Trouble condenses

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 ?

18 Responses to Trouble condenses

  1. Steve Arjohn says:

    Research using STFC supported facilities is primarily carried out by University groups. In an era of declining budgets it is difficult to imagine how University groups would be able to effectively support the programmatic, technical, project management and organisational requirements that are needed to operate such large central facilities – and indeed why should this fall on Universities – what most academic groups properly want to exploit are the research aspects. Your statement about STFC having a programme of its own is misinformed – hardly anyone in the central STFC facilities is funded to exclusively do research in a way that is commonly enjoyed in the University sector – indeed for many STFC staff, any time they can squeeze is usually sandwiched between the realities of having to provide a first class service for University colleagues, and filling in time sheets to account for every moment of their time to make sure that it all goes to support the University clientele. It is clearly arguable that many managerial and programmatic aspects of STFC’s were suspect over the last year, but please, let’s not go round knocking the dedicated and hardworking STFC staff who do the hard work that enables you, and others, to research towards your Nobel Prizes – and probably heard about the STFC difficulties at the same time you did!

  2. Richard Wade says:

    Andy
    I think it would be better if you talked to your colleagues in Edinburgh before getting involved in the ESS discussion. Ironically the ESS issue is related more to the future of the ILL than it is to our “own labs”. That said ILL is our own lab in just the same way that the VLT is our own observatory.

  3. andyxl says:

    Richard – fear not, I am not seriously interested in getting involved in “the ESS discussion” as I am not knowledgeable; and I have indeed spoken to some Edinburgh colleagues, which is exactly why I am well aware that one shouldn’t assume that the recent RF article simply represents the community view. I was really just using the ESS debate as a route in to some more general thought about the separation between policy and delivery, which I find an interesting (and difficult) question.

  4. Paul Crowther says:

    To reinforce Richard’s view, there is a letter from Edinburgh and UCL academics in the latest Research Fortnight about ESS/ILL/ISIS.

    Now that the latest STFC grants results are being released, does anyone have some reliable news on what happened to the widely publicised £9M that was freed-up from the contingency fund that had previously been set aside to (partially) cover exchange rate fluctuations? Did any of it get fed into the grants round, or has it gone back to support ESA/ESO/CERN subscriptions given the ongoing fall of the pound relative to the euro and swiss franc?

    Would anyone wish to comment on the overall degree of correlation (or anti-correlation) between RAE2008 physics rankings and the new STFC awards?

  5. Richard Wade says:

    Paul
    Thanks for picking this up. In return let me assure you that the £9m will all be going into grants. We are still working though some details, including the long term (beyond the CSR period) implications of the increased commitments, but there is no plan to divert it anywhere else.

    With regard to subscriptions, the effects due to Net National Income (NNI) and exchange rates tend to cancel out to a large extent but in any case DIUS very helpfully limit our liability.

  6. John Womersley says:

    Can this Andy Lawrence who frets about STFC investment in its labs really be the same Andy Lawrence who just two weeks ago was enthusing about how the DOE had chosen to invest in SLAC:

    So whats wrong with that ? Its one of the world’s great labs. It has expertise and skills in engineering, project management, computing, and accelerator physics. It has a working culture, and a proud esprit de corps. How dumb would it be to waste all that ?

    Couldn’t have put it better myself 🙂

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Perhaps because the DOE isn’t also the main budget holder for funding astronomical research in the USA, John?

  8. Richard Wade says:

    But it is the main budget holder for funding high energy physics in the USA, Mike.

  9. Paul Crowther says:

    So, whose bright idea was it to release the STFC Organisational Review and consultation of the STFC Strategy document on the Friday immediately before the holidays? Whoever it was deserves a (deluxe) christmas cracker.

  10. Michael Merrifield says:

    Although most of its budget gets wasted on making bombs, I believe, so perhaps not a model we would want to follow too closely…

    Merry Christmas, by the way!

  11. Richard Wade says:

    Paul
    The report was released as soon as the response had been agreed with Ministers so I guess it would be their addresses you would need.

  12. Richard Wade says:

    Paul
    Actually knowing that we would not get the report released until Friday (Council only saw it Tuesday), we had a bit of a sweepstake in the office on who would be the first troubled soul to see a conspiracy. So I already won my deluxe cracker 😉

  13. Phil Uttley says:

    Paul,
    We (Southampton) got our RG results back, nothing too controversial but in line with expectations based on the expected grants line cuts, we were cut by 1 PDRA averaged over the next 3 years (from 5 average over the last 3 down to 4 average over the next). Of course with FECs being included the total value of the grant is probably quite a bit higher than at the last round, let’s hope the RAE changes don’t wipe out those gains due to FECs….

    This is all very small number statistics, and of course we should never expect to be entitled to a certain number of PDRAs, however according to the explanation that came with the spreadsheet we were rated highly but they had to make cuts anyway, due to the funding limitations which the panel explicitly acknowledged. Perhaps the 9 million hasn’t been fed into this round (too early), and will be saved for the later rounds where the cuts would otherwise be much more savage? Anyway, worse than we hoped but not really surprising, good luck to all of you who will be getting your RGs in next year.
    Cheers,
    Phil

  14. Paul Crowther says:

    Phil

    Thanks for the scores on the doors from the So’ton jury. Of course, physics RAE08 ranks are only partially drawn from astro/space science academics in most cases. How have other highly ranked groups have fared in the present grants round?

    There is only one remaining astro grants round in CSR07, and indeed it faces the greatest cut of (relative to awards 3 years earlier). Still, promises to alleviate the cuts in April 2010 with some fraction of £9m are little comfort to anyone whose grant fell just below the red line in the present round.

    p.s. Richard, i’m afraid your reply disqualifies STFC this time, so crackers go to DIUS/RCUK instead.

  15. andyxl says:

    John W : methinks you are reading the worries and ignoring the positives… let me quote from this post : “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.” Its only a question of the best way to maintain that health. I have never understood why RAL doesn’t have its own Director.

  16. andyxl says:

    Steve Arjohn : sorry your comment appeared so late, it got caught in my spam filter – just released. I obviously touched a raw nerve with you (and John W) here. You say “let’s not go round knocking the dedicated and hardworking STFC staff who do the hard work that enables you, and others, to research towards your Nobel Prizes – and probably heard about the STFC difficulties at the same time you did!”.

    I did no such thing !!! Read it again. It says that we need the big labs to stay healthy, and I can find no criticism of those big labs anywhere. Its only a question of whether having strategy and delivery in the same body is the best way to do this. I genuinely don’t know what the right answer to that is, so was provoking a debate. And of course a bunch of University research groups are no good by themselves. We have to have the big professional labs; and doing the research is a different job from running a facility. But this doesn’t have to mean that the body running the labs is the same as the body feeding the University research groups. Here in the US there are two models … one, the DOE model, is like STFC. It runs its own labs and funds research. The other is AURA, which runs the telescopes and some spacecraft. It too runs large professional labs, but they are not owned by the government, but by a consortium of Universities. AURA has to compete for funds just like research groups.

    Oh and by the way I am really looking forward to my Nobel prize ! And … I am very much aware that lab staff got stung by last year’s problems just as bad as Universities, and in fact probably even worse.

  17. andyxl says:

    Steve : forgot the other bit. You also say “Your statement about STFC having a programme of its own is misinformed – hardly anyone in the central STFC facilities is funded to exclusively do research in a way that is commonly enjoyed in the University sector”. I probably wrote this bit badly. I did not mean to imply that the lab staff were somehow selfishly feeding their own personal research programmes, rather that the hard business of providing and running those facilities has a life of its own and has its own pressures.

    There is a good argument that in fact the in-house research of lab staff should be protected, as this keeps a happy, skilled and motivated workforce; and project scientists do their jobs better if they have a personal motivation. The in-house research programme in PP at RAL used to be very strong, but then it kinda shifted to Durham. At the ATC I think this is easier to keep healthy because the ATC scientists are cheek by jowl with us University types – they can supervise PhD students on a daily basis for example. I also like the idea of lab folk doing University sabbaticals and vice versa. As you probably know, some good colleagues of mine have been doing this for years !

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