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

Memorandum 21

Submission from Danny Steeghs, Department of Physics, University of Warwick

  I write to you in response to the recent developments concerning the Science and Technology Facilities Council and its alarming delivery plan for the next three years. I recently had the privilege to take part in the Royal Society MP pairing scheme and attended several committee activities during my week in Westminster. I was impressed with the crucial and active roles of the various select committees. I would like to thank the IUS committee members for their efforts in general and very much appreciate your attention to my letter.

  I am a young astrophysicist that returned to the UK earlier this year, moving from a research position in the USA at Harvard to a staff position at the University of Warwick, with support from a STFC advanced research fellowship. My return was partly motivated by the strong tradition for fundamental research in the UK and the political support behind science and education. However, in the last few weeks a rather disturbing picture has emerged concerning funding for astronomy and related fields within the STFC remit.

  The move of the PPARC portfolio wholly within the new STFC council did raise considerable concern and uncertainty within the community from the very beginning because of the likelihood of both planned and unplanned disruptions to the UK research roadmap given the focus on facilities in both name and central aims of the new council. Indeed, the House of Commons Science & Technology committee in its 2005-06 Office of Science and Innovation scrutiny report raised some very pertinent points. Quoting from that report; "There were concerns that the STFC would be hampered by CCLRC liabilities, but we have been assured by the Minister of Science that these will not be transferred to the STFC". The report also mentions the risk that ".. .funding may be diverted from grants to support facilities management and that Universities could also be disadvantaged . . . "and that " . . . there could be tension within the STFC between fundingfor large facilities and funding for basic science..". At the time assurances were given by the government and STFC executives that this would not happen. Finally, the report mentioned that " . . . we were concerned at the lack of consultation within the research community . . . even with key players.. "and the committee recommended that "the funding for the STFC from the CSR round be an increase over the combined existing budgets in order that it can achieve its potential."

  I believe that the outcome of the recent CSR and the delivery plan released by STFC in response to it imply dire consequences that are in conflict with the various assurances that were given to the POST committee when STFC was formed. Indeed, the picture that has emerged can only be described as bleak, with outright withdrawals from key facilities and a substantial cut in the grants line. While some sub-disciplines seem to have suffered more than others, and it does appear to be that the PPARC science is particularly hit, the delivery plan has detrimental effects across the board. I believe that the delivery plan will have disastrous consequences for a large variety of research groups and university departments across the UK, with the international reputation to follow shortly thereafter. While the plan itself does not present hard figures, STFC has indicated that the cut to the grants line will be at least 25%.

  Many physics departments obtain a substantial fraction of their funds through STFC grants, and this is even more crucial with the move of the full economic cost contribution to the RCs. The substantial and disruptive changes in the grants line as laid out in the delivery plan will not only affect the research undertaken at these departments but also undercuts the funding of subjects that have been very important in boosting undergraduate recruitment numbers for the physical sciences. While it is important to pursue research with a direct economic impact, we cannot ignore the fact that such economic impact is only possible with a viable infrastructure for basic research and an attractive research portfolio at university department to ensure that we can attract teenagers to cornerstone disciplines such as physics. The current situation is clearly inconsistent with the government's pledge to boost education and science nor should the detrimental economic impact of drastic changes to basic research grant support be overlooked.

  It is clear that STFC's budget is not sufficient for it to pursue its planned and expected activities. Secondly, the delivery plan that was released as an attempt to meet the significant holes in its budget proposes disruptive and detrimental measures that could set back the UK community by decades and involved little to no community consultation.

  I would like to urge the committee to scrutinize these issues in detail and hope that some of the information in this letter will be useful to you. I believe I speak on behalf of a large community and have yet to find a single colleague who is not dismayed by these recent developments.

December 2007

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 30 April 2008