Memorandum submitted by the STFC Science Board (FC 46)

 

 

We felt that it was important for the record to explain the thinking behind the actions that Science Board advised in light of the cuts which were necessary to balance the STFC budget.

 

1. The official report from the Science Board meeting can be found on the STFC web pages. Science Board was very distressed at the level of funding cut that was being called for, and it became clear early on that this would not be like previous prioritizations of the programme, but a major restructuring and re-alignment of STFC's entire remit, encompassing both facilities and fundamental science research. The level of cut needed was about 10%, but because more than half of the STFC responsibility consists of international subscriptions, this translated into a cut of approximately 25% on the domestic science programme.

2. Science Board first off recommended funding for all the international subscriptions, which provide facilities for all the grant funded science areas, and also provide most of the photons and some of the neutrons to the UK users.
The extensive consultation of the community clearly identified the facilities which are made available to researchers through the International Subscriptions as being essential for keeping our scientists on the first rung on the world stage. Some of these subscriptions have gone up substantially in the last few years from a combination of increases and exchange rate effects (ESA is a case in point).

3. Science Board agreed that they had a responsibility to run STFC's own facilities at some optimal level (way below maximum exploitation) to make sense of the investment: after all, the international facilities do not get their budgets cut, but presently STFC is running their own facilities at low duty cycles. Furthermore, the idea that we should not support the new Diamond beamlines, after the government has invested 0.5B so that it can become an internationally competitive UK facility, would be irresponsible.

4. Any further facility development would be focused on Diamond and ISIS, but Science Board advised that investment in any other future facilities should be withdrawn because of the low likelihood of additional operating costs being made available in the future.

5. In the grant funded PPAN area Science Board could advise only for funding for the top priority projects which the communities have put forward and even these projects had their resources reduced in order to balance the budget. The outcome of this is a definite shift to 'big science' projects, and more than half the projects which were being funded and will have to be terminated were smaller less high priority projects. Science Board felt that some resources must be put aside to manage this withdrawal carefully in order to give the researchers time to realign their research. However, even though some extra funds were made available by RCUK for grants this year, the cuts to the grants which are necessary in future years are substantial.

6. The dominating factors in this whole budget crunch are from the international subscriptions, an increase in the cost of research through FEC which was not fully covered by the allocation, inflation and exchange rates.

7. Throughout all its actions, Science Board took cognisance of the recommendations of its advisory panels. Each panel had its own priorities, but it is the responsibility of Science Board to weight those priorities across the entire gamut of STFC's remit. This has, not surprisingly, led to disappointment, and a feeling that the advice of the panels was ignored. Science Board would like to stress that the work undertaken by the panels, and the consultation they organised with STFC's community was a vital part of the prioritisation exercise, and Science Board is very grateful to the panels for their input to a very difficult process.

8. Science Board is satisfied that the prioritisation was a transparent and accountable exercise. Science Board also knows that the outcome is going to cause enormous problems and frustrations within the scientific community as years of scientific work are lost. Indeed, members of Science Board are experiencing those frustrations themselves, as all members of Science Board are practising scientists and are also subject to the cutbacks and restrictions imposed from the prioritisation.

9. It was not an easy exercise, and no-one is happy. It is incumbent on Science Board and the STFC Executive to ensure that STFC's community is now able to deliver a combination of top-class pure and applied research that will act as a platform for future developments and discoveries. This is essential to ensure that the UK maintains its position as one of the leading nations in scientific research and technology development.

10. Science Board is always open to ways in which it might improve its practices. It is keen to work with DBIS as it looks at the tension between grants and facilities within STFC.

11. Science Board thanks the Committee for this opportunity to clarify the process by which STFC completed its recent prioritisation exercise, and the thinking behind the (frequently unpalatable) decisions that were made.

12. We all need facilities, whether national or international, and they provide a basis for almost all of our science.

 

Yours Sincerely,

 

 

Professor Jenny Thomas

Chair of STFC Science Board, on behalf of STFC Science Board

 

 

 

Declaration of Interests:

MINOS Project Spokesperson

Member of Faculty, UCL

Chair of STFC Science Board