Fair and balanced?

To be honest, I’ve been finding it difficult to write about the whole STFC crisis at the moment as I’m so resigned to the situation that I’m not really getting too worked up about it anymore. The recent article by John Womersley (the STFC Science Director) claiming that the prioritisation excercise was “fair and balanced” does, however, seem to require some kind of response. I don’t personally know any of the senior STFC people, but of all those of whom I’m aware, John Womersley is the one I’ve been most impressed with. Whenever I’ve encountered him, I’ve found what he says quite reasonable. His article claiming that the facilities cuts were “fair and balanced” has therefore been somewhat disappointing since it seems to be effectively toeing the party line, and once again missing some of the fundamental points.

His article starts by at least implying that the prioritisation exercise was largely a result of the global financial crisis. The decrease in the value of the pound has clearly had an impact on STFC finances, but as many people have pointed out in the past, this is not the primary reason why STFC has a financial problem. The CSR2007 settlement that STFC received was not sufficient for STFC to carry out all the programmes it had inherited from PPARC and CCLRC. This has even been acknowledged in a parliamentary select committee report, so why senior STFC people cannot at least acknowledge that this was a major part of the problem is beyond me. I do agree with the claim that the prioritisation exercise was required (i.e., there wasn’t enough money to carry on as before), I just don’t agree that the primary problem was the global financial crisis (although this clearly did not help).

The article then goes on to claim that STFC based it’s prioritisation on recommendations from independent advisory panels. These panels may well be independent in the sense that they weren’t manned by STFC staff, but they clearly weren’t independent in the sense that the people on the panels didn’t have anything to lose from this exercise. I suspect everyone on all the panels were involved with something that was funded by STFC and hence clearly cannot have been truly independent. As far as I understand the process there were five advisory panels : the Particle Physics Advisory Panal (PPAP), the Nuclear Physics Advisory Panel (NPAP), the Particle Astrophysics Advisory Panel (PAAP), the Near Universe Advisory Panel (NUAP), and the Far Universe Advisory Panel (FUAP). Each of these were made up of people from the relevant disciplines and essentially determined priorities in their own discipline. The recommendations then went to the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN) which then interleaved these recommendations into a single priority list. Given the short timescale, this may well have been the best way to do this, but the claim by the Nuclear Physics community that they have been hit especially hard because there was only a single nuclear physicist on PPAN may well have some merit. It must have been extremely difficult to have been part of these panels and not have been very aware of how the decisions were going to influence projects with which you were personally involved (although I’m not claiming that everyone involved didn’t do their utmost to be completely objective).

The article also claims that cuts to the Nuclear Physics community will have no impact on the UK’s ability to build and maintain future nuclear power stations.  This isn’t my area of expertise, but this doesn’t quite seem right.  My suspicion is that a large number of the people who teach nuclear physics in Physics department today are STFC funded, or at least do research in an STFC funded area.  The ability to teach nuclear physics in the future must surely be affected by a large cut in STFC’s nuclear physics funding.

Although there are things in the article with which I disagree, the tone of the article is actually quite reasonable and the articles does at least acknowledge that this will be difficult for university departments. What I find most disappointing is the final paragraph of the article  that makes the standard statements about the importance of research for the UK economy and essentially seems to argue that the prioritisation exercise was a key part of making the case for future funding.  This may be true and it certainly would not have been good to have had a funding (facilities) council that developed a programme that it could not afford.  What I would like to see, however, is a senior STFC executive at least showing some annoyance at the fact that the STFC was funded at a level that forced them to impose these extremely damaging cuts.  If research is crucial to the future of the UK economy (and if physics does indeed pay its way in the sense that the fraction of the economy that relies on physics dwarfs the level of physics funding in the UK) then why are we not all (STFC plus the community) making an extremely strong case for increased funding in these areas.

I actually went to a talk by JohnWolmersley a few years ago, just before the STFC crisis started.  During the talk he hinted that a crisis was looming and that when we became aware of it we should all shoot outwards rather than inwards.  I took this to imply that we should all work together, rather than fighting amongst ourselves.  In general I agree with this, but this would only have worked if STFC had done some fighting itself, rather than lying down and accepting these cuts as if they were reasonable and just what we deserved.  In fairness, John Womersley (I believe) has worked in the US, so maybe he used the words “fair and balanced” in the Fox News sense, implying that he doesn’t believe they were in any way “fair and balanced”.  Maybe this is the beginnings of a fight back, but that might just be my eternal optimism at work.

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