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Wednesday, April 23, 2008

For the record...

Things on the STFC funding crisis front have quietened a bit in recent weeks.

Obviously the ad-hoc advisory panels are busily sifting their way through the mountains of submissions they have received in an attempt to provide community input to the decisions on what facilities (and programmes) to close down.

But although it may be quiet it is not silent out there.

Paul Crowther has a very nice article in Research Fortnight entitled Trail of ineptitude. In this he sets the record straight over a number of things claimed by the STFC executive at the meeting at NAM. Some confusion over the claim of a 40% increase in academics is cleared up (there wasn't one according to the figures available from STFC)

So, why the factor of 10 difference? It seems that the figure of 40 per cent was taken out of context from a letter to astronomers from Cruise. The letter records that “the academic staff in the groups reviewed [for ‘rolling grant’ applications in 2007] has increased by 37 per cent since the last grant round for these groups.” This is not an illustration of an unsustainable increase in the number of astonomers, as Mason implied. The figure simply reflects a shift, among less than one third of astronomers nationally, towards bids for long-term ‘rolling’ grants instead of short-term responsive ones.


Assuming that Paul's figures are accurate this was quite a silly mistake to have made when trying to 'explain' the roots of the problem to a room full of your stakeholders. Actually, silly is too weak a word, this was a terrible mistake; I'm not sure how a cock-up like that would be viewed in industry.

Paul articulates well the annoyance many of us have experienced with regard to the 'spin' we see coming from both government:

The Prime Minister’s office responded to the e-petition earlier this month, arguing that claimed reductions in funding were simply unfulfilled “aspirations”. This was unwelcome ‘spin’ for the hundreds of scientists and engineers at the STFC’s laboratories who had been offered redundancy, and for the users of new facilities that faced the prospect of immediate closure.

and STFC:

[The STFC press release] noted that “funding for physics exploitation grants would remain broadly level in the next financial year [2008-09]”. The announcement led many observers to believe that there had been a U-turn over the planned reduction in grants of 25 per cent, which is part of the package of cuts. But it was nothing of the kind [RF 20/2/08, p18]. ...The result [of the astronomy grants round] was a dramatic reduction in the number of post-docs and a frank admission, from Mike Cruise, chairman of the STFC’s Astronomy Grants Panel, that severe damage had been done to “STFC’s ability to deliver its mission”.

Paul also tackled a subject close to his heart, the treatment of Gemini, by contrasting John Womersley's stalk warning of the dangers associated with the community's public complaining*
with Keith's claim that

“you were all ‘had’ by the Gemini Board”

Considering this statement was made in an open forum that contained scientists (who talk to their colleagues), journalists and bloggers this was a crass comment to make. As Paul implies, it will hardly endear the UK to our international colleagues, especially when Mason's version of events does not seem to match the public record, which is all we have to work from.

Remember that Prof. Rowan-Robinson corrected the claim that STFC was responding to the RAS report on our withdrawal from Gemini on the spot**. Yet another gaffe that should have been avoided?

Paul manages to end on a better note by cautiously praising STFC and the government for making those small steps that show they have started to respond to the massive concerns of the community. Though he wisely points to the continuing worries that we have in the way in which our input is being sought.

Panel members are uneasy about this topsy-turvy approach to decisions over scientific priorities but, without any alternative, they feel obliged to embrace any opportunity to reshuffle the rankings for projects within their area of expertise.
His last short, but simple, plea will resonate with many in the UK scientific community:

Please, though, no more spin.


For me this article has highlighted a deeper issue. Given the litany of cock-ups, gaffes, spin and patronising attitudes how can I, or anyone else in the community, have any faith in their actions from here-on out?

What can STFC really do now to address this lack of trust? It will take more than claims that they are listening and the baby-steps towards consultation, engagement and transparency that they are making. It will take time and even then 'once bitten, twice shy'. It is one reason why many scientists want big changes in the make-up of the upper-echelons of STFC.


* I am still trying to figure out when our complaining stopped being useful and became potentially very dangerous to our future. It was that momentous epoch that the advice from STFC (essentially we should be quiet) went from being very wrong to very right.

**To be clear Mason said that the RAS report was the first that 'he' had heard about it. He did not attempt to correct Rowan-Robinson so we can only assume that the President of the RAS' interpretation of Keith's meaning was correct. However Keith could argue that the STFC statement that the RAS were responding to went out without his knowledge. I find that immensely difficult to believe and, if true, it would constitute a major cock-up in the way STFC handles international agreements and relationships.

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