Restructuring the STFC

The Department for Business, Innovations and Skills (BIS) has announced the new arrangements for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which is the result of Paul Drayson’s review of STFC. This has been reported in a number of places already, including the BBC, the Times Online and has already been covered in various blogs such as the telescoper, Leaves on the Line, and The S word.

I haven’t been particularly complimentary about Paul Drayson in my earlier posts but, to be fair, the result of his review seems quite reasonable. The basic idea seems to be that BIS “expects to continue to provide STFC with a level of protection similar to that which has been provided this year and last in respect of the additional costs of international subscriptions due to exchange rate changes.” The intention is also that there will be better long-term planning of the costs of running and operating large facilities. Basically, they will attempt to protect the grants line from being completely overrun by exchange rate fluctuations and unexpected increases in the cost of running large facilities. All in all, quite sensible and a lot of credit must go to the various blogs (mainly the telescoper, the eAstronomer, and Living in the Real World), who have regularly been highlighting the issues, and to people like Paul Crowther and Brian Cox, who have been very vocal about the various issues with the structure of STFC and the importance of Physics in our society and economy.

I don’t really need to say much more about the details as they have been covered extensively by others. One of the reasons I wanted to write a post was to add my voice to the others who, although supportive of the suggested changes, feel that fixing the structure may not really be enough. A lot of damage has already been done to our ability to carry out world class research in Physics and Astronomy. I believe that a strong Physics research base is crucial to the country’s ability to sustain world class universities and to support an economy that relies more and more heavily on science and technology. Simply protecting grant funding at the current level is not going to ensure that we are able to maintain a world class research base in Physics and Astronomy.

I also think there is a real problem with the current STFC senior management, or at least with certain individuals. There are some exceptions but, by and large, the community seems to no longer have any confidence in the people who are running STFC. I also don’t quite understand why the government still has any confidence in the senior management. Right from the moment STFC was formed, numerous people have been highlighting issues with the structure of STFC. I have followed the STFC crisis pretty much from day one and at no time did any member of the senior STFC management acknowledge that there were any problems. What is more, they didn’t even seem to acknowledge that any real damage was being done to Physics and Astronomy research in the UK. If anything, the message from STFC management was that there were too many Physicists and Astronomers and that cutting back would be a good thing. How can anyone have confidence in a management team that not only doesn’t recognise structural problems with the organisation they are running (despite these problems being pointed out at regularly intervals) but doesn’t even seem to value what they are explicitly meant to be supporting. In fairness, the problem may well lie with one or two individuals rather than with the team as a whole, but some major changes in this team would also seem to be required if we really are to have an organisation that can effectively support world class research in Physics and Astronomy.

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