Archive for October 4, 2010

(Guest Post) STFC – It isn’t just about money

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

The following piece was written by Professor George Efstathiou, FRS, who is Professor of Astrophysics at the University of Cambridge and Director of the Kavli Institute for Cosmology. The views expressed therein are George’s own, but I’m not saying that out of a desire to distance myself from his opinions. As a matter of fact, I was one of the people who signed the petition he describes in the article…


As Peter has reported on this site, physicists around the country are anxiously awaiting the results of the forthcoming Comprehensive Spending Review. Scientists whose research is supported by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)  are particularly anxious.  Since its creation, STFC has gone through two difficult scientific prioritisation exercises. Many excellent projects have been cancelled and grants supporting University groups have been cut savagely, by about 35%. STFC science has already descended into the Royal Society’s ‘game over‘ scenario. All of this has happened before the consequences of the economic crisis have hit the science budget. STFC has left itself uniquely poorly placed amongst the Research Councils to absorb further reductions following the CSR.

It is for this reason, that I and a few others organised a petition expressing a loss of confidence in the Chief Executive of STFC. The petition was signed by 916 researchers, including 162 Professors and 18 Fellows of the Royal Society. It was formally submitted to the STFC Chair (Michael Sterling) on 1st July together with an explicit request that STFC Council should review its role in this loss of confidence.

People will have had many different reasons for signing the petition. I made my views public well in advance (see my Letter to Lord Drayson). In all of my letters to ministers and others concerning the STFC ‘crisis’, I have never asked for more money. More money would help, of course, but this is utterly unrealistic in the current economic circumstances. No, over the last three years I have been lobbying for good governance. The strutural difficulties with STFC were easy to identify and I believe that with good governance the STFC programme could have been managed without such a catastrophic loss of science. Over three years, STFC have failed to establish a compelling narrative, strategy and constructive engagement with its science community. When one bears in mind that about 40 % of Physics staff work in areas for which STFC is the primary funding source, the consequences of the STFC crisis for University Departments, and the rest of the science base, are indeed serious.

So, whatever the outcome of the CSR, there are governance issues that we should be concerned about. There are three that I would like to raise here:

1. Fellowships and grants. Senior scientists from outside the UK point to the Fellowships and Rolling Grants as two of the most effective features of the UK funding system. Both are now under threat. I was responsible for making the case for the current 5 year system to PPARC Council. In addition to the evident benefits of continuity and reduction in peer review, Council need to understand that recruitment for postdocs involves a substantial lead time. If we are to compete for the best postdocs around the world (and not lose our best post docs), grant funds must be committed four years in advance. The 5 year rolling grant system, even with tapers, allows groups to advertise posts on an international timetable and to vire funds to maximise science output. Any move to responsive mode 3 year grants is guaranteed to deliver less science for a fixed amount of money. I would vigorously defend the Fellowships. Fellowships encourage scientific independence and provide a valuable “bottom-up” correction to the increasingly narrow “top-driven” science programme of STFC. Attacks on Fellowships and Rolling Grants will inevitably lead to a more introspective and less internationally competitive science programme.

2. The Composition of STFC Council. STFC Council, with a minority of leading research scientists, differs from other Research Councils. I have had several vigorous discussions with Michael Sterling concerning this issue and, in particular, the recent decision by BIS to appoint three new non-academic members to STFC. This led me to write a long letter to Adrian Smith (Director General of the Research Councils) reproduced here. Professor Smith replied that he approved of the present balance of Council and thought that it was compatible with the recommendations of previous reviews. I will leave readers to decide whether they agree. This is not a minor point. My experience on PPARC Council was that `lay members’ can often provide interesting perspectives on problems, but if they lack understanding of the science (sometimes alarmingly so) they will tend to accept the recommendations of the Executive. STFC needs a scientifically strong Council. Competent management is not enough. It is easy to keep within budget – you can be tough about cutting things. It is much harder to maximise the amount of science that you can do on a fixed budget. For that you need a scientific strategy and scientific judgement.

3. The New CEO. The search has begun for a new Chief Executive. There is one school of thought that a suitable candidate may be found from the corporate sector. Someone who may not understand the science, but would be a capable manager and communicator. I think that this would be a disaster. In my view, it is essential that a new CEO have an understanding of the science programme at STFC and should be prepared to act as an enthusiastic advocate for STFC science. We need a CEO who can engage constructively with the academic community and, when times are tough, articulate a strategy to limit the loss of science rather than gloat at our misfortune.

It would be great to have more money for STFC science. But money isn’t everything – we need to pay attention to governance issues as well. If we had been braver back in 2008 and openly challenged the Executive, we might not be in such a weak position now. We should not be so reticent in the future.