Funding shake-up makes plans for central research body inevitable

April 14, 2006

Proposals to create a national Large Facilities Council for researchers announced in the Budget will go ahead, according to the chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

Speaking to academics at the Royal Astronomy Society's annual conference last week, Pparc's head Keith Mason, said that the creation of one central body for purchasing major research equipment and subscribing to joint international research facilities would be inevitable following the planned reorganisation of research council funding in the physical sciences Professor Mason said: "Some sort of large facilities council will happen because there's so much momentum behind this, but the details have not been thought through and we do have an opportunity to make an input and, provided it's sensible, it will be listened to."

The Treasury last month unveiled plans to create the council by merging Pparc's existing operations for large facilities with the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which oversees many of the UK's leading experimental facilities.

As part of the reorganisation, research grants allocated to academics by Pparc would instead come under the control of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

But Professor Mason added that this could prove difficult for the astronomy and particle physics research community.

He said: "Certainly, the way the EPSRC works is totally different from Pparc. It's a totally response-driven mode, which means it's hard to get continuity between one award and the next.

"It's also got a low success rate, so the probability of continuing with research would be poor."

He also raised concerns that the reforms would make a joined-up strategy on facilities difficult. This is because grants for facilities would be allocated by one body - the new LFC - while grants to use facilities would be allocated by another, the EPSRC.

"It's difficult to see how you would get all councils singing from the same hymn sheet, making consistent decisions," he said. "It's difficult to see how you would make that work.

"In an extreme situation, you could have a shiny new facility but no money to exploit it. Certainly in Pparc, we have a science council that makes the decision based on scientific criteria.

"But it would be two councils' programme managers in Swindon making that decision, and it's not clear that's a more desirable situation as far as the community is concerned," he added.

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