STFC pledges to give academics stronger voice

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has agreed to reassess its membership to make sure the views of academics are adequately represented.

July 28, 2011

The pledge comes in the council's response to the Commons Science and Technology Committee's report on astronomy and particle physics.

The report, published in May, highlighted academic physicists' dissatisfaction with the perceived failure of the STFC and its chief executive, Keith Mason, to promote basic science as much as other parts of its remit.

The committee suggests that researchers' trust could be won back by ensuring that at least 50 per cent of STFC council members are practising academics.

In its response, published last week, the government notes that the composition of the STFC council is set by royal charter.

But it welcomes the STFC's agreement to carry out a "skills audit" of members "to inform future council recruitment exercises" and recommends that the audit take the committee's suggestion "into account".

The government also endorses the committee's view that the new STFC chief executive, who will take over next April, "must make clear from the outset his or her commitment to work with researchers and academics, and act as an advocate for all of the science disciplines covered by the STFC". It says a "number of mandatory requirements" have been set out in the personal specification for the position, which is currently being advertised.

In its own response to the committee's report, the STFC says that evidence "strongly indicates that confidence in the STFC by its science communities is higher than it has been in the past and continues to improve".

It insists that its research programme has been determined "based on rigorous scientific advice from our science board, which comprises leading members of our scientific community".

But in response to the committee's criticism of its controversial decision to withdraw from all optical and infrared telescope projects in the northern hemisphere, the STFC states that there remains "considerable scope" for UK astronomers "to undertake excellent research" using them. The funding to do so "has to be tensioned against other opportunities", but discussions with international partners to maintain some access continue.

"It should be noted that UK access to any facility does not necessarily require the facilities to be under full or part UK ownership," the council says.

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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