STFC funding revamped to protect national facilities

Responsibility for problems arising from currency fluctuations still unresolved. Zoë Corbyn reports

March 6, 2010

The beleaguered Science and Technology Facilities Council is to be restructured. The change is hoped to protect grants for astronomers and physicists in the future.

The council has faced a series of funding crises, caused in part by a fall in the value of sterling, which pushed up costs of subscriptions to international facilities such as CERN.

This has forced it to withdraw from international projects, run national science facilities below capacity, such as the newly built Diamond light source, and make swingeing cuts to grants, studentships and fellowships in physics departments.

Under new arrangements, the STFC will get a separate, ring-fenced budget – agreed with the rest of the research councils – to manage the UK’s large domestic facilities.

The change, unveiled this week, will come into effect for the 2011-12 financial year. It is expected to aid longer-term planning and budgeting for the facilities. Management of the UK’s subscription to the European Space Agency will also be transferred to a new UK Space Agency under the plans.

But there appears to be no long-term solution, as yet, to the problem of unforeseeable rises in international subscriptions owing to falling exchange rates. It has previously been proposed that the Treasury should take responsibility for picking up the bill to relieve the pressure on STFC coffers.

Instead, the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills will work with the Bank of England to “examine the options” that are available to reduce the STFC’s exposure.

Current emergency arrangements – whereby the government covers the extra costs incurred by the STFC above £3 million – will remain in place for 2010-11.

Lord Drayson, science minister, said there was “no doubt” the STFC had faced difficulties, but said the measures announced on 4 March would allow its “grant-giving functions to be managed with a higher degree of predictability”.

In a joint statement, the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society welcome the longer-term commitment to the planning of national facilities. They note the problem with exchange rates “has now been recognised” and repeat the call for the Treasury to take full responsibility for currency fluctuations.

The structural changes to the STFC come as Brazilian researchers prepare to take the place of UK researchers using the twin Gemini telescopes based in Hawaii and Chile. The council sold a share of its subscription to the Brazilian Ministry of Science and Technology. It will mean that UK researchers will lose about 140 hours of telescope time per year to their Brazilian counterparts, leaving them with about 1,000 hours in total.

The UK will withdraw from Gemini altogether at the end of 2012 as a result of the financial crisis facing the council.

Increases in the costs to the STFC of subscriptions to international facilities in the last five years

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