Memorandum submitted by Professor Phil Allport (FC 08)

 

Commentary on STFC: Financial, Structural and Leadership issues.

 

1. The problems with STFC fall into 3 categories, each of which individually would represent a major handicap but which together have led to an organisation that is manifestly not fit for purpose. The areas in need of resolution can be broadly identified as financial, structural and governance/leadership. Many of these issues had previously been identified by the House of Commons Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills in its April 2008 report, but we feel that little progress has been made since this very comprehensive analysis was published. We particularly agree with the Committee's conclusions which seem to be as relevant today as they were nearly two years ago. "STFC's problems have their roots in the size of the CSR07 settlement and the legacy of bringing CCLRC and PPARC together, but they have been exacerbated by a poorly conceived delivery plan, lamentable communication and poor leadership, as well as major senior management misjudgements. Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive. This raises serious questions about the role and performance of the Chief Executive, especially his ability to retain the confidence of the scientific community as well as to carry through the necessary changes outlined here."

A) Financial Issues

2. The financial issues date back to the underfunding of STFC at its formation through the shotgun marriage of CCLRC with PPARC. These are also well documented in the Select Committee report, which includes the recommendation "We believe that the Government should ensure that its original commitment to leave no legacy funding issues from the previous Councils is honoured." That this issue was never addressed remains at the heart of STFC's financial difficulties.

3. The lack of sufficient resourcing at the formation of STFC, in the relatively affluent times before the current recession, makes the impact of subsequent cuts even more severe. In addition, the increase in the fraction of first PPARC and then STFC's budget devoted to international subscriptions has inexorably squeezed the funding available to do the science which the subscriptions in principle enable. These problems came to a head in the December 2009 announcement of further cuts by STFC Council, cuts which have decimated the programmes of all areas of science in STFC's stewardship. An astonishing number of projects have been terminated, representing a wanton waste of years and sometimes decades of UK investment in cutting-edge science. The problem is certainly exacerbated by allocating resources by project rather than programme, since programme managers would be able to make more nuanced decisions than the current STFC committees. For example, the current advisory panels could more efficiently manage a financial envelope for a field, fitting in small activities which keep future opportunities alive. The crude top-down planning that the current structure necessitates has caused enormous reputational damage to the UK.

4. There are many recent analyses of the financial difficulties within STFC. A good recent critique of STFC's self-congratulation over the recent emasculation of the research areas for which it has been entrusted stewardship can be found in the January 12th 2010 4pm contribution to http://www.newscientist.com/blogs/thesword/. It is entirely disingenuous to blame STFC's problems on the 'global financial crisis'. Needless to say, the impact of cuts which could total 15 to 20% on top of 25% cuts currently being implemented in, for example, particle physics is devastating to both its programme and morale. The timing is also disastrous, with major facilities at CERN and JPARC (Japan) just starting. Indeed UK involvement in one of the 4 major LHC experiments is to be terminated (ALICE) and the long-term future involvement in LHCb is threatened by non-funding of the LHCb upgrade programme. Furthermore, almost the entire particle astrophysics programme in the UK is to be terminated, negating decades of investment and achievement by UK scientists. Even projects not cancelled are to be cut by 10-15% on top of both explicit and implicit further cuts to the grants line. Across all areas it is difficult to see any glimmer of a long-term science strategy for STFC, with the current plan reading like a staged withdrawal from almost all areas of STFC science. Since low-cost investments that keep alive longer-term aspirations are being cut despite the savings being negligible, the clear implication is that the UK is deliberately planning to exit from the sort of blue skies research currently supported by STFC, a message not lost on UK students thinking about careers in science or overseas scientists thinking of bringing their talents to these shores. And to heap insult on injury, part of the recent STFC cuts involve a 25% reduction on PhD studentships and no new postdoctoral fellowships at all in 2010, at a time when the country is crying out for highly skilled young scientists.

B) Structural Issues

5. The structural problems arise mostly from STFC's CCLRC+PPARC inheritance. The organisation has signally failed to resolve the conflicting demands of the scientific communities it ought to serve and the needs of the facilities and staff it manages directly. This is made worse by STFC having to tension its grant-giving function to University groups (the PPAN areas) with resourcing its laboratories and facilities (the PALS line).

6. Indeed, its recent decision to transfer up to 25M to 28M per year from the PPAN line into the PALS line shows the consequences of such a major conflict of interest which will cripple the research in University areas supported by STFC grants. There are three prima facie problems:

i) that year-to-year changes in international subscriptions are beyond the control of the UK;

ii) that the funding of national facilities is currently tensioned against a small subset of the UK science programme and there is a major conflict of interest for an organisation that both runs its own national facilities and subscribes to international ones;

iii) that no functional forum, with appropriate representation from the major stake-holders, exists in which a national strategy for investment in facilities can be formulated.

7. Our specific proposals to solve these three primary problems are as follows:

i) Each particular Research Council with the predominant use of an international facility takes responsibility for the corresponding subscription and the volume part of that subscription is transferred to that Research Council budget. Future volume changes in that international subscription should come out of the overall budget of that Research Council, but all other changes, which include currency fluctuations, GDP changes and the inflation compensation built into the international agreements, are dealt with centrally. In year, the non-volume changes for each subscription are compensated centrally at the highest possible level, preferably above RCUK. This proposal follows the suggestion of section 8.9 of the Wakeham review.

ii) Establish a National Laboratory (physically located over multiple sites) with responsibility for the national centres and facilities, such as ISIS, and for the provision of large-scale engineering and computing facilities for both public and private sectors. Innovation campuses sit naturally inside such an organisation. The National Laboratory should be run by a Director reporting to a stakeholder Board, as in all comparable major laboratories overseas. The National Laboratory should be funded by subscriptions from each Research Council, initially set according to recent usage. These national subscriptions are set by this Board in a process that must strike the right balance between flexibility for the Research Councils and the stability required for running major facilities. The peer-review processes of the contracting Research Council to allocate time on the national facilities are unchanged. A properly constituted National Laboratory, which should include an appropriate level of in-house research activity, would naturally take its place alongside other national laboratories overseas providing reciprocal access to facilities.

iii) There is a need for a forum where the national strategy for investment in large-scale facilities is discussed, and the choice is made between those facilities that are best provided nationally and those where it is more advantageous to join an international facility or bid to establish one in the UK. It is important that any such body is representative of the UK science community as a whole, and that it is at a sufficiently high level to have the necessary authority. Proposals for new national facilities would come naturally through the Director of the National Laboratory. A separate National Science Facilities Board with representatives from RCUK, the learned societies and representatives of UK Universities, would make recommendations to RCUK about the relative priorities of the various options. A mechanism must be found to couple consideration of operating costs tightly into the decision process.

8. It therefore follows that the residual grant-giving functions of STFC would be best dealt with by a new research council with responsibilities for the international subscriptions relating to astronomy, space science, nuclear and particle physics and the communities they serve. These subjects have many links and the time scales required for planning their programs run into decades, requiring a Research Council with a long strategic-planning horizon. Research grants in the current PPAN areas must reside within the same Research Council that pays the international subscriptions in these areas. Separating these functions would not allow for the tensioning of volume increases or decreases in international subscriptions with exploitation based on peer review. It would therefore be highly undesirable to transfer existing STFC grants in the PPAN areas into EPSRC.

 

C) Leadership and Governance

9. The issues of leadership and governance by STFC Council were already highlighted by the Select Committee. The communities that STFC serves have even less confidence now than they had at the time of the last Select Committee report that their science is being appropriately advocated to Government or even discussed in an even-handed way between the different disciplines. The sort of spirited defence of his research council activities in the face of proposed cuts launched by MRC Chief Executive, Sir Leszek Borysiewicz, (The Times, 11th January 2010) is completely lacking in the context of STFC.

10. By contrast, in its 2008 report the Committee raised serious questions about the STFC Chief Executive's ability to retain the confidence of the scientific community. This confidence has long ago evaporated completely, and it is a widely held view that his removal from office is an essential prerequisite to addressing and solving STFC's problems.

11. STFC as presently constituted is also unable to provide coherent leadership for either of the UK National laboratories at Daresbury and Rutherford. The Select Committee recommendation that each laboratory should have scientific leadership in the form of an on-site laboratory director has been ignored by STFC. Such directors would be a natural part of the advisory structure for the overall National Laboratory Director that we advocate above.

12. The greatest problem, however, as stated above, is that the STFC Chief Executive does not enjoy the confidence of any of the communities STFC should serve. STFC is managed by edict and spreadsheet and even when it consults, it either ignores the inputs entirely or fails to iterate proposals with those involved in the consultation. Despite recent efforts to engage more directly with the community, The Council still seems unable to impose good governance on the Executive. The dreadful financial settlements, with the irreparable damage they are doing to subjects where the UK genuinely enjoys international leadership, all point to the need for a new model and a new style of management. This is now long overdue, and vital to rekindle the sort of confidence within the community that the current incumbent is patently unable to provide.

13. In conclusion, STFC has so many deep-seated structural and managerial problems that a new start is desperately required to save the world-leading science that its failed stewardship has placed in jeopardy. We believe that the way forward is clear: strip STFC of its responsibility for national facilities with the concomitant internal conflicts of interest by founding a National Laboratory which would tension the funding for these facilities against ALL the science they serve; properly protect the remnant organisation from changes beyond its control caused by currency fluctuations, inflation compensation etc. in its international subscriptions; and establish new leadership to allow the enormous expertise and potential of UK scientists in astronomy, nuclear physics, particle physics and space science to continue to flourish at the forefront of world science.