The STFC: what went wrong

There has been a great deal of speculation about how a major research funding body – the Science and Technology Funding Council – has lurched from one financial crisis to another.

Yesterday in the evidence session of the Science and Technology Select Committee, we heard Michael Sterling, chair of the STFC, give a crystal clear description of the fundamental problem.

STFC is responsible for supporting all of the major facilities used by UK scientists: some of these are in the UK – such as the Diamond Light Source and ISIS – and some overseas, including the Institut Laue-Langevin, ESRF, CERN, the European Southern Observatory, and the UK’s participation in the European Space Agency.

It is also responsible for all investment, including university research grants and PhD studentships, in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics.

In creating the STFC, the government acknowledged the risk that grants might be disproportionately squeezed by the cost of big facilities, from observatories to particle accelerators. Nevertheless they went ahead.

The facilities are long-term investments, and over a short timescale they represent fixed costs; a point reiterated by several witnesses to the committee yesterday.

As a result, when money is short the grants are the only flexibility, and do indeed get squeezed. Since 2007, university grants in STFC science areas have been squeezed by around 45 per cent.

This is a massive and abrupt shift in investment, with huge repercussions for the stability of UK physics departments and for the international reputation of the UK in science.

It comes just as Diamond and ISIS are not receiving the resources they desired, UK investment in several future facilities (the European X Ray Laser project and New Light Source) is being cancelled, and the STFC’s Science Board is stating that it cannot advise STFC to take on any new capital facilities, because it will not be given the resources to run them.

As Brian Cox of Manchester University elucidated in a previous post, no one really knows, or will admit, why this happened. It is clear, as Brian stated to MPs, that the STFC told the Government when its budget was allocated in 2007 that this disaster would ensue.

Evan Harris MP asked the killer question: “who decided”, and Sterling gave essentially the only response he could: civil servants deal with the details and advise ministers, but in the end responsibility lies with the minister.

So the answer to “who decided” can only be either “the government” or “it was a mistake”.

The answer to this question is critical. Not to witch-hunt those responsible, but because it dictates the nature of the solution.

In fact, Sterling and science minister Paul Drayson both acknowledge the problem and are engaged in a review to fix the structure. This actually implies that the devastation of STFC science was an unintended consequence – a very welcome implication, of course.

There is a broad consensus in the science community as to the best way forward and many of these ideas seem to have been taken on board by Sterling, judging by his comments in select committee. This is also very welcome.

But it makes no sense to fix the flawed structure alone, without doing something to halt the catastrophe it has caused. We all know times are tough, but let’s be clear: the STFC problem predates the financial crisis.

A relatively small amount of resource, probably at the level of a few tens of millions of pounds a year, would mean that the previous retraction in STFC science could be managed without the desperate slash-and-burn that is represented by the result of the latest prioritisation.

The STFC scientific community has shown it has constructive ideas, and indeed can prioritise in extremis.

But the current cuts discard millions of pounds of investment, not to mention the careers of many outstanding young and senior scientists, and the vision the UK should have of itself as a nation at the forefront of science.

Our competitor nations are not faltering in their science investment. The government, having recognized the problem, needs to act quickly to both solve it for the future and to step back from at least some of the damage caused.

This article appeared in the New Scientist’s S-Word blog, now vanished from the internet.

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About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics prof, works on LHC, writes (books, Guardian Science and elsewhere). Citizen of England, UK, Europe & Nowhere, apparently.
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3 Responses to The STFC: what went wrong

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