Building trust

Michael Sterling tells MPs that his engineering background would be an asset in the role of STFC chairman

July 23, 2009

Michael Sterling, former vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, was recently subjected to what was probably the closest thing he has experienced to a viva voce since he gained his doctorate in 1971.

Professor Sterling was grilled by MPs at a pre-appointment hearing held by the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee last week, following the announcement that he is the Government's preferred candidate to take over as chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

A serving member of the Prime Minister's Council for Science and Technology, Professor Sterling's academic background is likely to be welcomed by many, but MPs expressed surprise that a physicist had not been nominated. However, he told the hearing that his background as an engineer was a strength, because it would give him "a completely open mind as to what is good science".

In response to the suggestion that a non-specialist was at risk of having the "wool pulled over his eyes" by the physics community, he said reports for the council should be produced in lay language, regardless of the chair's expertise.

Professor Sterling gave little indication in the hearing that he intends to shake up the organisation, which has faced a severe funding shortfall since the last Comprehensive Spending Review in 2007. He told the panel he was keen to draw a distinction between the STFC's role and that of the executive, and said that on the issue of strategy he would "look at reports from the peer-reviewed science board" for guidance.

He gave diplomatic answers throughout the hearing, describing the STFC as a "quality organisation" and the post of chair as "irresistible". He also said he would "argue the corner for advantages of funding", but would ultimately "implement government decisions, even if they were not research council recommendations". The council had to "live within budget", he said.

He added that it would be "ludicrous" if funding only covered subscriptions to large facilities - such as the Large Hadron Collider, or the Diamond Light Source in Oxfordshire - and left no money for scientific discoveries.

Professor Sterling said that because the STFC was involved in so many international projects, foreign currency fluctuations were among the biggest threats to its finances. He added he had already begun discussions about whether this burden should be shouldered by the Government rather than the council.

A decision on the appointment was due to be made as Times Higher Education went to press.

Update

Professor Sterling has been confirmed as chairman of the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

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