Trouble condenses

December 17, 2008

Many moons back, as the storm waves crashed against the STFC hull, some of my condensed matter colleagues were irritated by the fuss. They were irked whenever The Blessed Cox appeared on the telly, warning of “Physics in Trouble” when he really meant “our bit of Physics”. They reckoned that STFC was doing just fine. It was built to put muscle into international negotiations, and that was what it was doing. It had some financial problems – mostly due to ever ballooning astro-pp subscription costs of course – but it was squaring up to the hard decisions and taking them. Most important of all, it was delivering two world beating facilities – Diamond and ISIS-2 – on time and on budget. (We will quietly ignore the issue of whether CLRC had put enough money aside  …)

But now it seems dissension and discontent is brewing amongst our condensed cousins. An article in Research Fortnight, transcribed by Paul Crowther here , complains that STFC is making a serious mistake upgrading ISIS instead of backing the European Spallation Source (ESS), that it is ignoring the wishes of the community, and that it is favouring its own in-house labs. However, it would be wise not to rush to judgement. I know that some condensed matter physicists disagree strongly with the Research Fortnight article, and are preparing a riposte…

I am not competent to pronounce on the specific question of ISIS versus ESS, but it is an interesting example of the complaint that STFC is biased towards its own labs. Just a couple of weeks back we heard about the creation of the new ESA centre at the Harwell complex, and before that of the Detector Centre at RAL, and the Hartree Centre at Daresbury. All very exciting enterprises, but costing many tens of millions. It does feel odd to watch these things emerge within months of the belt-tightening grimness of the Programmatic Review. Of course, you can get extra money for these sort of initiatives; if they are successful they bring in contracts and funds; and somewhere in the upper reaches of STFC there will have been hard decisions about how to apportion budgets between Facilities and the Science Programme.

But it brings home the true nature of STFC. It is not like EPSRC or NSF, funnelling money by competition to an independent community of Universities; it has a programme of its own, which dominates its life. It is three parts lab and only one part funding agency. Those decisions about upgrading ISIS, creating the Hartree Centre, and so on are just as much about the lab and its health and competitiveness as they are about the science. I am certainly not saying this is wrong; we have world class labs at RAL and Daresbury (and the ATC !!) and we should make sure they remain healthy. But it feels uncomfortable that strategy, policy, funding decisons, and delivery are all blurred together. STFC is really much more like CLRC than PPARC, and I think back in 2006 we were all dim enough to not quite appreciate this. Is there a case that the labs should become independent entities ?