Submission from the Magnetosphere, Ionosphere
and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) Council on behalf of the MIST Science
1. Prof. Keith Mason, chief-executive of
STFC and Prof. Ian Diamond, chair of RCUK gave oral evidence to
the Committee on 21 January 2008. This memorandum highlights a
number of inaccurate or puzzling statements made by those witnesses
which we feel merit further consideration by the Committee. The
major point of contention is that contrary to the evidence given
by Prof. Keith Mason the decision to withdraw support for all
ground-based STP facilities was not made by PPARC. The PPARC programmatic
review applied only to certain STP national facilities and stated
that it would "maintain a capacity in ground-based STP".
2. The quotations used below are taken from
the uncorrected transcript of the 21 January meeting and the appropriate
question is indicated at the start of each relevant paragraph.
Relevant portions of testimony are appended at the end of the
document. The manner in which STFC does business under the current
management (and PPARC before) prompted the MIST community to take
the unprecedented step of passing a vote of no-confidence in the
"financial, administrative, decision-making and communication
arrangements within the STFC as presently implemented". We
enclose a copy of these resolutions and the recent statement from
the Royal Astronomical Society, which expresses a lack of confidence
in STFC's handling of the funding crisis. The latter has been
fully supported in an email to the CEO of STFC from the Particle
Physics action group.
Who is MIST?
MIST is an informal community of UK-based scientists
with interests in physical processes within the Sun-Earth system
and other planets. This includes studies of the mesosphere, ionosphere,
thermosphere and magnetosphere of Earth and of other planets and
the solar wind. The role of MIST is to help promote these interests
to the public, wider scientific community and other stakeholders
as well as provide a platform for scientists to present their
work to the rest of the UK community. MIST is currently represented
by a council formed of five elected members.
Commentary on answers to questions
3. Q141: Prof.
Mason replied that "that decision [to cut ground-based solar-terrestrial
facilities] was actually made by PPARC". This is not true.
PPARC did not decide to close down all ground-based solar-terrestrial
physics facilities. As a result of the 2005 Programmatic Review,
that they would: "withdraw earlier from . . . a number of
Solar Terrestrial physics facilities (SAMNET, CUTLASS, IONOSONDES,
SPEAR)" but that they would: "maintain a capacity in
ground-based solar terrestrial physics."
4. In particular it did not include the
international EISCAT facility from which STFC is now seeking to
withdraw. Indeed, in PPARC's Delivery Plan (updated after the
Programmatic Review) it says: "The current EISCAT agreement
ends in December 2006 and the UK has recently agreed to continue
participation until 2011". In addition the UK STP community
operates a number of smaller facilities through the grants line
and is concerned that misleading statements from STFC will (and
in some cases already has) influence the assessment procedure.
5. Prof. Mason also demonstrates the very
opacity of decision-making within STFC (and PPARC, under his leadership)
about which the scientific community are complaining when he says
that he "will not go into" the reasons why STP facilities
"came low down on the list". When the research council
will not reveal the criteria on which projects are judged, how
can scientists make the case for funding? MIST council has made
a freedom of information request to obtain any and all documents
related to the STFC decision to cut STP since we have little in
the way of explanation over this devastating decision.
6. Q143: Prof.
Mason's response to this question highlights two issues: He says
that "communications and climate change were not part of
PPARC's remit". This may be true, but this simply demonstrates
that STP was inappropriately positioned within PPARC and would
be better off funded by a research council which recognises the
value of its applications. Ironically, such applications are
in STFC's remit making the decision to withdraw from ground-based
STP all the more puzzling. (see also Prof. Mason's answer to Q124).
7. Prof. Mason says that "we are talking
about . . . international subscriptions in many of these cases".
This is not true. The only ground-based STP facility which
involves an international subscription is EISCAT. As noted above,
PPARC did not decide to withdraw from it. Whereas other facilities
(eg CUTLASS) were part of international partnerships (eg SuperDARN)
this did not involve extra monetary commitment from STFC as implied
by Prof. Mason. Instead these agreements are added-value bonuses
to the operation of these instruments that facilitate international
collaboration and buy-in to suites of instruments that bolster
UK science, with no additional cash input from STFC beyond the
operation of the UK facility. Consequently, withdrawal from the
named facilities only saves the small operating costs (~750,000
per year) but brings considerable damage to our international
8. Q80: Prof.
Mason describes the £10 or £20 million as a "minor
variance". Compared to the £80 million hole in STFC's
budget and the effect this will have on grants, this is hardly
minor. £10 million could support ground-based solar terrestrial
physics at current levels for about five years.
9. Q78: Prof.
Mason remarked that "I think we do consultation extremely
well in STFC; . . . it does involve the community". STFC
simply does not have the advisory structure in place to consult
its community. There is no input from below the levels of PPAN
and PALS. Those committees are small and therefore cannot adequately
represent the breadth of science that STFC supports. As chief
executive, it is Prof. Mason who is responsible for ensuring that
an adequate structure is in place.
10. It would also be interesting to know
to what extent DIUS required discussion to be kept "under
wraps". Would this really have prevented consultation? The
recent statement from the RAS says "The requirement of confidentiality
for members of Council, the Science Board, and PPAN and PALS,
goes far beyond any legal requirements". Surely once the
allocations were decided, they could have been made public immediately,
allowing the research councils to discuss with the community how
to prioritize spending.
11. Q121: It
seems strange that Prof. Mason says that STFC is withdrawing from
international commitments which are "minor in monetary terms".
Surely it would make more sense to withdraw from those which are
minor in science terms? Otherwise one saves little money
whilst impacting a lot of research.
12. Q132: Prof.
Diamond remarked that "there are a number of research councils,
for example EPSRC, who have things called discipline hopping grants
which enable people to retrain". This is certainly true in
the case of EPSRC ("Postdoctoral Mobility" grants),
but this particular scheme is only available to post-doctoral
researchers already funded by EPSRC. It is therefore of no comfort
to those who will be made redundant from STFC-funded projects.
The only somewhat similar scheme that the STFC has is the aurora
fellowship, which allows STFC scientists to move into planetary
science (still within STFC); only three places were available
in the current round.
13. Recommendation: if RCUK
is serious about "discipline hopping", it should ensure
that all research councils have schemes in place to allow discipline
hopping to take place between all research councils.
14. These resolutions were voted on and
passed at the MIST business meeting on 21 January 2008. Copies
of these resolutions were sent by hard copy to Secretary of State
John Denham MP, Prof. Ian Diamond, Prof. Keith Mason, Prof. Sir
Keith O'Nions, Ian Pearson MP, Prof. Richard Wade and Peter Warry.
There has been no response so far.
15. Resolution 1 Statement:
Contrary to prior reassurances, the structure and operation
of the newly-formed STFC has resulted in grant funding for research
being subject to the vagaries of variations in major international
subscriptions and in the operating budgets of large facilities,
largely unrelated to the STFC grant-supported research programme.
The MIST community believes that these arrangements are
disastrous for all the grant-supported research communities that
the STFC serves, in particular having substantial negative impact
on HEI Physics Departments throughout the UK both immediately
and in the long-term. While participation in international
programmes and the provision of cutting-edge facilities are essential,
it is equally important to ensure the health of the grant-supported
research communities, including young scientists, who scientifically
exploit these investments.
16. Action Requested: Rapid
steps must be taken to implement new administrative arrangements
that ensure stable ring-fenced grant funding, preferably by transferring
grant-awarding activities to another body.
17. Resolution 2 Statement:
The MIST community is deeply concerned about the lack
of transparency in recent decision-making within the STFC, the
lack of appropriate domain knowledge within its policy-forming
structures, and the lack of consultation and discussion with the
community. We are particularly exercised about the process, basis,
and rationale through which the decision was taken to "cease
all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities".
This decision appears perverse in view of the existing, and future
potential for, high-impact world class research in this area,
the contribution to the motivation and training of young scientists,
and the immediate connection to knowledge exchange and economic
impact, all of which are directly aligned with the government's
vision for the mission of the STFC.
18. Actions Requested: As
a first step we request publication of all procedures, criteria,
metrics, performance indicators and rankings that were developed
in the steps leading up to and during the key research council
reviews that led to the decisions announced in the December 2007
Delivery Plan. This request includes reviews of predecessor bodies
cited as pertinent by STFC, notably the last PPARC programmatic
review. Furthermore, we request the timely publication of the
STFC science strategy and evaluation criteria and metrics for
future grant application rounds, including the forthcoming round
in June 2008. We also support the calls by the Institute of Physics,
the Royal Astronomical Society, and the Particle Physics community
for a moratorium on implementation of the STFC Delivery Plan until
the Wakeham Review of Physics has been conducted and its conclusions
reported, and we call on DIUS to find the modest funding needed
to allow this to happen.
19. Resolution 3 Statement:
In view of the above considerations the MIST community
wishes to express no confidence in the financial, administrative,
decision-making, and communication arrangements within the STFC
as presently implemented. These are inadequate to provide appropriate
future stewardship of our research discipline to the scientific,
cultural, and economic benefit of the UK, and inadequate for the
training of young scientists, which is of clear benefit to physics
in the UK.
20. Actions Requested: We
request a change of the structures, and individuals in the STFC
council, responsible for the current failure.
21. Mindful of very strong feelings in the
entire astronomical community, RAS Council expresses a lack of
confidence in STFC's handling of the current funding crisis:
22. In its actions since it was formed,
STFC has failed to pay sufficient attention to the part of its
mission associated with the delivery of first class science in
astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics.
23. In making its bid to CSR2007, little
emphasis was placed on the importance of these areas for UK science
and for UK physics in particular. The DIUS does not seem to have
been made sufficiently aware of the potential damage to the UK's
international science reputation and to UK Physics departments,
despite the fact that the Government has made Physics a high-priority
in its long-term economic policy. Astronomy and space science
play a key role in attracting school-children to science and in
drawing university students into physics and there is immense
benefit to the UK economy of our skilled Physics graduates. There
is now a real danger that the recent improvement in Physics enrolment
will be reversed
24. The STFC's Delivery Plan pays lip-service
to the need to foster the UK academic community, who play the
key role in delivery of all of STFC's outputsfirst class
science, facility design and usage, and knowledge exchange, but
has shown no evidence in its public statements or actions that
it recognizes this duty. The 25% decline in grants across the
CSR period, with no sign of any intention or even desire to level
this out in later years, has filled the community with deep pessimism
STFC has failed miserably to communicate with
the community. The experience of the community prior to the formation
of STFC has been good communication and a sense of engagement
25. STFC claims that its Delivery Plan has
been and is being arrived at through a process of Peer Review.
Unfortunately, despite no doubt very hard work of those involved
in this process on PPAN, PALS and Science Board, the community
has no confidence in this process and is unlikely to accept the
outcome as fair. It was a catastrophic error not to set up an
advisory structure below PPAN. The requirement of confidentiality
for members of Council, the Science Board, and PPAN and PALS,
goes far beyond any legal requirements.
26. STFC needs to develop with the community
a clear science strategy, so that both the community and those
on STFC panels can make operational decisions with precision and
27. In dealings with international partners,
STFC needs to take advantage of the contacts and diplomatic skills
of members of the community. A take-it-or-leave-it approach to
an international partnership will never succeed.
Relevant Questions from the uncorrected transcript
of oral evidence
28. Q78 Chairman: You
have two committees set up with your new organisation at STFC
and you are saying to the members of those committees that you
cannot even speak to your community. That is not consultation,
that is something we would find in Russia.
29. Professor Mason: I disagree. Firstly
I think we do consultation extremely well in STFC; I am very proud
of the peer review system that we have set up, it is very effective,
it does involve the community, it involves people who are able
to look across the whole programme and I think it is a very good
system. However, the period of time we are talking about is essentially
a period where all the research councils are making bids to DIUS
for funding and one of the reasons for so-called secrecyor
at least keeping this under wrapsis that it was a negotiating
situation and I think to ensure a level playing field DIUS quite
rightly insisted that these negotiations be taken under wraps
because otherwise one would have had lobbying from all sorts of
corners of the scientific community which would not have been
necessarily helpful to a proper outcome.
30. Q80 Chairman: To
stop you there, two years ago you had a £10 million overrun
on Diamond; last year it was a £20 million overrun on it;
you have suddenly been presented with a £10.5 million bill
for VAT on it. Are you saying that all those were planned deficits?
31. Professor Mason: Forgive me for not
having these numbers immediately to mind, but in terms of the
capital phase of Diamond it was essentially on budget and on time
with a minor variance.
32. Q121 Mr Boswell: My
next question is something I asked our earlier witnesses about
reputation more generally, but specifically about international
subscriptions. If we are pulling out of international subscriptions
is this going to be damaging to our reputation internationally
in a way which will make us difficult to be partners in the future?
33. Professor Mason: It is part of our strategy
to protect the major international subscriptions and we do that
because we have a long term commitment to them and they are extremely
valuable to the country, not only in terms of science but also
in other ways and we are protecting them. We are withdrawing from
a couple of relatively minor commitmentsminor in monetary
termsbut what I look for in international partners for
is me is people who tell it as it is. We are being straight with
our international partners. We have notified them of our intention
to try to negotiate a withdrawal from the Gemini programme. We
have told them that we do not believe that the current strategy
for the ILC is the correct one and we cannot participate in that.
We are being very upfront and very direct. What would be unfortunate
in terms of international reputation is if we try and pull the
wool over people's eyes and not tell it as it is. Quite the contrary,
we are telling it exactly as it is.
34. Q124 Dr Blackman-Woods:
You are more or less not agreeing with them is, I think, what
you are saying. Can you tell us a bit more about how the decisions
were made regarding which programmes to cut? I am totally confused
about whether there was consultation or whether there was not
consultation because we have had different answers today. I think
you need to say something more about that.
35. Professor Mason: I will be very happy
to. If you analyse our Delivery Plan in terms of decisions, we
made two and a half decisions, to put it very bluntly. Those were
strategic decisions. We made a strategic decision to withdraw
from Gemini; we made a strategic decision to withdraw from ILC.
These were not ill-considered decisions made overnight; these
were based on advice that we got from our science community over
the last year in terms of relative priorities and the fact that
we cannot do everything. The half decision was in relation to
STP ground-based facilities which was actually a decision that
we made at the last spending review but we are confirming this
time because clearly within a shrinking budget we could not restore
the cuts that we needed to make at the last review. All the other
decisions, as I said, are being handled through this £40
million headroom process where we have peer review committees
sitting down, as we speak, drawing up a priority list for using
that money, so they are fully involved.
36. Q132 Dr Harris: On
this question of the health of physics before we leave it, you
said there would be plenty of jobs for physicists because physics
is funded by other means, but do you understand what the implications
are for people who progress down a career in a certain area of
physics? It is not somethingas I understand it and this
probably applies in other disciplines as wellthat you can
switch out of, from astrophysics into biophysics. Can I suggest
to you that if you accept that, if you were going to make a strategic
change in the way you wanted to put your investmentas you
might be entitled to do based on good science and evidenceyou
would want to have a lead-in time so that you did not lure people
into PhDs when there were no post-doc jobs available after that
in that field and have specialists stuck in a post-doctoral area
with nowhere to go. Do you accept that that would be a good way
of doing strategic re-prioritisation?
37. Professor Mason: I do not accept your
statement. I think there are many instancesone was quoted
by a previous witnessof people who have very successfully
changed fields. I think that is one of the beauties and one of
the strengths of inter-disciplinary research, that we need to
encourage people to branch out and think beyond their own narrow
disciplines and how they can apply their skills more widely.
38. Professor Diamond: There are a number
of research councils, for example EPSRC, who have things called
discipline hopping grants which enable people to retrain. It happens
an awful lot. One of the things also is that many particle physicists
have found careers in the city, not doing particle physics but
using their skills to be able to apply them in particular areas.
People are prepared to re-train in those arenas. I think it is
the case that re-training is part of a career in some instances.
39. Q141 Dr Harris: Let
us take solar terrestrial physics because that is quite a wide
field with a lot of things in that and you are going to cease
all funding for ground-based work. That is one way of saying that
you are taking one subject and you are not going to fund of it.
An alternative way might be to fund just the best science here.
Is it consistent with a philosophy of funding the best science
to say that you are going to cease all funding for a particular
40. Professor Mason: As I said that decision
was actually made by PPARC at the last spending review based on
a programmatic review that ranked all the activities that PPARC
funded. For reasons which I will not go into that particular area
came low down on the list.
41. Q143 Dr Harris: So
it is either lower quality or lower priority. I accept you can
set your priorities in quality areas, but it begs the question
why something like solar terrestrial physicswhich is relevant
to subjects like satellite communications and climate changeis
seen as a lower priority than the formation of galaxies. I do
not dismiss the formation of galaxies as being fascinating but
one could say, in terms of what you are asked to do, surely communication
systems and climate change should be a priority and therefore
it must be a quality issue.
42. Professor Mason: To be fair communications
and climate change were not part of PPARC's remit. The priority
of these facilitieswe are talking about funding again with
international subscriptions in many of these caseswas judged
to be down the priority of what PPARC needed to do.
44 "News from Council", March 2006: http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Nw/Council0306.asp Back