Guest Post : Life After STFC ?

December 18, 2009

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?