One strand in the disastrous history of the Science and Technology Facilities council (STFC) is a tension between “top-down” and “bottom-up” research funding. The science minister and the chair of STFC are currently reviewing the structures; this tension is something they should take into account.
Most scientists I know are driven by a desire to solve problems and learn how nature works; the mechanisms of life, galaxy formation, why things have mass; questions on the frontiers of knowledge. The sudden thrill, and long-term satisfaction, of extending the sum of human knowledge is what keeps people working through the less rewarding bits. I am not sure those who control science policy and administer resources always realise this. Of course people are motivated also by desire for money, approval, power, fun, as with other jobs, but the ability to follow your hunches and your curiosity is fundamental. Without it research is vastly poorer, and much more expensive. The thrill of knowledge may be our equivalent of the banker’s bonus.
It follows that research priorities should be decided, where possible, by the scientists who do the work, to maximise motivation and creativity.
Two important considerations can pull against this.
Firstly, there is the legitimate desire of society to benefit directly from the fruits of its investment. Lots of excellent researchers do become keen on the application of their research, and lots don’t. Encouraging the right people to exploit research and create the right kind of impact is important and tricky, but it’s not the topic I want to discuss here.
Secondly, some science requires large projects, big facilities and/or long term technology developments. Facilities like the Diamond light source, where the scientific questions are varied but the required capability is clear, and facilities like the Large Hadron Collider where although there will be many scientific outputs, a few primary questions (e.g. the origin of mass, in this case) justify the project. How one decides which large projects to invest in is critical. If a wrong decision is made, fixing it is either very slow (the lead time on the projects is typically several years) or very wasteful (not building it if you have already spent years working on it, or building something which turns out not to be what you needed). Also, typically these projects involve international partners, and betraying their trust will cripple your ability to participate in world-class science. So when you decide, you’d better have discussed it widely and be pretty sure. If you keep changing your mind mid project, you fail.
So to do some of the science we want to do, we have to lock ourselves into a rather unresponsive, top-down planning process, and stick to it. At the same time we have to keep room for innovative new ideas, for responding to new short term or serendipitous opportunities, often exploiting the facilities delivered by the long-term strategy. It is within this space, subject to peer review, that research really happens.
… and STFC?
STFC tries to do this; It has committees of scientists advising on strategy and priorities. I’ve been a member of STFC’s Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Science committee (PPAN) since it began. As well as prioritising within astronomy, particle and nuclear physics, PPAN advises on the balance between responsive grants (for students, for data analysis, for theoretical studies), strategic grants (for building and running new kit, for developing new technologies), and big international subscriptions. Science Board tries to balance this against the other facilities using advice from the Physical and Life Sciences Science Committee (PALS). After creating subject-specific panels to advise PPAN after the last round of cuts, the STFC committee structure is arguably the “least worst” solution the organisation could have come up with, but there are many problems. Some structural ones are:
- STFC can’t really have total control of international subscription or domestic facility costs. At some point you either have Diamond or you don’t; you are a member of the European Space Agency or you are not. In reality these are decisions made at a higher level.
- STFC does not balance costs for running Diamond or ISIS against the grants in those areas, since those grants are awarded by other research councils.
- When money is short, the big projects are often effectively fixed costs, so small flexible grants suffer a much bigger cut than the headline cut in funding.
- Construction or exploitation of important long-term projects can be cancelled (or never started) because of short term financial problems. In the end this could leave scientists on small grants with no equipment to use and no data to analyse; and it clearly means wasted investment in some cases.
- Remove short term currency risk from science planning. Gambling our research strategy on the foreign exchange markets is irresponsible and the UK is very unusual in doing this.
- Have a high-level body, involving the whole science community, to discuss and advise on investment in major facilities.
- There’s an obvious conflict of interest in a research council running its own labs and facilities and also funding subscriptions and grants. This needs resolving. A national lab with a strong director reporting to a board of university scientists, research councils and other interested parties could be a good way of dealing with this.
Lord Drayson has a chance to repair some of the dreadful damage inflicted by the hasty creation of the underfunded STFC. Unfortunately it’s a complicated problem with many pitfalls, and his solution also needs to be swift or it may be too late.