Archive for Adrian Smith

Farewell to the Haldane Principle?

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on November 17, 2010 by telescoper

Many scientists – myself included – were so relieved at the outcome of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review that we thought the government had accepted the argument that Science is Vital more-or-less completely. Most of us have stopped worrying about whether we’re going to have to go about to carry on doing science and just got on with doing it for the past few weeks.

However, today I came across some worrying news about planned changes to the way the science budget is administered in the UK. In particular, the post currently occupied by Adrian Smith Director General for Science and Research – is to be phased out. The position will be merged with what are currently other separate positions within the Department of Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to form a single Director General covering science, universities, research and innovation.

There’s nothing intrinsically sinister about administrative reorganisation, of course, and one can understand that a certain amount of streamlining might well be justified in order to save costs at a time of economic challenge. However, there are worrying signs about this particular change.

One thing is that the new post has only been advertised to civil servants. Apparently there will no longer be a scientist in a position to speak up for science among the higher management of BIS. Adrian Smith is not only an effective manager – as demonstrated by his past success as Principal of Queen Mary, University of London – but is also a respected figure in the field of mathematical statistics. I suspect this combination of skills and gravitas played a big role in securing a reasonably satisfactory outcome for science in the CSR.

Another worrying thing is that the planned reorganisation apparently hasn’t even been discussed with the government’s Chief Scientific Adviser, John Beddington. Former Chief Scientific Advisor Lord May has reacted angrily to the new proposals, calling them “stupid, ignorant and politically foolish”. Strong stuff.

On top of all this is the apparent ambivalence expressed by the Minister for Universities and Science, David Willetts, about the Haldane Principle, which has underpinned British science policy for decades. Roughly speaking, this principle states that it should be researchers rather than politicians who should decide where research funds should be spent.

Willetts recently responded to a question about the Haldane Principle in the form of a Parliamentary written answer:

The Haldane principle is an important cornerstone for the protection of the scientific independence and excellence. We all benefit from its application in the UK.

The principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken by researchers through peer review is strongly supported by the coalition Government. Prioritisation of an individual research council’s spending within its allocation is not a decision for Ministers. Such decisions are rightly left to those best placed to evaluate the scientific quality, excellence and likely impact of scientific programmes.

The Government do, however, need to take a view on the overall level of funding to science and research and they have decided to protect and to ring fence the science and research budget for the next four years. This decision has been made in the context of the current economic status of the UK and the strategic importance of research funding, while recognising the value of science to our future growth, prosperity and cultural heritage.

Over the years there has been some uncertainty over the interpretation of the Haldane principle. I intend to clarify this is a statement which will be released alongside the science and research budget allocations towards the end of this year. In order that this statement has the consent of the research community, I intend to consult with senior figures in the UK science and research community to develop a robust statement of the Haldane principle.

A superficial reading of this does start out by giving the impression that it strongly supports the  principle. However, I’m not aware of what  “uncertainty” there is over its application that requires such clarification. I rather think this is being put up as  an excuse to limit its scope, i.e. that the uncertainty is more about how the political establishment can get around it rather than what it actually means.

The fact that the  “robust statement” of a Revised Version of the  Haldane Principle is going to be wheeled out just when the allocations to the research councils are announced makes me very nervous that its prime function will be to justify big cuts in fundamental science in favour of applied research.

This all seems to add up to  a systematic attempt to sideline the scientists currently involved in the development of UK science policy development and its implementation. If nothing else, it seems rather strange from a political point of view to try to bring about this change in a way that is bound to alienate large sections of the scientific community, just when the government seemed to be recognizing the importance of science for the UK.

But then, perhaps I’m reading too much into it. Maybe we just have a new government that’s trying to do too much too quickly, and happens to have made a botch of this particular job…

You can find other blog posts on this issue, e.g.  here and here.


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(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…

–o–

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.


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