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

Annex 1

January 14, 2008

The Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, PC, MP Prime Minister

10 Downing Street

London, SW1A 2AA

United Kingdom


  Dear Prime Minister

  I write to you expressing my grave concern over long-term irreparable damage to UK's premier international position in fundamental science, potentially resulting from the Delivery Plan of STFC as it is currently conceived and planned for implementation. This plan, in my considered opinion, has not been subject to the necessary critical scrutiny and review that is due. It has the consequence of significantly eroding the foundation of higher education in UK, its unique advanced skills base and its credibility as an international partner. As a scientist, professor and scientific leader who recently migrated to the UK after more than three decades of a productive career in the world-class university and national laboratory system in the USA, I was attracted by the rising eminence, scientific prowess and credibility of the science and its administration in the UK. Today, in self-introspection, I refuse to negate all the positive forces that brought me to the UK, but cannot help but seriously begin to question the integrity in UK science administration in one particular sector that I am close to.

  The STFC's discretion in the decision making process and determining its own priorities can only be left unchallenged within boundaries of reasonable and proportional deviations in response to expected modest financial hardships. As the editorial, "A policy of drift, British Physics faces an unnecessary squeeze" in the 20-27 December 2007 issue of the international journal Nature points out on page 1127,

    Researchers in most countries in most parts of the world, have to tighten their belts from time to time. But these reductions are more drastic and sudden than any arm of a competently managed research agency should have to bear"!

  The competency or lack thereof can be considered in various ways: understanding, articulating and advocating one's business needs to the government, to peers and to the workforce; establishment and practice of a due process of communication to, and of participation by, the community; and finally a properly informed and intelligent decision making process following a critical analysis and scrutiny by peers. I will analyse these factors in turn below.

  The present STFC Delivery Plan calls for: up to 500 job losses in the short span of a year or two at best in the skilled science and engineering sector at the two national laboratories of unparalleled international reputation—Daresbury and Rutherford Appleton; a 25% reduction in the university grants in areas of particle physics and astronomy where UK occupies the front row seat globally among nations; elimination of certain national and international projects without peer review or with severely defective and questionable ones at best; and reduction of university programs in higher education in physical sciences and associated knowledge-based economy. The current situation is supposedly a result of implementation of Full Economic Cost (FEC) practice and bearing the operating costs of large scientific facilities. These allegedly add up to a £80 million deficit in expenses over a three year period relative to the STFC allocated near-cash budget by the government, increasing by only 8% over three years at the level of inflation only, by far the lowest of any other research councils, including Arts and Humanities (at 12%), according to information gathered by the community via the Freedom of Information Act.

  Observation: the FEC process was known for some time to be properly accounted for and applied to all government funded programs. The operating costs of large facilities are high but expectedly so and not a surprise—they have been anticipated at the required levels and noted as such for several years.

  Implication: The management of the newly merged STFC had inadequate understanding of its Business needs. If this is false, then either STFC was not capable of articulating these needs to the government or deliberately did not consider it essential to advocate its needs to the government, peers and community.

  On the face of this financial mismatch of the business needs and the allocated funds, STFC faced a challenge. Nobody in the community and even in the upper echelons of management was aware of this challenge until very late in calendar year 2007, when it was rumoured to be discussed in a confidential meeting of the STFC Science Council, which supposedly was about to review a Delivery Plan developed to meet this challenge.

  Observation: STFC management did not communicate with the community or the government the resulting challenges they faced and developed its own priorities and plans to address the financial shortfall confidentially amongst its selective top management with information embargo in place.

  Implication: STFC management did not believe in communication with its staff and community. STFC management did not trust the community in developing, in partnership an appropriate plan in response to the challenge.

  The resulting Delivery Plan—as developed by STFC senior management in a totally "opaque" fashion without application of due process in taking intelligence-based informed decisions and lack of subsequent communication to and ownership by the community—has resulted in what, by all measures, is a grossly disproportionate balance of priorities, calling for devastating loss of skills and human resources which are the foundation of UK's scientific and technological pre-eminence and economy. Such dire consequences as above, incommensurate with the alleged shortfall over three years, can not be considered or accepted as part of any reasonable and respectful review process and can only point to fundamental deficiencies in responsible science administration. There have been three so-called programmatic review processes to my knowledge in STFC: one in connection with the future Light Sources in UK; one in connection with Particle Physics; and one in connection with Accelerator Science R&D. In all cases, there were no consultations, for the sake of full ownership, with the community about the nature and selection of the reviewers and no sharing of the resulting deliberations before the review recommendations were declared final. In many cases, there was fundamental scientific conflict between the reviewers and the reviewed, thus compromising the integrity of the review. The qualifications and stature of the reviewers often did not match the qualifications and stature of the reviewed. The association of the term international peer review' to any one of these reviews is a serious caricature of this honourable practice that has withstood the tests of time worldwide in assuring the very best in generating scientifically honest judgments with integrity. These are serious enough to call the entire enterprise into question as far as its integrity in scientific honesty and leadership is concerned.

  Observation: STFC management does not have a grasp of its own portfolio to the point that either it cannot judge for itself when it needs to seek counsel from peers and community or has fundamental disrespect for the process of peer reviews and pays only lip service to it.

  Implication: The STFC management has lost the trust of the community in having the wisdom in and respect for the field they serve and in their intellectual and managerial capacity to administer the portfolio under STFC remit.

  The consequences of implementing such grossly ill-considered Delivery Plan are so significant and devastating for all UK science that they cannot possibly have been subject to any meaningful and well-advised peer review. UK scientists now have lost their confidence to a large measure in the current STFC management's ability to administer UK physical sciences under its remit, given their inability to constructively engage and appreciate the consequential damage to the field. The STFC is no longer able to determine their priorities, based on their best assessment of the science. If STFC has been merely following the instructions of DIUS all along, on the other hand, then the community needs to hear urgently that this was the original intention and design of the government.

  I, as a newly inducted scientist and scientific leader in the UK, am grossly disappointed at this state of severe mismanagement of science. I however refuse to believe this to be typical of what I have come to know and respect over years in the UK as the science enterprise of the highest calibre and integrity in the world. I request that, despite your other busy engagements, you give this matter the highest consideration it deserves and bring back the dignity, integrity and fairness that the situation deserves for the sake of UK's pre-eminence in the field and preservation of its foundational base that brought me to the UK in the first place.

  Respectfully and sincerely yours,

  Swapan Chattopadhyay

Copies to:

The Rt Hon John Denham, PC, MP, Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills Dr. Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State, Science and Innovation
Mr. Mike Hall MP, Weaver Vale
Mrs. Louise ElIman MP, Liverpool Riverside
Mr. Phil Willis MP, Chair, House of Commons Select Committee for Innovation, Universities and Skills
Professor Drummond Bone, Vice-Chancellor, The University of Liverpool
Professor Alan Gilbert, President and Vice-Chancellor, The University of Manchester Professor Paul Welling, Vice-Chancellor, Lancaster University
Dr. Mike Dexter FRS, Chair of the Board, Cockcroft Institute
Prof. John B. Dainton FRS, Sir James Chadwick Chair of Physics, The University of Liverpool Sir Martin Rees FRS, President of the Royal Society

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Prepared 30 April 2008