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

Memorandum 36

Submission from Professor Stan Cowley, Head, Radio and Space Plasma Physics Group, Professor Mark Lester, Dr Steve Milan, Professor Terry Robinson, Dr Darren Wright and Professor Tim Yeoman, University of Leicester


  After listening to the evidence presented by Professor Keith Mason to the above committee under your chairmanship on 27 February, we feel obliged to write to you concerning some statements that may have been misleading. These concern the treatment of ground-based solar-terrestrial physics (GB-STP) facilities in the UK both by the STFC and its predecessor body the PPARC. Our first-hand knowledge of this matter arises from the fact that the Radio & Space Plasma Physics group at the University of Leicester, of which we are members, is the largest university group in the UK involved in these studies, such that we have been centrally involved throughout.

  Contrary to a statement given in evidence by Professor Mason, the attack on our field began almost immediately after his appointment as Chief Executive of the PPARC in summer 2005. Without representation of our broad community within the PPARC senior policy-making structures, the outcome of the 2005-06 Programmatic Review announced in March 2006 was the closure of some GB-STP facilities, including the CUTLASS & SPEAR radars operated from Leicester, as well as facilities operated by the Lancaster University and the RAL. We at Leicester were astonished by these decisions given the continuing high scientific productivity of CUTLASS, and the fact that the £2 million SPEAR system had only just been commissioned after ten years of planning. In fact we received PPARC's "notice to quit" the same week that SPEAR's first results were published.

  This still left a substantial UK GB-STP programme centred around the international EISCAT facility, however, such that Professor Mason's oft-repeated statement that the decision to pull out of GB-STP "was made two years ago" is significantly misleading, unless he was perhaps talking about a decision he had formed in his own mind. However, the restricted decisions that were made two years ago have now been parlayed up within the December 2007 STFC Delivery Plan to a withdrawal from all GB-STP, without recourse to acceptable peer review and without consultation with the relevant community. Indeed, since that time follow-on grant applications made in good faith in summer 2007 by GB-STP research groups at Lancaster, University College London, and Southampton were all announced as unfunded in February 2008. While the plan outlined to the committee by Prof Holdaway to form a broader funding consortium for UK STP is to be welcomed, we are very much concerned lest his view that this would occur "just about" in time to effect a rescue before terminal damage has been inflicted proves to be over-optimistic. In any case, given his track record over the past two and a half years, we are less than trustful of Professor Mason's assurance of a "sympathetic hearing" for such a proposal once he is released from public scrutiny.

March 2008

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