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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.





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