The STFC restructured

Earlier today, the Department for Business Innovation and Skills carried a message from the Science Minister, Lord Drayson (who tweets here), about the restructuring of the Science and Technology Research Council, which has been beset by various funding crises since its inception. STFC has released a statement on this as has Research Councils UK.

The message concerns the results of a review into the structural problems at STFC in an effort to reduce fiscal pressures partly blamed for the most recent funding crisis. Within the remit of that review, it seems the right decisions have been made, though it should be said that these were the easier of the decisions that have to be made over the course of the council’s future. Lord Drayson has decided that:

  1. Liaisons with the treasury should take place to better manage the additional costs to the council incurred by currency fluctuations. STFC has a lot of money invested in subscriptions to large facilities across the planet, in the home currency of each facility. Changes in the exchange rate therefore alter the cost of the subscription at the point of payment. This was identified by STFC as a direct contributor to the recent deficit.
  2. The immense budget for building and maintaining facilities is to be kept separate from the relatively small research budget of the council. The research community had advised that a small fluctuation in the costs of facilities had a disproportionate effect on the research budget – it is hard to account in millions when you’re looking at a budget in billions. In addition to this, Research Councils UK, which allegedly runs projects that cross over between research councils, will finally be asked after three years to step in over certain facilities that STFC run but are used across the seven councils.
  3. Large subscriptions relating to the European Space Agency will join the other space related subscriptions in the new UK Space Agency when it is up and running. This relieves STFC of some of its burden and gives the new agency something to do as well as providing some level of cohesion to UK space policy.

On the face of it, this all sounds fair and well and it takes account of suggestions coming in from the community, though criticisms can still be made. On the first point, Lord Drayson insisted flatly that the currency fluctuations had not a thing to do with the deficit – he suggested STFC were making this up. Since this time, it has been revealed the Treasury effectively ceased support for currency fluctuations across government departments, which has adversely affected military procurement among other things. I also wonder about the delay in bringing forward the extra help. We’re leaving a period of intense currency speculation, with the pound now forecast to rise after its present rocky ride comes to an end. The present year and 2010/11 are likely to include the brunt of the problems with future years far easier to cope with. Drayson intends that only after this time should currency fluctuations be borne by the Treasury [again].

The second point is very reasonable, but it returns us to the half-baked decision to create the STFC in the first place. Merging CCLRC and PPARC, the facilities and research funding agencies, should have included sufficient groundwork to identify this years ago. As it is, it seems the management of the councils were out of the loop as well as the community. The result was both the pressure on research grants and the initial shortfall in money due to off balance sheet figures rearing their head in the combined budget. After three entire years and two budget crises, this now gets looked at. Again, there will be no movement over the next financial year.

On the third point, which is related to the second point, this is a re-announcement. The space bits were already headed to the new agency, though this is only due to Drayson’s work in setting it up. If it gets up and running.

The elephant in the room is of course that all this happens in the next parliament with work that has been on hold for three years taking place over the next financial year, coming to fruition the financial year after that. With scientists ensuring that science is becoming an election issue, I do wonder how much that has played in giving us what we want. So, onto the reaction, the Times carries a quick briefing on the crisis and some quick thoughts on today’s steps towards its resolution. The BBC carries a similar article, including the comment by Dr Dave Clements of Imperial (who tweets here), who notes “Our competitors are still boosting science funding at a time when the UK is cutting it – no fix for that here.”

The Institute of Physics and Royal Astronomical Society have released a statement welcoming the review. It notes that no detail on the mechanism for dealing with currency fluctuations has been spelt out yet and also points out that the structural review looks at relieving the long term pressures whereas we may need a bit of financing to help in the short to medium term as well. The IoP magazine Physics World additionally carries an article welcoming the results of the review, but noting again that nothing will be done until 2011, with the financial settlement for this year remaining as last year, when the crisis erupted.

The take home message from that second article as well as this article on the review, published by New Scientist, which carries reactions from scientists who have been vocal in the campaign, is that we can’t expect the treasury to just up and give us the cash to block the hole in the middle of this recession. As it happens, I’ve been involved in political lobbying for as long as I’ve been involved in science – this statement is inaccurate. The treasury will look at deficit restructuring in billions, not millions, saved. Pet projects and headaches will find more than the 50 million or so STFC requires thrown at them even now – if scientists really wanted the money, produce a leaflet in each constituency pointing out cuts to education, likely cuts to jobs based on University chancellors response to the Mandelson cuts, damage to the knowledge base used by local businesses and loss of links to prestigious projects; harsh words are the currency of modern politics and statements from learned societies or fora of university researchers can be ignored during stable times. Watch over the course of the next few weeks of government announcements and see how many make 100 million plus commitments, seen as small fry and often stated as sowing the seeds of recovery in one area or another – indeed in its final years PPARC suffered from such a decision, which saw tens of millions routed from it to balance its department’s books after other projects took priority. But of course, the money, which would be a welcome interim solution, would not excuse the need for the structural reforms announced today or further changes many wish to see.

Finally, there is a message from the blog of Professor Peter Coles, which is closest to my own feelings on the matter. This review allows for a period of ‘stability’ in the funding system, but we have stabilised at far too low a level and left the greatest threat to long term planning in place – the Chief Executive of STFC, the former head of PPARC and the apparent future head of the space agency Keith Mason. If we end up in the situation where he is left to preside over yet another crisis just because the illusion of stability means the imperative for action seems to recede, he won’t suffer from the past problems – the politicians will see him as not only a ‘survivor’, but they will believe he has the tentative support of the research community that failed to get his head – he will prosper and be listened to in the future. Chief executives are never removed in hindsight and a lack of action from the heads of the research community now will suggest yet again that they are happy with their lot. It happened with Solar Terrestrial Physics before the savage cuts three years ago that severely damaged the field. If you don’t fight for your field and remind the research council that it is there to reflect the research community, not vice versa, then you might as well throw in the towel now.

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