Research Intelligence: The standard model for science cash

The head of the STFC tells Zoë Corbyn how he hopes to shield big science from financial shocks and crises

February 18, 2010

Astronomers and particle physicists are adamant that their research council must be overhauled to protect their subjects in the future.

Rocked by a series of funding crises caused by events outside their control, they are seeking an approach that will secure a more stable future.

When the Science and Technology Facilities Council was created in April 2007, the idea was to improve the management of public investment in big science.

The STFC was formed by a merger of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, which had responsibility for running the UK's national research laboratories such as Harwell and Daresbury, and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, a grant-awarding body for astronomers and particle physicists.

Both councils' roles in funding international subscriptions to large overseas research facilities were also taken on by the STFC.

But then came a series of funding crises, caused by facilities' higher than expected running costs and a fall in the value of the pound, which pushed up the costs of international subscriptions.

The consequences have been catastrophic, with the UK withdrawing from international endeavours, running national science facilities below capacity and making swingeing cuts to grants, studentships and fellowships in physics departments.

As a result, Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, announced in December that he would take the STFC back to the drawing board.

"It has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant-giving roles within a single research council," he said.

He added that he would work "to find a better solution" by the end of February. So as the deadline approaches, what is emerging?

Michael Sterling, former vice-chancellor of the University of Birmingham, is the new chairman of the STFC and has been working to find a solution.

"The problem is easy to see," he said. "The job of the council is impossible if you set subscriptions and facilities against grants. You are going to have a crisis every few years."

He estimated that about half the STFC's cash budget goes on international subscriptions - costs that cannot be reduced because they are based on international treaties.

A quarter is spent on facilities "that can be changed only relatively slowly because they are multimillion-pound endeavours that need to be exploited", he added.

The result is that any short-term funding pressure is bound to cut a swath through grant money.

No going back

Professor Sterling's plan, which he said had the backing of the research councils and the research community, does not advocate a return to the pre-merger structure.

Instead, it proposes to shift elsewhere the financial risks associated with two of the STFC's three competing elements - international subscriptions and national facilities.

Although the STFC would continue to manage these areas, Professor Sterling would like the Treasury or, failing that, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills to take responsibility for funding international subscriptions.

As costs go up or down with exchange rates or variations in gross domestic product - both of which are beyond the STFC's control - the Government, rather than the council, would tackle the consequences.

Under present arrangements, the STFC is bailed out by the Government only after it has borne the first £3 million of fluctuations.

Professor Sterling described his proposed model as "Treasury-level insurance".

"The problem with the present arrangement is that each time the STFC has to seek the Government's help, it looks like another crisis - that somehow we have messed up - when it is simply beyond what we can control," he explained.

As for national facilities, Professor Sterling said that the research councils as a whole should cover their costs.

The "majority users" of the facilities are not STFC-funded scientists, he said. "Our researchers' grant line has been squeezed to keep facilities going for other grant holders in other councils."

To address this, Research Councils UK should decide the level at which it wants to run the facilities and dedicate a long-term funding pot to pay for them, he said.

Professor Sterling's aim is to put physicists and astronomers in the same boat as researchers in other councils so that their grants are not affected by shifts in the costs of subscriptions or national facilities.

There appears to be widespread support for the plans, including from Robert Kirby-Harris, chief executive of the Institute of Physics.

He said he hoped sense would prevail. "We are not talking about fresh money but better management processes, and (the proposal) seem a much more sensible way to run what we are doing here," he said.

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