Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 14

Submission from Dr Ian Corbett

  Your Committee will have received many letters on this topic. However, the subject is so serious and so urgent that I hope that one more, from a slightly different perspective, may be justified.

  Until I retired in 2001 I was Deputy Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council. Prior to that I was Head of Astronomy and Particle Physics at the Science and Engineering Research Council. From 2001 to the end of 2006 I was Deputy Director General of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (ESO). I am therefore very familiar with the Comprehensive Spending Review process, and the preparation of research council business (or delivery) plans. Perhaps more importantly, having spent much of the last 20 years establishing international collaborations to the benefit of UK science, I know how vital the UK contribution is to astronomy and particle physics on the world scene, and how important it is to be perceived as a reliable and productive partner.

  From the material in the public domain it is possible to deconstruct the CSR allocation to STFC. I can confirm that the statements made by the Council about its financial situation and the consequences of the actions set out in its Delivery Plan are correct. The shortfall of £80 million is a reality, and the consequential wasted investment through cuts in the science programme, closure of facilities, and redundancies are inevitable. Enormous damage to our scientific output and international credibility will follow. All this has been very well aired and is, for example, set out in the IOP/RAS submission to your committee.

  I find it hard to believe that a government that has consistently given generous support to science should have knowingly adopted a policy with such dire consequences. Yet it is clear from material now in the public domain that officials at DIUS were properly briefed by STFC between March and July on the consequences of various hypothetical funding scenarios, including flat cash, and that the current situation was accurately predicted. It is not clear, given these inputs, how DIUS arrived at the actual CSR allocation.

  This is a short term situation with enormous long term repercussions. The lasting national and international damage to UK physics that will result from the STFC Delivery Plan requires prompt action if the situation is to be retrieved. It would appear that STFC needs an immediate increase of "near cash" (not a loan, which just postpones the inevitable), to enable it to stabilise its programme before moving on to consult its principle stakeholders, reassure its overseas collaborators, and prepare a balanced input to the Wakeham review. Other measures which would help have been suggested by many different people: they all merit serious examination.

  I believe that your Committee has the standing and authority to convince the government to recognise this as an extremely serious problem for UK science, nationally and internationally. I hope you will be able to make recommendations for its urgent resolution before irreparable damage is done to an area of science in which the UK excels. I very much look forward to reading your Committee's report, and the government's response.

January 2008

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