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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!

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