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

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.


12 Responses to “(Guest Post) STFC – It isn’t just about money”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by yvonne nobis, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: (Guest Post) STFC – It isn't just about money: http://wp.me/pko9D-1VJ […]

  2. Steve Warren Says:

    I agree 100%, and am very grateful that you have led, and continue to lead the fight. I’m not sure why there is no response from any of the other 915 signatories. Perhaps they all agree, or perhaps they are just worn out by shouting in a vacuum.

  3. telescoper Says:

    I’m also very surprised there has been so little comment on this piece! I can see that a lot of people have read it, but perhaps everyone has given up already?

  4. Phil Uttley Says:

    I was one of the 916 and totally agree also, nuff said!

  5. Maybe people are reading between the lines of the news from Council and are trying not to upset any apple-carts right now.

    • telescoper Says:

      “I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest.” – George Smiley

  6. “I’m also very surprised there has been so little comment on this piece!”

    What can one say except “me too”?

    Having said that, let me second George in his praise for the rolling-grant system. This is, quite seriously, one of the best things about UK science funding. Anyone who is familiar with this and inferior schemes in other countries (“Antrag auf Gewährung einer Sachbeihilfe”, anyone?) recognises the superiority of the rolling-grant scheme (as opposed to a) positions within a concrete project and b) personal fellowships for people at the start of their career (the real value of fellowships is for more senior folks)).

  7. George Efstathiou Says:

    The article focuses on governance issues, not money. Council will be making decisions on some of these issues imminently and we should be aware of the potential impact. One key lesson that I have learned over the last few months is that fear of upsetting ‘apple-carts’ is often overstated. As I said in the last line, our community needs to be braver, and if there are real issues we should be prepared to discuss them openly. My approach is to present arguments, i.e. to articulate a case for issues such as the composition of Council, grants and so forth. If the community, Council, BIS etc disagree, they should be able to articulate a counter-case. In my correspondence on these issues, I have received little in the way of cogent counter-argument.

    • i wasn’t one of the signatories – but i agree with the first point – that STFC has swung too far in the direction of facilities and away from funding the people to use them…

      we’ve passed the point where we can efficiently exploit the tools STFC are paying for (and i know people claim this could be used as an argument to cut more, by simply removing facilities, but that seems like a statement that any opposition will only lead to worse outcomes, and perhaps we shouldn’t worry any more about “worst case” scenarios).

      i believe STFC needs to rebalance their programme in terms of exploitation, development and facilities – which means protecting exploitation when the next CSR cuts happen – as exploitation has already had ~40% cuts over the past 3 years (and development has been frozen for ~1 year) – while the facilities budget (i believe, but i’m still waiting for STFC’s numbers) hasn’t been trimmed by anything like that. as a result of this we have a long list of projects which we’re paying for operations, but where we can’t fund the PDRA/staff time to turn the data into science, so we’re effectively subsidising our competitors to do the science. similarly the development line needs to be restarted to ensure we’re doing all the KE-directed work that STFC now appears to believe is its primary directive.

  8. […] The italics are mine. The communication referred to in the above extract must be the petition, signed by over nine hundred scientists, expressing no confidence in the current executive and discussed here recently in a guest post by Professor George Efstathiou. […]

  9. Woken Postdoc Says:

    I understand the non-reaction in these blog-comments. Some of us web-lurking scientists are worn out. Some of us are already victims of the STFC, and have moved abroad. Some of us are simply churning in silent wrath, carrying new grudges that will last a lifetime.

    Please consider it possible that groups hoping for renewed or new grants (now or in coming years) have nudged their research fellows and postdocs to refrain from public political comment (under *identifiable* names at least). The muzzling lecturers muzzle themselves too. Yes: there is a fear of upsetting the “apple cart.”

    The numbers on the petition are a lower-limit estimate. I know young people who agreed with all or part of the proposition, but were inhibited. I continue to meet people who were unaware of the petition’s existence.

    What are the alternatives to the present STFC governance? Can we be guaranteed that replacing the executive and rebalancing the council would lead to an improvement? I am afraid that there are several other factions/viewpoints who’d be equally disastrous if they captured unlimited control.

  10. BritAbroad Says:

    I just found this through the link in the select comittee document. I agree with the petition, and had I known about its existence I would have signed it. But I didn’t. I’m one of the many who finished an STFC studentship and could not get a postdoc in Britain. I’m in the US now, and it looks like I’ll be staying here. Now there are no fellowships in the UK to speak of I don’t have much choice.
    I agree with much of what Woken Postdoc says. We’re fed up. What’s the point of shouting any more when we aren’t going to get anywhere. I was at the STFC townhall at NAM when one of the STFC comittee (I forget which one, maybe Whormsley?) told a student that he shouldn’t be in astronomy if he wanted a career out of it, he should be doing it for the love of science. If the comittee have that much contempt for the young scientists how can we ever get anywhere.

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