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Wednesday, July 16, 2008

The ongoing struggle

I've been a bit quiet lately but i thought it was about time I discussed a few things STFC related.

I want to point to a couple of very interesting pieces that have appeared in the media recently.

First is a letter to the Times from Prof. Andy Fabian the new president of the RAS. This follows the more positive stories that were appearing in the media concerning the £80m shortfall and the resolution of the programmatic review that seemed to save Jodrell bank.

Whether the folks at Jodrell liked it or not they had become a focal point for this struggle, a fact that highlights the high regard that excellent institution has in UK society.*
Andy highlights that although there is more money to keep Jodrell afloat (though the University of Manchester still has to find a lot of the cash to keep it running) there are plenty of things that are screwed.

Sir, Jodrell Bank undoubtedly now has a more promising future than seemed possible a few months ago (report, July 9) but the crisis for science funding is not over.

Andy also flagged the coming storm; not that the shortfall has not already caused a reduction in grant awarding:

At the same time a £33 million cut to university research groups’ grant funding will mean a steep cut in the number of postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers, so the facilities we still have will not be exploited in the way they should be.
Overall, an excellent letter.

More recently Prof. Steve Schwarz penned an excellent article for Research Fortnight called A lingering sense of struggle in the slog to learn physics lessons.

As chairman of one of the 10 specialist advisory panels that the STFC hurriedly set up in March after its own efforts at ranking projects had been roundly condemned by researchers, I left the meeting still stunned by the events that have unfolded since the council revealed an £80 million hole in its budget last November. And I remain fearful for the future of the UK’s physics and astronomy research.

Once more this looks to the future and wonders whether as well as identifying the lessons to be learnt from the recent balls up, STFC will actually learn thos lessons. Steve is not sure:

But has the STFC really learned these lessons, or does it merely now know what they are? The omens are not good.

Steve wonders about the upcoming strategy and how much input the community will have, and asks sensible questions about the way the new advisory panels will be set up:

Specialist advisory panels are being re-established; in fact, we have heard this for a while now, but implementation does indeed seem to be getting closer. We are told that these panels will be subject-based rather than facility-driven. This is a welcome sign—and a lesson learned. But will there be enough panels? Enough members? Enough influence to be seen as an effective route through which the community can channel its talents and aspirations?

Wise words about the need for adequate expertise in tensioning projects and facilities in the new STFC. The idea for a new model council with as few a people as possible to expediate decision making looks to have been shown to be a dud. You may get decisions made efficiently and quickly but it hardly inspires confidence that the right difficult choices are made.

Effective decision-making needs more than a small set of advisers to cover the enormous breadth of the programme, from running large facilities costing hundreds of millions of pounds at one end, through major international collaborations on fundamental science, to individual research grants at the other.
Prof. Schwarz also takes aim at the much lauded consultation process that followed the rankings in the programmatic review. I have mentioned some issues with this before but Steve was a chair of one of the panels and so has greater insight than most:

In fact, the process was much less effective than it could have been because the community was provided with scant feedback to indicate why projects were ranked where they were. The panels themselves also found information difficult to obtain.

Not surprisingly, community responses often merely re-iterated project objectives or successes. The few responses from projects initially ranked high generally praised the wisdom of that ranking; while the flood of responses from projects ranked low often vented obvious frustration and anger.

One gets the sense that there is less satisfaction with the process than has been aired recently. Let's face it, it did not help that the consultation came after the rankings. Better to have had an initial consultation - or at least solict advice from the wider community, followed by a consultation after the ranking. We have heard that prior discussion has been mooted for next time by STFC.

Steve's article concludes with something for us all to think about in this time of post-programmatic review, as things seem to be calming down:

This is not to smear the integrity of the small team of undoubtedly stressed-out advisers within the present structure. It is to condemn a top-down management style that is trying to operate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for the funding of both science and facilities within a financial straitjacket.

Will the promised Specialist Advisory Panels make a difference? Will they be given the influence to enable the scientific community to work with the STFC? As usual, we can only wait to be told.

It is essential that we have our say on how the advisory panels are set up and not least who goes on them. We must work to ensure that there is adequate representation enshrined within their formation and not just lip-service to the notion. To their credit STFC executives have said that they are only a phonecall or an email away.

*Amusingly I am Cheshire born and bred and have tremendous affection for my home county yet I have never visited Jodrell bank. My year missed out on that school trip.

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