis within STFC to move in the direction of space exploration, to the likely detriment of the rest of science.  The implications for the future of observational astronomy and particle physics are deeply worrying.

Even more worryingly for those of us involved in basic research, note that one of the few scientists on Council has been replaced by three people whose interests lie elsewhere. In fact the number of independent scientists on Council has thus been reduced from 5 to 4. You can draw your own conclusions about what this means for the future of pure science in the rump of STFC…

Other interesting news this week is that the government has conjured up £100 million for the Diamond Light Source. I don’t want for one moment to give the impression that in the slightest bit negative about this facility or the new investment in it. It is immensely valuable for research across a  wide spectrum of scientific disciplines, and I was very glad to hear of the new investment. The extra funds will enable it to increase the number of beamlines from 10 to 32 which will represent a huge increase in its productivity.

But, while the cash injection for the Diamond Light Source is clearly to be applauded, it does provide a contrast with other areas within STFC’s remit  whose research budgets have been pared to the bone. In the last grant round, for example, one-third of all the astronomy rolling grants (6 out of 18)  up for renewal this year have been axed, and the others cut back severely. All the evidence suggests that there is no interest in reversing  the cuts in the STFC management, and that they will actually get very much worse over the next few years.

Since STFC blundered into financial meltdown in 2007, there have been two main theories as to what happened; remember that this was before the Credit Crunch took hold, so the black hole in STFC’s initial budget was nothing to do with the subsequent recession. One was that the STFC Management made a mess of their submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review and that it was all down to ineptitude. The other theory is that there was a definite plan at a high political level – probably in the Treasury – to rein back expenditure on fundamental research in favour of more “applied” disciplines. The shortfall in STFC’s finances was thus manufactured to achieve precisely what it has achieved. Depending on which of these theories you believe (if either), then the STFC Chief Executive is cast either as a bumbling incompetent or as a willing stooge of the Whitehall mandarins (although to be fair the two are not mutually exclusive).  The more the sorry saga of STFC pans out, the more I believe it was all a deliberate stitch-up. I think the most recent developments corroborate my view in depressingly convincing fashion.

STFC came into the world in 2007 with an estimated budget shortfall of £80 million. Had the £100 million I mentioned above appeared sooner, and had it gone into STFC’s general budget rather than being, as it is, ring-fenced for the Diamond Light Source then the carnage inflicted on science research could have been avoided. Instead, STFC squeezed its research grant line until the pips squeaked. Now that they’ve done this job, and got away with relatively little organized opposition from the scientific community, suddenly the money appears. It looks to me like the budget deficit was engineered to achieve precisely the outcome that has occurred.

I predict that after the election, the STFC budget will be slashed once more and that astronomy and particle physics research will again bear the brunt as STFC increasingly focusses on space exploration. The exodus of talented scientists from Britain that has already started and is sure to accelerate over the next year or two will take decades to reverse. It’s time for those responsible to come clean.

10 Responses to “The Stitch-up Continues…”

  1. “The exodus of talented scientists from Britain that has already started and is sure to accelerate over the next year or two will take decades to reverse.”

    Indeed. Personally, and sad as it is, I can’t see the point in even thinking about looking for a job back home over the next few years, and I know many scientists far more talented then me who are thinking the same way.

  2. Given we (the UK) spend so little on science it is just plain vindictive they are continually cutting funding for our particular fields like this.

  3. CTReader Says:

    Congratulations Peter!

  4. telescoper Says:


  5. Mr Physicist Says:

    Perhaps, we should not be too surprised – STFC is, after all, a *facilities* council. Extra expertise from commercial facilities might even be appropriate for the ex-CCLRC part of STFC. Of course, your concern is for the rest – the science/exploitation – and the problems here go back to the shotgun marriage between PPARC and CCLRC. Here I am pessimistic about the future (and this really means post election) if the current situation continues with the grants remaining in STFC… whatever was said in the Drayson Review about ring fencing activities. As I said, its all in the name!

  6. telescoper Says:

    I’m not particularly surprised either, but it’s depressingly obvious now what has been going on for the last 3 years…

  7. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by telescoper: The Stitch-up Continues…:

  8. Rhodri Evans Says:

    What a shocking state of affairs. Words fail me.

  9. George Efstathiou Says:

    It is worth reviewing some history. The 2008 Select Committee Report
    criticised the composition of STFC Council for its lack of ‘stakeholder’
    representation and for including three members of the Executive amongst
    its members. This Wakeham review made similar criticisms. In reply to the
    Wakeham review, STFC said that they had already recognised and responded to the problem. (Two members of the Executive resigned from Council and the number of University scientists was increased).

    Now, barely 18 months later, we see a change in Council membership
    that goes against the advice of the Select Committee, Wakeham,
    and STFCs claim to have ‘recognised the problem’. This is a blunder
    because the changes have come without explanation at a time when
    community confidence with STFC is extraordinarilly low.

  10. telescoper Says:

    Evidently STFC no longer sees scientists as important stakeholders…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: