Government rejects call for STFC chief to be sacked

DIUS to initiate an organisation review to learn from the budget crisis, Zoe Corbyn reports

June 19, 2008

The Government has rejected pressure from a committee of MPs to sack the chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Instead it is to initiate an "organisation review" of the STFC to try to work out what lessons can be learnt from the budget crisis earlier this year, which saw particle physicists and astronomers up in arms over cuts to grants and projects.

The move comes as some research projects initially placed on a draft list of those that could be cut - including the famous Jodrell Bank observatory - edge closer towards being saved.

The Government's commitment to review the STFC is contained in a 37-page response to a report by MPs on the House of Commons Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee, made public this week.

The MPs concluded in May that while the STFC's financial problems were rooted in the limited size of the 2007 science budget settlement, they had been exacerbated by the STFC's "poorly conceived delivery plan, lamentable communication and poor leadership". The MPs said there were "serious questions" about the role and performance of Keith Mason, the STFC chief executive, but stopped short of explicitly demanding his resignation.

The response to the MPs - which is co-ordinated by the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills but takes account of the research councils' views - says changes to the leadership of the STFC "at this formative stage would only be disruptive".

The DIUS says instead that the STFC is to be subject to a review comprising both self-assessment and external scrutiny, which will consider everything from its strategy and planning to how it is managing change. The review is to be completed by September.

Phil Willis, the Liberal Democrat chairman of the MPs' committee, said he was "delighted" that there would be a review. "This is the Secretary of State basically telling (the STFC) to pull its finger out," he told Times Higher Education. But he admitted to being "deeply disappointed" with many other elements of the response - including the decision by the STFC to press ahead with implementing most of the cuts in its delivery plan rather than waiting for the separate government-commissioned Wakeham review of physics to report in September. "They certainly could have waited three months," he said.

The response from the Government also says the £80 million "cut" figure used by the STFC is spurious because it had been drawn up against an aspirational target. It also said enough money had been allocated to the STFC and the UK's reputation as a reliable international partner remained in tact.

The response comes as the STFC undertakes a "programmatic review" of its delivery plan that will determine which projects are dropped to keep the STFC within its new budget. After community consultation, the STFC's Science Board has recommended that ten of 25 projects initially stamped "lower priority" be saved. They include the Merlin and e-Merlin network of radio telescopes that contains Jodrell Bank and a project at the Cern particle physics laboratory in Switzerland known as Alice. The final decisions on areas to cut will be taken by the STFC Council in July.

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