Fundamental elements

The STFC's achievements offer a template for extracting the full value from UK research, suggests Keith Mason

May 17, 2012

The UK's economic woes have been severe, but they have had one potentially beneficial effect on research: the financial crisis has underlined the fundamental importance of science to the future health of the economy.

This enhanced status is to be welcomed, but it also imposes a responsibility on individuals and institutions to deliver, which in turn requires organisational structures that are fit for purpose.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council was established in 2007 to nurture and promote the fundamental research that is the basic fuel for a knowledge economy while also improving links to the wider world.

As chief executive of the new council, however, I faced a more pressing concern: the programmes of both of its predecessors, planned in the good times, were unaffordable given the emerging economic realities and the large sums tied up in long-term commitments, including subscriptions to Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the European Space Agency.

There followed a difficult restructuring, including the winding down of still-productive activities to make room for initiatives essential to keeping the UK at the forefront of world science, plus reductions in the number of supported postdoctoral researchers and research students. This was painful, and the fact that it was necessary for the long-term credibility of the programme and done in the full glare of peer review did not lessen its unpopularity.

But the programme that emerged was, and remains, world-class and financially credible, and this combination led to a good settlement in the generally difficult 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review. We also succeeded in pushing through major structural reforms to the STFC's funding for international subscriptions and domestic facilities.

While the revamped programme was an excellent basis on which to build for the future, the other side of my agenda for the STFC was to improve the way in which the UK as a whole benefits from our undoubtedly world-class research base. The motivation was to build the case for sustained and ultimately increased investment in science.

Even standing still is not good enough, because the cost of doing science increases much faster than inflation in the wider economy. The reason is twofold: first, advances in science demand greater capability and as knowledge improves, each generation of equipment needs to be more capable than the last; and second, as time goes by, there is more science to do.

For example, in previous generations, materials scientists or pharmaceutical researchers worked with relatively small-scale equipment in their laboratories. Now to remain competitive on the world stage, they need large-scale facilities such as the Diamond Light Source or the Isis Neutron Source, facilities that rival in complexity and scale the colliders and telescopes in use by particle physicists and astronomers.

The unpalatable alternative to larger budgets is rationing, which usually means limiting the scope or breadth of research. This flies in the face of history, which shows that scientific advances generally come from unexpected and unpredictable directions, so trying to second-guess which research fields are most important is fraught with danger.

Thus, the whole research community should have an interest in developing new ways of demonstrating the benefits of the science that they do.

In the case of the STFC, we have with our partners developed the concept of Science and Innovation Campuses. These bring together industry, academia and STFC staff in a multidisciplinary environment that encourages the interchange of ideas and accelerates the take-up of new research for public good and commercial advantage. While some academics may suspect the motives behind such initiatives, my experience is that they serve only to highlight the value of fundamental research.

The challenges remain as great as ever, but with the right approach and a willingness to embrace new thinking, I am convinced that what the STFC has achieved in its first five years gives us a template for extracting the full value from our research base, to the intellectual and material benefit both of researchers and of society at large.

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