Research intelligence - Fanfare for the common front

Transparency and support for all UK science are the aims of the STFC's new chief. Paul Jump reports

December 1, 2011

Credit: AP Photos
On reflection: head of the STFC has promised a 'new change of tone' and insisted that the organisation is not fundamentally flawed and need not be a 'prisoner' of its past

The troubled first four years of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and the opprobrium heaped upon its inaugural chief executive, Keith Mason, may have dissuaded many senior scientists from applying to succeed him.

Controversy hit the organisation almost as soon as it was formed in 2007 out of a merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils.

A budget shortfall led to the announcement of a raft of cuts to science programmes, about which researchers were incensed not to have been consulted.

Professor Mason, who was also accused of failing to advocate for basic science, stood down five months early at the end of October, to be replaced by the STFC's former director of science programmes, John Womersley.

Despite his insider status, Professor Womersley emphasised at his inaugural press briefing last week that his tenure would see a "change of tone", with him being an "enthusiastic advocate for the whole of the STFC programme and the whole of UK science".

He insisted that the organisation need not be a "prisoner" of its past and dismissed suggestions that its structure was fundamentally flawed and should be split back into its constituent parts: not least because it made it easier to make the case for funding basic research.

"In some other countries where agencies are separated, funding decisions aren't always to the benefit of purer research," he said.

"It is never easy to make a case in difficult times for what is seen as pure research but, by connecting it to ... technology and innovation, the STFC has been able to effectively advocate for particle physics and astronomy at a time many in the community were worried about future funding."

Professor Womersley also emphasised the contribution of astronomy and particle physics to the skills agenda by attracting young people into science careers, and he expressed his commitment to helping drive economic growth by working with more small companies to help them translate research and access sources of venture capital.

But he denied that applied research was in competition with pure research for funding, since both were part of a "seamless integration". "The timescales are different and the way we work is different but it is all part of a system that supports itself: if you don't do the pure science you won't have the applied science to apply in a few years," he said.

For this reason he was "disappointed" by the Royal Academy of Engineering's suggestion, in its submission to last year's spending review, that in times of scarcity, engineering should be more of a funding priority than particle physics.

He would be working very hard to "maintain a common front" with which to approach the next review.

Professor Womersley insisted that the STFC was no longer in a financial "crisis". But money was "tight", especially for capital projects, for which the STFC's budget had been halved in the spending review. However, he was pleased that the research councils had been able to make the case to government for further "targeted investment" in capital projects such as high-performance computing, and he hoped to see further such successes in the coming years.

Belt tightening

The job losses currently being implemented at STFC laboratories were "not pleasant for the people involved but a necessary step to live within our budget", he said. For him, the key to better relations with staff and researchers was to be "accessible, transparent and visible". In particular, the STFC should be upfront with researchers about the constraints under which it was operating, and consult them over which programmes to prioritise.

"These are some of the smartest people in the country," he said. "They are clear [that prioritisation] isn't a process that can take place behind closed doors without consultation but, equally, they aren't naive enough to think it is a process driven by who shouts loudest. They understand that if public-sector borrowing has been cut as a manifesto commitment, it is up to us to make the strongest case for the best budget we can get in the circumstances and then live within that reality. They don't necessarily expect to have the final word, but they want to be involved in the process: we have learned that and intend to continue to work that way."

For that reason, he stood by the 2009 exercise that saw researchers consulted over which programmes the STFC should prioritise given its constrained budget: "It was an unwelcome outcome and quite a painful one for a lot of the communities, but it was done in a way most of them accepted was fair, with priorities clearly driven by themselves."

He believed this had contributed to a "much better relationship" with researchers, and he confirmed that, following a consultation, the research council had decided to keep its network of subject advisory panels, set up at the time, to make sure it remained aware of "community priorities and concerns".

Professor Womersley said he would try to redress some of the exercise's unwelcome outcomes ahead of the next review, which is planned for 2013.

One concern was the paucity of projects in nuclear physics, and advisory panels were being encouraged to think of relatively cheap projects that might be squeezed into the STFC's programme, such as instruments that could be used in nuclear facilities abroad.

A subcommittee of the STFC was looking at ways of continuing some UK access to optical and infrared telescopes in Hawaii and the Canary Islands after researchers "pointed out the importance" of maintaining them. One option was to transfer ownership of Canary Islands facilities to a Spanish foundation so that UK researchers could still use them "without landing us with the full legal responsibility for operation".

The STFC has already set aside the necessary funds to build the European Southern Observatory's planned Extremely Large Telescope, which would be 50 times more sensitive than existing facilities. But Professor Womersley admitted that financial and political difficulties in other ESO member countries meant that it was unlikely to get the go-ahead any time soon.

Extra funding could come the STFC's way if the European Commission were brought to recognise some large UK facilities as being of "European relevance", and to provide funding so that non-UK researchers could access them.

Cultivating the "Europeanness" of large UK facilities would also help to check any trend towards using European science funding as a "regional development policy", rather than concentrating resources in existing centres of excellence in order to fund the best science.

Professor Womersley's personal love of science, as well as the opportunity to do "something really important", explained why he had not thought twice about taking on a four-year stint in a "challenging job at a challenging time".

"I think I can make a difference not just to science publications but to the economy and future of this country and individual young people," he said. "I hope that in four years' time I am still saying that."

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