STFC chief criticised on space-saving cuts

MPs find council out of touch with researchers, with science suffering as a result, writes Paul Jump

May 19, 2011

The Science and Technology Facilities Council and its chief executive, Keith Mason, have been heavily criticised in a parliamentary report on astronomy and particle physics.

The Commons Science and Technology Committee report expresses concern that the UK's standing in the subjects will be damaged by the STFC's recent funding settlement, which will result in spending in both areas falling to about 50 per cent of their levels in 2005.

But the MPs urge the STFC to reconsider its controversial decision, taken in 2009, to withdraw from all ground-based optical and infrared telescopes in the northern hemisphere. It quotes the remark of Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell, president of the Institute of Physics, that the £2 million-£3 million estimated cost of maintaining some access to the facilities would be equivalent to no more than "a banker's bonus".

Professor Mason originally told the committee that the council had made it clear when it joined the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in 2002 that the cost of doing so would have to be offset against future savings.

He also said that the decision to withdraw from the northern hemisphere facilities had been motivated by a conviction that concentrating resources made the most scientific sense.

However, following testimony questioning this account, Professor Mason "clarified" his remarks in a subsequent hearing, admitting that the withdrawals had been made for financial reasons.

The report says this exchange was evidence of the "tensions" that still exist between the council and researchers.

'Bordering on the adversarial'

It quotes Robert Kennicutt, director of the Institute of Astronomy at the University of Cambridge, who describes relations between the council and researchers as "sometimes bordering on adversarial".

The reasons, he adds, included "irrationalities in the structure of STFC, insufficient core scientific representation on its council and a leadership vacuum from its chief executive".

Mike Bode, director of the Astrophysics Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University, adds that researchers felt that Professor Mason, whose term as chief executive ends in March 2012, had not interacted with them. "The perception is...that (he) has been more upward facing into government...but has not been pushing the basic science as much as the other parts of the STFC remit," he says.

The committee accepts that some withdrawals were always envisaged after accession to the ESO but adds that it is "inexplicable" that this was not flagged up in subsequent STFC policy documents.

"This would have given the UK astronomical community the opportunity to challenge this policy in more detail. Unfortunately, this failure by STFC to communicate is chronic and typical and is the reason why its client communities have such a low opinion of it," the MPs say.

The committee calls on the STFC to ensure that at least 50 per cent of its council members are practising academics.

It also calls on Professor Mason's successor to "make it clear from the outset his or her commitment to work with researchers...and act as an advocate for all of the science disciplines covered by the STFC".

In a statement, the STFC says it will "examine the report's recommendations in detail and respond in due course".

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