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

Memorandum 24

Submission from the Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) Council on behalf of the MIST Science Community


Executive Summary

  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, PPARC announced[44] 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 reputation.

  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.

MIST resolutions

  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.

RAS statement

  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 outputs—first 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 and anger.

  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 in decisions.

  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 clarity.

  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 secrecy—or at least keeping this under wraps—is 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 commitments—minor in monetary terms—but 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 something—as I understand it and this probably applies in other disciplines as well—that 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 investment—as you might be entitled to do based on good science and evidence—you 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 instances—one was quoted by a previous witness—of 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 area?

  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 physics—which is relevant to subjects like satellite communications and climate change—is 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 facilities—we are talking about funding again with international subscriptions in many of these cases—was judged to be down the priority of what PPARC needed to do.

February 2008

44   "News from Council", March 2006: Back

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