Poisoned Chalice, Anyone?

In the July instalment of news from STFC Council, among the items discussed  were the arrangements for selecting a successor to the current Chief Executive Officer, Professor Keith Mason. Apparently a sub-group of the Council has been established to work out how to proceed; its terms of reference are also given. Among the latter you can find the following statement:

Keith Mason comes to the end of his second and final term as a Research Council CEO in March 2012 having served as PPARC CEO and then as founding CEO of STFC. Council believes it to be important that in the context of the selection of a new chief executive that a clear understanding is reached with STFC’s various stakeholders as to the role and responsibilities of the STFC chief executive in leading a complex and diverse organisation through what will undoubtedly be times of further change, uncertainty and financial pressure. Council also believes it will be important to understand as we move forward any lessons that should be learnt from the circumstances behind the communication recently received by the chairman from individuals within STFC’s academic communities expressing concern about STFC’s leadership.

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.

The fear is that the Science and Technology Facilities Council will decide to appoint a Chief Executive, perhaps from the world of commerce or industry, who has even less sympathy for the fundamental sciences, such as astronomy and particle physics than the current one.

The latest (October) News from Council contains a report from the sub-Group advising on the appointment of the new CEO which makes interesting reading.  For example, the mandatory requirements for candidates for the post include that he/she should

  • Have a strong and respected STEM background and qualification (at least to PhD level), or similar (e.g. in the biomedical sector) provided candidates can demonstrate an appreciation and understanding of the scale and complexity of STFC science and research;
  • Command the respect of the academic communities and be seen as champion of STFC’s research base;
  • Be recognised as having previously and successfully led and managed (with total accountability) an organisation or organisational unit of an appropriate and relevant degree of complexity;
  • Demonstrate a very high intellectual calibre;
  • Have experience of working within an international context;

This suggests that they will be looking for someone with a background in academic research although not specifically in physics or astronomy. This will come as a relief to many working in areas covered by STFC’s remit, and even might inspire a few people I know to start writing updating their CVs. However, I think it  will be extremely difficult for STFC to persuade anyone of sufficient calibre to take up a post which has,  for the entire duration of the existence of the organisation,  involved responding  to a calamitous series of financial crises and restructurings with very little scope for implementing a coherent science programme. In fact, three years since its inception, the STFC still hasn’t produced any document that represents a science strategy of any real substance.

I hope that STFC has better times ahead of it, but I wonder how many qualified candidates would just see this job as a poisoned chalice?



11 Responses to “Poisoned Chalice, Anyone?”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Crowther, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: Poisoned Chalice, Anyone?: http://wp.me/pko9D-22l […]

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    If you get a hard-nosed Alan Sugar type who is smart enough to understand that the probability of a research department in even a large commercial concern coming up with the next innovation is small and that the real function of such departments is to keep ears to the ground, then it might be OK. He’d understand that the idea of research is research, and I’d rather like Alan Sugar negotiating for me.

    If, on the other hand, you get some acolyte of the art of ‘management’ then you’re screwed.

    Peter, why not apply? Start with your sonnet of October 27th last year…

  3. telescoper Says:

    Well, I’m sure those folk at STFC could do with a laugh!

  4. Anton Garrett Says:

    Ur blog is still on BST

  5. telescoper Says:

    Thanks for reminding me that wordpress doesn’t update automatically. I had to travel back in time and do it manually.

  6. Woken Postdoc Says:

    I read the whole job description document. It is nauseating in its politically correct managerialism. Are they always like that?

    Surely, the *last* thing we need is an “aspiring” and “influencing” CEO attempting to impose “leadership”? Does STFC want to appoint a top-down demagogue to play god above the scientists, to set his own priorities, and then expect to sneak or sway everyone into compliance? It could be argued that pretensions of “leadership” have exacerbated the STFC crises to date.

    I’d prefer a CEO to be a trusted “convener” or cipher or spokesman for the collective view of the research community. By the term “community”, I do not just mean a conspiring clique of departmental heads. Lecturers, postdocs and doctoral students too. Research councils and their “facilities” exist for the researchers’ benefit, but the cuts seem to put it the other way around.

  7. Dave Carter Says:

    What disappointed me about it was that under the “Desirable only” section of the criteria was “Have experience of working in the academic/research sectors, although they may currently be working in other sectors”. This suggests that they may be looking for a business manager with an education in a scientific subject but a subsequent career in management in industry (not unlike Lord Browne of Madingley). Bizarrely, the other “Desirable criterion” is:

    “Have relevant business language capability”

    Well I am note sure that is all that relevant to STFC, where business is pretty much all conducted in English, but in a business context OK. But then:

    “(e.g. in French or German)”

    What century are we in exactly? I would have thought Mandarin, Japanese, Spanish, Russian, Arabic, even Hindi were much more relevant business languages.

  8. Dave Carter Says:

    By the way, I speak none of those languages to any adequate level, even the one of the country which I lived in for four years.

  9. […] we still have to wait another year or so before a replacement Chief Executive will be installed at STFC. Good people elsewhere – both  inside and outside […]

  10. […] the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The incumbent, Professor Keith Mason, will be leaving the job (although not until next year) and I’m sure his successor will be grateful for the fact that […]

  11. […] that the petition had, in one particular respect, made a very big difference, namely that the criteria for the appointment of the next Chief Executive of STFC specifically took into account some of the comments made in […]

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