Openness in science

February 17, 1995

The irony of the encounter in space between a Russian and an American spacecraft last week will not have been lost on Britain's astronomers. For just as the Cold War warriors were meeting in space for the first time in 20 years, Britain's astronomers were facing the possibility of not playing a leading role in a European Space Agency programme, also for the first time in 20 years.

That Michael Foale, the first space-walker to whom Britain could lay claim, emigrated to gain such an opportunity, adds another bitter twist. No doubt others, young, talented and ambitious, will follow him out of Britain. World-leading work in gravity wave detection and cosmic background radiation is also under threat.

And earlier this week, the cash-strapped Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council was to have debated whether Britain's responsibility for building the detectors for the particle smashing project at Cern should be put in the slow lane, so that the council could manage its short-term financial difficulties.

Having been responsible for setting this train of events in motion, the Office of Science and Technology has been unwilling to comment on the consequences. What are we to make of this?

The first reaction is irritation. It really is not good enough for the OST to be making decisions which imperil world-class research without being willing publicly to justify its decisions and without any visible strategic thinking for British particle physics and astronomy. That Big Science is very expensive is appreciated by all. Whether Britain can afford to continue with such work and if so how much we can afford and where such contributions are best directed, is a matter for serious debate. Instead the matter has been tackled in what can only seem to be at best a slipshod and at worst a devious manner.

First, all the most expensive bits of basic research have been corralled into one research council, PPARC, and now that council has been left to swing in the wind with too little money to sustain even the highly selective areas of expertise on which this country, confronted with earlier cash constraints, has concentrated. This is not what was promised two years ago when the Government produced the biggest review of science policy for decades.

Second, this crabwise manner of proceeding leaves scientists and universities with a big stake in these projects in a quandary. What are they to make of the plight in which PPARC finds itself and the difficulties it will necessarily cause them? Is the OST signalling the beginnings of a disengagement from Big Science? If so why and how is it to be achieved? Is the OST thinking about the future of Big Science in Britain at all or has obsession with "wealth generation" become so all-consuming that funding for curiosity-driven work with no visible short-term pay-off is being scaled back as fast as possible?

Scientists and universities that have expended considerable time and effort on building up expertise in these areas over a long period of time have a right to know the context within which that they will be operating in the future. Will PPARC, for example, be able in future years to deploy money saved as a result of capping the Cern budget on projects of the type now threatened? Can the council be sure that the fruits of the capping agreement will remain in its hands?

If savings from the collective agreement over Cern, whereby indexation is zero for the first three years and 1 per cent thereafter, are to be retained by the council to use for long-term projects, that agreement begins to look like a promising precedent for handling Big Science in the future. Every country has trouble keeping the expensive ambitions of its particle physicists in check, not least the United States where the Supercollider was axed last year.

The Cern agreement, driven through at the insistence of the UK and Germany, is much more to our national advantage as a means of controlling spending than is arbitrary cutting on a national level. By ensuring that the whole enterprise proceeds at a pace which can be afforded, there is less likelihood of countries dropping out because of the exigencies of a particular year's budget - or their government's electoral timetable and associated public spending priorities. The OST should make details of how the capping mechanism will operate available as soon as possible. Provided they are satisfactory, this would go far to reassure the physicists.

If in addition the UK, Germany and Spain can, by renewing their efforts, secure a similar arrangement with ESA, the astronomers' interests may yet be safeguarded as well.

There is, as Sir David Phillips, former chairman of the Advisory Board for the Research Councils, has said recently, a lack of transparency in the way decisions are being arrived at the OST. The debacle surrounding PPARC illustrates this.

It is ironic that this gathering internalisation of policy should take place just as the OST is gearing up for National Science Week, when great play will be made, as the minister, David Hunt, makes clear on page 12, of the need for scientists to explain more openly and clearly what they do.

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