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Monday, March 15, 2010

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.


Michael Merrifield said...

"it is still STFC's role to go to bat for our research area since we are in their remit."

While this is certainly true, it is important to realize that our research area is only a relatively small part of STFC's remit. As such, what we view as absolutely vital may, quite rightly, end up a long way down STFC's list of priorities.

That is why it is so vital that we make the case as a community rather than relying on STFC to do it for us: the only way to get astronomy moved up in priority is if STFC's bosses, the Government, make it clear that it is a priority. The Haldane Principle may give STFC freedom to spend money as it chooses, but research councils are well aware who decides how much money they have in the first place, which ensures that there is a reasonable alignment between Government priorities and theirs.

Kav said...

The size of the research area is unimportant; STFC is the custodian for this area of science and in that respect it should have equal weighting with anything else they have to administer.

You seem to think that the quasi-autonomous nature of the RC means STFC should lean more towards government wishes whereas I think it should lean more towards advocacy of the science.

You mention Haldane but then point out that there is a political reality that the RCs have to bow to. I have said before that all this does is excuse bad practice and a perversion of the system.

Government has the power to dictate science policy by doing it openly (and have done so recently with the cross-council schemes). What you are suggesting is that the RCs should bend to hidden pressures. This is not how government ought to operate and we should challenge it when it happens. This is not me being naive, I'm more cynical than the next person; rather it is a recognition that by just waving our hands and saying that is 'just how things are, live with it' we will never have change.

We have had this argument before; I am not going to convince you and you are not going to convince me.

On the larger issue of the need for community lobbying we are in agreement, lets leave it at that.