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
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.