Archive for Wakeham Review

Going Forward

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , on July 22, 2009 by telescoper

Since I’ve recently been officially awarded the title of Grumpy Old Man, I now feel I have the necessary authorization to vent my spleen about anything and everything that really irritates me.

This morning I got my regular monthly credit card statement, something likely to put me in a bad mood at the best of times. However, at the end of the itemized list of payments, I found the following:

WE ARE PHASING OUT CREDIT CARD CHEQUES. GOING FORWARD WE WILL NO LONGER ISSUE ANY CREDIT CARD CHEQUES.

I don’t actually care about the credit card cheques – they’re a ridiculously bad way of paying for things anyway -  but what on Earth is the phrase going forward doing in that sentence?

I’ve taken a swipe at this monster once before, when I blogged about the Wakeham Review of Physics. The example I found then was

The STFC’s governance structure must be representative of the community it serves in order to gain stakeholders’ confidence going forward.

Aaargggh!!

Going forward is one of those intensely annoying bits of office-speak that have spread like Swine ‘flu into the public domain. Pushing the envelope is another one. What does it mean?  Why would anyone push an envelope?

Anyway, the worst problem with going forward is that it is now used almost universally in official documents instead of more suitable phrases, such as in future, or from now on. What particularly irritates me about it is that it is usually part of an attempt to present things in a positive light even when they clearly don’t involve any forward movement at all; often, in fact, quite the opposite. It is just one symptom of the insidious culture of spin that seems to be engulfing all aspects of public life, making it impossible to deliver even a simple message without wrapping it up in some pathetic bit of PR. Any kind of change – whether or not there’s any reason for it, and whether or not it improves anything – has to be portrayed as progress. It drives me nuts!

This sort of language is frequently lampooned by Laurie Taylor in his brilliant weekly column for the Times Higher.  The Director of Corporate Affairs for the fictional Poppleton University, Mr Jamie Targett, contributes regularly to his column, always in meaningless business-oriented gibberish of this type. In fact, shortly after reading the Wakeham Review quoted above, I sent a letter to the Times Higher (which was published there) accusing Jamie Targett of moonlighting from his job at Poppleton to work on the Wakeham Report.

In the case of my credit card cheques, the implication is that the withdrawal of the service represents some sort of progress. In fact, it’s just to save money. A friend of mine who uses a local gym told me today that the gym had recently announced that

Going forward, members of the gym will no longer be supplied with free towels.

They went on to portray this as a great leap forward in caring for the environment, but in fact it is obviously just a way of saving their costs. Likewise with a sentence I found in a railway timetable recently:

Going forward the 8.15 train from Paddington will no longer call at Didcot Parkway

At least it’s still going to call at Didcot when it’s going backwards, which is the obvious implication of this sentence.

I’m glad I’m not alone in my disapproval of going forward.  A year or so ago there was an article on the BBC website making much the same point. However, the amount of going forward has continued to increase. Robert Peston, the BBC business editor, once managed three going forwards in a four minute item on the Today programme.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has obviously taken this phrase to heart. Their website is chock-a-block with going forward. Here’s an example (referring to a budget cut)

It will result in an approximately constant volume of project activity going forward ..

Obviously, once you start going forward there’s no going back, even if what lies in front of you is financial catastrophe…

PS. Feel free to add your own pet hates via the comments box going forward.

Wakeham Review

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 1, 2008 by telescoper

Today is the day of publication of the Wakeham Review of the state of Physics in the United Kingdom. This report was commissioned by the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) against the backdrop of the funding crisis that threatened to engulf the
Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) in December 2007 and which has led to drastic cuts in research grant funding in particle physics and astronomy throughout the country.

I started blogging a bit too late to join in the chorus of anger surrounding the handling of this crisis by STFC and especially by the behaviour of its Chief Executive, Keith Mason. An investigation of this by a parliamentary Select Committee stated that

Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive”

If anyone was ever given a clear message that he should resign, this was it. But Keith Mason remains Chief Executive of STFC.

I hoped, therefore, to find some comment about this state of affairs in the Wakeham Review. I haven’t had time to read all of it, but most of it seems bland and rather self-congratulatory. It does, however, describe the strengths of astronomy and space science research in the UK, which is one of the areas placed in jeopardy by STFC’s cack-handed management and woeful lack of political nous. On the other hand, the UK has less impressive impact in other areas. Condensed matter physics was the research area in which most University-based physicists in the UK worked in 2001but their impact, at least in bibliometric terms, was and is unspectacular compared with other countries. Perhaps this is the reason why the number of condensed matter physicists submitted to the Research Assessment Exercise in 2008 has declined, while astronomy and astrophysics have increased.

The Wakeham review does not come to any clear conclusions on why some areas of physics are more popular than others, citing as possibilities laboratory costs and difficulties of attracting people into cross-disciplinary areas like biophysics or nanoscience. Since I’m not a member I don’t have to mince words like the panel did. I think some fields are popular because they are more interesting. And if people wanted to do chemistry or biology they wouldn’t have become physicists in the first place.

There are two paragraphs specifically about STFC, and they make very specific proposals although falling short of asking the current leadership to step down:

6. There is a need to ensure that there is coherence of planning of physics facilities and the allocation of physics research grants, so that research needs are closely aligned with facility provision. For that reason it is not desirable to separate former PPARC-like physics from the funding of its facilities. For this reason the Panel recommends that the current division of physics funding between Research Councils remains. Whilst recognising recent difficulties, the Panel believes that it is important that facilities provided for particle physics and astronomy researchers be directly tensioned with the budget for the research that will utilise those facilities. The current structure provides this tension in part of its remit. However, the panel believes that adding to this tension a further dimension of national facilities and a government Science and Innovation Campuses is just too much.

This is true but I think it’s only a small part of the problem.

The Panel recommends that:
a) the STFC be required at each CSR to bid for and allocate specific funds to former PPARC facilities and grant funding together.This would avoid the undesired tensioning of these grants and facilities support against national facilities and the project for the development of science and innovation campuses.

Good! But will this happen?

b) the existing structure should be allowed time to develop, given it was founded on the basis of extensive positive consultation. However, at an appropriate point following the review of STFC management currently being conducted by Dr David Grant, DIUS should commission a review to examine STFC operations.

*Sigh* Another review. Great.

The next one is a bit stronger:


7. The STFC’s governance structure must be representative of the community it serves in order to gain stakeholders’ confidence going forward.

“..stakeholders’ confidence going forward”? Ugh! Who wrote that bollocks?

The Panel believes that significant damage has been done to the UK’s international reputation in some areas of the discipline of physics following the furore that was generated by the manner, timescale of changes and announcement of recent STFC funding decisions.

You can say that again.

The Panel were very concerned at the make-up of the STFC Council, both in terms of the over representation of the executive and the lack of representation of the community it serves in comparison with other Research Councils. It is understood that this structure was deliberately adopted to deal with the distinct features of STFC that arose because of its multiple missions. However, this has not best served the scientific community in some branches of science whose input was at one level below the Council. This is in sharp distinction to the practice of other Research Councils.


The Panel recommends to DIUS that the membership of STFC’s Council be broadened to include more of the stakeholders in the science activity at the highest level, and to redress the balance between executive presence and non-executive oversight.

Somebody must have deleted the sentence about having to get a new Chief Executive.

I’m sure there’ll be a lot more on physics blogs when there’s been time to digest the whole report, and if I think I’ve missed anything at a first reading I may post some more myself.

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