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Monday, March 15, 2010

whither STFC? - science board

The changes to the structure of STFC announced by Lord Drayson have implications for the operations and management of the funding agency that the STFC council might like to consider.

To recap, one of the proposals announced in the Drayson-Stirling fix is the manner in which the UK national facilities will be funded. RCUK and STFC will work to determine the budget required to operate the national facilities (e.g. Diamond) across a whole comprehensive spending review (CSR) period*. This money will then be allocated to STFC to manage those facilities and will be a separate pot from the cash needed to fund research in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics. Thus there will be no 'tensioning' between these two areas on a day to day (or at least annual budget) basis - any 'tensioning' will occur within BIS once every CSR. This will provide stability (though of course, not necessarily any more money) for the PPAN side of STFC.

Now we get to the meat of the issue.

My understanding of the way in which STFC works (hah!) is that PPAN and PALS are responsible for their particular areas, representing the communities, and feed up to science board (see here). It is the role of science board to merge the inputs from PPAN and PALS to develop advice to STFC council on the overall programme. With the new change to STFC structure, particularly with the removal of the need to balance PALS versus PPAN within STFC, science board would appear to be obsolete.

Science board is now really just dead wood; a layer of bureaucracy within the STFC structure who that is no longer required. The STFC programme, as far as the PALS side of things, will be set once every CSR, STFC will simply administer the process, there is no need for a body to balance PALS with PPAN anymore.

Those on science board can be thanked for their hard work and then it can be dissolved. Instead PPAN could report directly to council alongside whoever is in charge of the national facilities administration. This has the advantage of bringing council much closer to one of the areas within its remit and will remove some of the filters that lead to the watering down of the 'bottom-up' strategy approach. This will also be much more efficient and will make some savings since expenses will be reduced and less meetings with associated costs in man-hours of staff.

I just do not see the point in retaining science board now. I should point out that this is not a critique of science board members; whether they did their jobs properly or not is completely irrelevant.

Quite simply there is no role for science board in its current incarnation in the new STFC. Indeed I cannot see why two layers of bureaucracy are required now when one would do the trick; to be seen to cut any costs in the current climate must surely be a good thing, especially when doing so would not adversely affect the funding of science within STFC.

I hope that Michael Stirling and the other members of STFC council are already thinking about this.

*note this does not mean that enough money will be provided to operate those facilities at 100% capacity - only that some agreement will be reached on the appropriate level at each new CSR.

Also the reason I tend to use ' ' around the word 'tension' is because I think it is an example of god-awful management speak that has crept into use in this whole debacle and I'd rather not use it except for the fact I am too lazy to pick my words carefully. Tension is a perfectly fine word and pitting PALS against PPAN science certainly led to tension but that's not quite the same thing.

Oh and if you see me using the phrase 'going forward' feel free to castigate me!

STFC fix - the flaws

[update - to be fair on re-reading I have decided that 'flaws' is perhaps the wrong word. Rather these are issues to be dealt with]

As I said in my last post the proposed fix to STFC's continuing woes contain a number of potential flaws that we must guard against.

First of all, on a personal note I am not totally convinced that keeping the atsronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics grants with STFC was the right move. I know I am in a minority here so I won't push the point. I just wonder if it would have been better for physics overall to move much of the fundamental stuff into a single funding agency. EPSRC may not have rolling grants but they do have platform grants, plus the way things are going one has to wonder how long STFC will have rolling grants.

More substantively:
The aim to remove the uncertainty associated with paying international subscriptions in non-sterling is laudable. However it is important to note that the public commitment to doing this so far extends to:
BIS is working closely with the Bank of England on how to reduce the exposure of the STFC.

This tells us that as of yet there is no fix in place. They ARE trying to find one and working with the bank of England to achieve that and so we can applaud their effort. At the same time we should watch developments closely. I have to assume that the simple step of transferring responsibility to the Treasury was not so simple and/or undesirable at some level.

If responsibility for the ESA subscription is moved to the new space agency that would be a good step to protect the research grants. However, the devil with that will be in the detail; where is the budget for HMSA* going to come from? Will this lie within the existing science budget ringfence and as such can we expect a squeeze on the existing science? Will HMSA take over funding of certain areas of space science? This could be a good thing and eminently sensible but it is essential to balance any transfer of funds and make sure it is spent on what it was supposed to be spent on.

We just do not know what will happen with the space agency but an announcement will come soon and I hope that will clarify things.

The biggest advantage could also be the biggest disadvantage.

'Tensioning' large national facilities (such as Diamond and ISIS) against the astro, pp and np research grants was a difficult balancing act. On the one hand we should use these facilities to maximise their potential; on the other hand the resultant tension curtailed new science and limited exploitation of fantastic astro and pp facilities (not to mention the complete devastation of nuclear). The results of that 'tensioning' have left the PPAN community lurching onwards and with the best will in the world, the 'fix' has done nothing to alleviate that problem, only money can do that (roll on next CSR).

So the Drayson-Stirling fix will cut out that day-to-day 'tension' by allocating the money to pay for the national facilities at the outset. Great, there will be no squeezing of the research grants in order to pay for the facilities, primarily used by different disciplines. Yet what this really does is take the power to determine the balance between PALS and PPAN away from STFC and hand it to BIS; plus the balance will be determined once every CSR rather than on an annual rolling basis. This is not necessarily a bad thing but it does change the ball game somewhat. To put it simply:

National facilities cannot pinch money from astro/pp/np grants, but by the same score, the grants cannot pinch money from the national facilities.

In the past STFC would make the case to government for funding based on their portfolio and remit and would then decide how to split that money up. Now I assume (and with RCUK's help) they will have to make seperate cases for funding for the national facilities and for astro/pp/np. Thus it is even more essential (as if it wasn't anyway) that STFC makes a strong and compelling case for support for their science areas. However, this is a job that the STFC CEO has claimed (at the town-hall at the Belfast NAM for one) is not his - its the job of the community, hence it was not his fault there was a poor settlement it was all of ours. As long-time readers of this blog will know this is a line he likes to use. Unlike some astronomy colleagues I disagree with this sentiment - it is still STFC's role to go to bat for our research area since we are in their remit.

That said, the STFC CEO is partly right, the community does have a role to play. We need to make our case to government that astronomy, space science, particle physics and nuclear physics are all worth funding and are worth funding well. This must be done before the next CSR to make sure that the pot of money that goes straight to the grants is decent. This is a one shot job since we cannot rely on clever book balancing to make the difference in the future (and for the sake of the science relying on Diamond and ISIS, etc, we should not be expecting it). Of course the financial situation is unlikely to have vastly improved in that time but it is worth remembering that in the great scheme of things science is cheap, an extra £100m worth of additional funding buys a whole lot of world-leading research.

So the take-home message from the Drayson-Stirling fix is that there will be some stability (which is good) and the grants will be protected as much as they can be, but it is absolutely essential that the community pulls out all the stops to make the case for an increased budget. Sadly whilst the current STFC management is in place we cannot rely on them to make the case for us, they have essentially already said that its not their job.

The Drayson-Stirling fix of STFC was an important and very welcome first step and we scientists can now work within the proposals that have been put forward to try to ensure that things do not get much worse.

*HMSA = Her Majesty's Space Agency
** I say perceived as no one has public domain evidence that the plan at the CSR was to deliberately cut back astronomy et al.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

STFC fix

This post is a little delayed due to having other things to do, but I thought I might add my thoughts to the recent(ish) announcement of the STFC fix.

On Thursday 4th March Lord Drayson proposed a series of measures with the aim of 'fixing' STFC. This was achieved by working with Michael Stirling the relatively new chair of STFC.

Lord Drayson said:

“There is no doubt STFC faced a difficult situation. A lot of work has gone in to finding ways of preventing such pressures rearing their heads again in future. The better management of international subscriptions through measures to manage exchange rates, and longer-term planning and budgeting for large domestic facilities will allow STFC’s grant-giving functions to be managed with a higher degree of predictability. The community has come out strongly in support of grants remaining with STFC to deliver investment continuity from facility design through to exploitation, and I accept this argument. These measures will allow the Council to pursue the programme it set out in December within its budget.”

The principle plans are as follows:
  1. Grants for astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics will remain with STFC
  2. BIS will provide STFC with protection against fluctuations in exchange rates that hit international subscription costs for the remainder of the spending review. For 2011/12 onwards options are being explored for managing the risk (nothing concrete yet)
  3. From 2011/12 RCUK and STFC will determine the requirements for the large national facilities that STFC operates mostly for researchers supported by other research councils, at the start of each CSR period. Funding to cover the operating costs will be assigned independently from BIS and will be managed independently from the remainder of the budget allocation. Thus grants will no longer be directly tensioned against these facilities - the so-called Chinese wall.
  4. One of the big international subscriptions will be removed from STFC; it is likely that the ESA subscription will move to the new UK Space Agency.

Now first of all credit where credit is due.

Lord Drayson heard all the moaning about the problems at STFC, saw the result of the re-prioritisation and recognised that there was a real problem (the moaning was justified). In the economic times we find ourselves the Minister could hardly throw money at the problem (even though it would cost only about £50m to fix the loss of science) and so he took steps to try and make sure that the giant squeeze on the grants line would not be repeated in the future. To do this he has tackled some of the big issues that he had any influence over: mainly how things within STFC's purview are tensioned together.

On the face of it the proposals are pretty good and are an excellent step on the way to fixing a research council that quite frankly has been broken since day one. Removing the tension between the large national facilities and the research grants is a good thing - neither the PPAN nor the PALS community could have been happy with the existing situation.

Moving the ESA subscription to the new space agency (with an announcement on that coming soon I believe) makes perfect sense given the breadth of UK involvement with ESA. I have heard it said that the STFC essentially subsidises UK business by paying the ESA subscription given the twin factors of science and commercial contracts. Whether that is true or not it is a non-issue if the subs are handled by a space agency that should work to benefit both science and industry.

Thanks to BIS, and DIUS before it, STFC has not been too badly hit by the currency fluctuations. However, it was a disaster waiting to happened and by establishing a more permanent means of protection for STFC this could stave off any major problems in the future.

A couple of things must be noted: These are proposals and as such are not yet set in stone; I presume that there is no guarantee that the next government (even if it is a Labour one) will see them through. Indeed there are some potential flaws with the current proposals that must be handled carefully, but that is just the nature of things. More on the flaws tomorrow.

For now, well done to Lord Drayson and Michael Stirling for their first attempt at fixing STFC.