Guest Post : Life After STFC ?

Well, the ESA/Aurora/Bepi debate is getting too tense. Lets move on. As mentioned more than once by The Telescoping Coles, the really interesting thing to emerge after the STFC press release was the statement by the Lord High Drayson that HMG recognised that perhaps there are structural tensions in the whole STFC setup, and that Things Would Be Done. Seeing folks get overexcited by this, National Treasure Paul Crowther posted a comment in this organ aiming at dampening our ardour. I thought that starting a distinct stream would be a good thing. So, Paul has sharpened his thoughts, and lays out his position below :


Amid all the doom and gloom about the latest STFC cuts yesterday, there was a hint that our Science Minister, Lord Drayson, had been listening to the widespread criticism over the hybrid structure of STFC, currently revolving around higher major subscriptions (ESA, CERN, ESO) potentially squeezing out exploitation grants of these very facilities. Most recently he was confronted at the Blue Skies Ahead a few weeks ago, and before the newly reformed Commons S&T Select Ctte in October. Other more complex tensions exist, of course, between the science for which STFC is the custodian (PPAN) and facilities for which STFC is largely the provider for other Research Councils (PALS).

The statement from Lord Drayson included the following

However, it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

Within a few hours of this, the blogs and science news reports were buzzing with the possibility of an end in sight for STFC in its current form. About time too, was the verdict of most of the comments: Lord Drayson has finally got it! Shortly thereafter I received an email that included the following:

The suggestion that simply breaking up STFC is some magic bullet is daft and dangerous.

This got me thinking.. does STFC have major problems (yes!), but do we really want yet another change of Research Council for astro, particle physics etc. (hmmm). Do we trust the same civil servants who thought up STFC in the first place to do a better job this time around, and do we think Drayson’s agenda matches ours? (err, probably not). Another major upheaval so soon after the last one might not have our desired outcome, especially during the middle of a public sector squeeze. The arrival of a UK space agency also changes the landscape, in view of a large space science and space technology component at STFC.

Many of us would be glad to be rid of ESA subscriptions, for which the UK benefits greatly through `juste retour’ but mostly shouldn’t be part of the science budget. Innovation Campuses are also hard to marry with curiosity-driven research funding even though we’re promised that they fund themselves, while (application-driven) technology ought to seek funds through the Technology Strategy Board. Three options initially came to mind, but each have issues:

  • STFC without major subscriptions Tensions between grant and programme funding STFC science plus operation of labs for non-STFC science remain, plus if costs of major subscriptions were administered by RCUK (rather than Treasury bearing the risk) as in the past, other Research Councils would rightly complain that increases for ESA or CERN hurt them for no good reason. Also the much smaller budget for STFC without some of its F(acilities) and T(echnology) would mean that it lacks clout at the Research Council level – `size matters’ was one of the arguments put forward for the merger of PPARC and CCLRC, wasn’t it?
  • STFC without research grants. Research grants move across to EPSRC, while all facilities and subscriptions remain in STFC. But then how to link EPSRC peer review to STFC programmes, with experimental particle physics wanting to choose to stay put, and nuclear physics not sure what to do, having tried both EPSRC and STFC and found both wanting. The experience of Nuclear Physics suggests not all money to keep astro grants afloat would get transferred across, and what to do about rollers, especially those directly connected to instrumentation groups? Prof David `Champion of Impact’ Delpy (EPSRC CEO) may have an approach that would likely not match astronomy any better than the current STFC management.
  • Merger of STFC and EPSRC. Yes, back to SERC days, and potentially the least bad option of all three, in the sense that facilities of current STFC and EPSRC scientists are back together in the same Research Council. However, wasn’t PPARC created in the first place to stop particle physics and astronomy being too successful in SERC, so this is unlikely to fly with a ministry who prefer to be able to invest strategically (to ensure that MRC is flooded in cash, EPSRC struggling and STFC a basket case).

How STFC’s R&D development activities fit in with any of the above, I’m not so sure, but does anyone out there have better ideas that might be palatable both to astronomy, particle and nuclear physics and policy makers? Especially entrepreneurial Science Ministers. Answers on a postcard to Lord Drayson before February. Ideally plans should attempt to minimise the likelihood of our communities being left out to whither and die, as appears to be the current case at least for ground-based astronomy and perhaps nuclear physics. Shouldn’t we come up with a workable plan that we can put to new STFC Chairman Prof Michael Sterling at the Astronomy Forum on January 15th? The other option is to wait for a plan to be imposed, again (after consultation, naturally..), and wait for the next community outcry in a few years time when, too late, we discover that no-one benefitted from the change. STFC isn’t held in high esteem by heads of school and pro-VCs up and down the country (even in Cambridge), but STFC is a disaster (mostly) because its aspirations and expectations failed to be matched with the necessary funds. But just how to stop a repeat performance?

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17 Responses to Guest Post : Life After STFC ?

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    The suggestion that simply breaking up STFC is some magic bullet is daft and dangerous.

    I am not sure quite how much credence one should give to a dire warning about an alternative funding model from someone who, I suspect, espoused the view that the current arrangements within STFC were a workable and even a good idea. I would, however, agree with half of this characterization: the idea of breaking up STFC may not be daft, but it is dangerous. If one were to simply divide the pot at its current level, one would build in for all time the current level of exploitation support, which I think most of us agree would be deeply unhealthy.

    Removing the international subscriptions to direct payment from Treasury, reflecting their intergovernmental nature and putting us in line with other European countries, would clearly help, but it is not the whole answer. In the era of E-ELT and SKA, as well as space missions and future generations of particle experiment, synchrotron sources, etc, the costs of even individual hardware elements of the programme come to dominate the exploitation budget, and, once again, we run into a serious danger that relatively modest cost over-runs in hardware could wipe out the exploitation budget.

    So, what can we sell to the Science Minister as a workable answer? Well, the Government is keen to be seen to be optimizing scientific returns from its investments. Since those returns are essentially a product of investment in hardware and investment in exploitation, it is clear that there must be some optimum somewhere between 100% exploitation and 100% instrumentation spend. Quite where that optimum lies is open to debate, but presumably one can look to international comparators to come up with a reasonably objective figure for optimizing returns. So, why not set up a research council that is mandated to maintain such a balance in order to ensure that the Government gets good value for its investment?

    Clearly, such an imposition on a research council runs contrary to the Haldane Principle, but this principle is, at best, a notional aspiration. We already have large sums of money given to research councils that are hypothecated for particular projects, such as Aurora, and we know that in practice research councils have to accept the political realities that they are, for example, not allowed to close politically-sensitive facilities if they want any money at all in the next spending round.
    In fact, this is much less of an restriction on the research council than many of these other limitations, since it does not seek to tell them *what* science to do, but simply how that science should be funded to optimize returns on the Government’s investment.

  2. andyxl says:

    Mike – you say this is a bad time to freeze the partition of funds. This suggests you believe it cannot get any worse…

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      You know me — the eternal optimist: I like to at least allow for the possibility that things could get better!

  3. Ken Rice says:

    I have heard that one of the problems we face is a perception, within government, that too large a fraction of the money being spent on physics research is spent doing fundamental physics (particle physics, astronomy, nuclear physics). The reason for this may be that the Wakeham Review, rather than reviewing physics in the UK, reviewed Physics Departments. The conclusion from the review seemed to be that physics should work to recover some areas of Physics that have been lost to other departments (Engineering, Biology, etc). I’m not convinced that this is necessarily correct. It seems quite reasonable to me that, with time, the more applied areas of Physics move out of Physics Departments into other departments, leaving Physics Departments somewhat dominated by the more fundamental areas. If anything, one could argue that this is interdisciplinary research in action.

    This isn’t to say that we shouldn’t look at the makeup of our departments, but just that the current makeup may not be unreasonable. When considering the amount spent on Physics research, we should also convince government to look at the total and not simply the amount going to Physics Departments, in which case the fraction going to fundamental areas should seem (I hope) more reasonable – if not a little too low (apologies – some wishful thinking). If we can convince government of the value of what we are doing and that we’re not actually swallowing all the physics money, we can then worry about how to distribute this money in a way that optimises both facilities and exploitation.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      I don’t think anyone would argue with what you say, Ken, but the Science Minister is explicitly looking for a quick effective solution to the imbalance in the tension between exploitation funding and other calls on STFC’s budget. If we don’t get the right answer to this, then the longer-term argument about how much money should be invested in fundamental physics research is moot.

      • Ken Rice says:

        Mike, I agree that we have a Science Minister looking for a quick effective solution to a current problem. You may well be right that we have to worry about this first before doing anything else. However, It’s not clear to me that we can hope to get the right answer to the current problem without at the same time trying to clarify what I think are some misconceptions about the level of funding for fundamental physics research.

    • mark says:

      Is the right variable to consider the fraction of money? Possibly searching for the Higgs boson with the LHC, costs a lot more than a wide variety of table top low-temperature experiments that can be done in university labs probing lots of different physics.

      So should it not be what fraction of physics papers generated are fundamental physics to take into account some physics costs more per unit paper than others? Then it may no longer look like pp and astro dominate.

      Of course it also sounds a good idea to include any applied physics done in other departments in the sum.

  4. Mr Physicist says:

    The biggest problem with STFC is its management and that could and should change. Sure the merger of STFC/CCLRC, CRS07, etc all played their part, but it is clear almost 2 years later where many people put the blame for a crisis that turned into a disaster.

    So, dont change the structure – change the management.

  5. Steve W says:

    It’s hard to disagree with Mr Physicist. The current Chief Executive has described his role as an ‘interlocutor’ between the community and the Govt, suggesting that his role is to clarify the Govt’s goals to the community and support the community in presenting their goals to the Govt. My concern is that I have had very little sense of the latter. I have never sensed such a lack of support from previous incumbents.

  6. andyxl says:

    Steve – there was no “previous incumbent”. Don’t confuse STFC with PPARC …

  7. Paul Crowther says:

    Ok, so lets pick a hypothetical case of Keith Mason getting an immediate promotion to head up Lord Drayson’s Space Agency, and someone else is parachuted in as STFC CEO. (S)He faces the same challenge of managing a RC in which aspirations greatly exceed capacity, subscription pressures haven’t gone away and there are still the inevitable tensions between ensuring support for STFC science and other RC science.

    • Mr Physicist says:

      Agreed. I should have said “So, dont **just** change the structure – **also** change the management”.

      Point being that even the best structure is worthless if it is incompetently run.

  8. Kav says:

    Paul,
    a fair point but we *might* get someone competent and who may do a better job in the next CSR. That partially addresses your last question.

    Moving to EPSRC might not be too bad (though I agree that the issue with Delpy may make a move to EPSRC unpalatable).

    The recent shift of some of STP (ground-based measurements and Earth-directed research) to NERC from STFC has led to some worry about the science that bridges the gap. NERC reps described an RCUK process by which appropriate review of the science is achieved by both councils without having to pass two seperate panels. If they can work that out (and admittedly it needs to be seen in practice) then it should be possible to deal with separation of facilities from exploitation (blech).

    How do folks from MRC (for example) manage to use Diamond? Am I being naive?

    Restructuring of how STFC works would then be required – they would simply be a holding pen, their programme informed by the science reviews within the other research councils. STFC could continue to fund rolling grants for instrument build that is deemed a requirement by the other RCs; astronomy and particle physics research would lose rolling grant support and join in with everyone else in the responsive standard grants. If we could then work to develop a proper strategy with dedicated programmes that might allow for longer duration grants, that would be good. Probably just a pipe dream.

  9. [...] Physics World, Nature Blog, Bad Astronomy, Herschel Blog, In the Dark, SN Condensate, AstroEngine, e-Astronomer, Askew, Left of Centre und Orbiting Frog sowie gesammelte [...]

  10. Looks like you’re getting some comment spam, Guv’nor. On the other hand, just to be sure, you might want to look up whether STFC is some sort of abbreviation related to you-know-what.

    I still get a laugh out of this (supposedly true) story:

    sysop: The web server’s overloaded, and it’s because of one of your web pages about the conference.

    scientist: That’s strange; the conference was over last week.

    sysop: Did you change anything?

    scientist: I just put up an extra page about the proceedings.

    sysop: Let me see it! [Scientist loads the page into his browser and doesn't get the look of exasperation on the sysop's face as he reads aloud the title: Submission in LaTeX.]

    • andyxl says:

      Lots. Just a question of how fast I pick it up. And of course there is lots more wordpress has already spotted..

    • A pet peeve of mind are companies in non-English-speaking countries using an English name because it sounds cool. Sometimes, the English is quite bad. In this case, it’s valid English, if a bit strange-sounding: another STFC.
      Of all the possibilities, I like the ornithological “scissor-tailed flycatcher” best.

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