Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Professor George Efstathious, Director, Kavli Institute for Cosmology, University of Cambridge (APP 03)

[1] I am a Professor of Astrophysics at Cambridge University and a Fellow of the Royal Society. I was a member of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Council between 2000-2004. I am in receipt of STFC and UK Space Agency research grants.

[2] In this short submission, I wish to concentrate on your question (3), in particular the engagement of the Executive and the Chief Executive Officer with the academic community. I will also express concerns about the composition and role of STFC Council.

[3] There is little doubt that the academic community has lost confidence in the CEO of STFC. Last year, I coordinated a petition with several other senior academics calling for Professor Keith Mason’s resignation. The petition was initiated on 24th February 2010 and closed on the 1st March 2010. We did not publicise the petition on blogs or web mail forums, nor did we lobby petitioners. Yet in that short time interval the petition was signed by 916 researchers, including 18 Fellows of the Royal Society and 162 University Professors. This represents about half the university-based academic community in Particle Physics, Nuclear Physics and Astronomy in the UK. I believe that many more would have signed had we publicised the petition. The petition was submitted to the Chair of STFC, Michael Sterling, in July 2010.

[4] There are many reasons behind the loss of confidence expressed in the petition. STFC has had two major science prioritisation exercises in its short lifetime (with variable levels of consultation). These have led to a drastic reduction in the breadth of research in Astronomy, Particle and Nuclear Physics, the closure or withdrawal from many facilities and projects, and has left these subjects particularly poorly placed to absorb further cuts. The widespread view in the academic community is that the research programmes in these subjects is now dangerously narrow (and considerably narrower than in major European countries). There was, therefore, little confidence in allowing the CEO to lead a CSR bid on behalf of STFC. Within the astronomy community, there has been dissatisfaction with the way that STFC has handled relations with international organisations, in particular, Gemini and the European Southern Observatory. In 2008, STFC announced an intention to withdraw from Gemini, without any consultation with the academic community at all. This was presented aggressively to the Gemini Board by STFC and led to the temporary expulsion of the UK from the Gemini consortium (disrupting science programmes). The legal disputes between STFC and both Gemini and ESO have damaged the UK's reputation as a partner in major international collaborations.

[5] I am particularly concerned about the composition of STFC Council and the impact that this has had on the governance of STFC. Since it was created, STFC has had many fewer senior academics than the other Research Councils. This was flagged as a major issue in the 2008 Science and Technology Select Committee Report and by the Wakeham Review. I quote from the Wakeham review:

`The Panel was immediately drawn to the different governance structure that exists in STFC in comparison with other Research Councils, notably a reduced Council membership of 10 individuals, four of whom are not university-based academics, and a further three of whom are from the STFC executive. The Panel was told by STFC that this different structure was deliberately selected to deal with the multiple purposes assigned to STFC. The provision and maintenance of large scale facilities for science in the UK and elsewhere, the provision of grant funding for three sub-disciplines of physics and the planning, operation and development of Science and Innovation campuses at Daresbury and Harwell. Its small size was designed by DIUS to make it dynamic and to facilitate regular meetings. However, when compared to other Research Councils, which have Councils made up of approximately 11 to 17 members representing broad scientific interests from the community operating at the highest level, STFC does stand out for the relative lack of members of the scientific community at the highest level. The structure has not best served the community in several branches of science whose input is one level below Council. The Panel therefore recommends that the DIUS should broaden the membership of STFC Council to include more stakeholders in the science activity, and that the balance between executive presence and non-executive oversight should be redressed. It is argued that this adjustment can be made without detracting from the executive activity in developing the Science and Innovation Campuses.

The Panel recommends to DIUS that the membership of STFC's Council be broadened to include more of the stakeholders in the science activity at the highest level, and to redress the balance between executive presence and non-executive oversight.'

and the RCUK response to this recommendation (October 2008):

`DIUS accepts this recommendation. Details of an open competition to recruit two additional scientists as non-executive members of Council (the maximum permitted by STFC's Royal Charter) will be published shortly.'

And from the 2008 Grant/Hazell Organisational Review of STFC:

`22. Governance issues within the Executive seem to be further compounded by evidence of a lack of shared understanding within the top team concerning the role of Council. In our discussions with senior staff from the STFC Executive the perceived role of Council was articulated to the Panel in terms that ranged from the probity and oversight role of a `board of trustees' to the strategic leadership role of a `board of directors'. It is the Panel's view that the role of Council is closest to the latter.'

`23. The Panel also considered the composition of Council, noting that RCUK recently announced that DIUS intends to recruit two additional scientific members to the Council, in response to a recommendation by the RCUK Review of Physics chaired by Professor Bill Wakeham. Notwithstanding this change, the Panel notes that the Council of STFC differs from that of the other Research Councils in having three members of the Executive on Council. The norm for the other Councils is that the Chief Executive is the only member of Council from the Executive. It is the Panel's view that the case for this distinction has not been convincingly made. There is also clear evidence that the composition of Council has created a negative perception outside of STFC that the Executive has excessive influence within Council.'

As a result of these recommendations, two members of the Executive resigned from Council and three University based academics (Professor Martin Barstow, Sir Peter Knight and Professor James

Stirling) were appointed to Council in April 2009.

However, following Professor Sterling's appointment as Chair of STFC, three new members of Council were appointed from the non-academic sector (two of whom have no scientific training). Two further Council vacancies have been advertised, one for somebody with a background in the life-sciences and one with expertise in government and parliamentary process. The advert excludes senior academics in astronomy, nuclear and particle physics.

These appointments will again skew STFC so that it looks highly anomalous compared to other Research Councils. Most of the other Research Councils are dominated by `heavyweight' research scientists with strong international reputations.

I have discussed this issue extensively with Professor Michael Sterling who expressed the view that senior academics in receipt of STFC grants have a conflict of interest and should not sit on Council. (This is certainly consistent with the pattern of appointments since Michael Sterling took over as Chair of STFC).

I have also written to Sir Adrian Smith and have spoken to him personally about the composition of STFC Council. Professor Smith replied that he was satisfied with the composition, which reflected the diverse nature of STFC (facilities, campuses and research). Yet the nature of STFC was clearly known to members of the Wakeham and RCUK reviews.

[6] The process of appointing members of Council lacks transparency. According to Adrian Smith, the membership of Council is entirely a matter for the Council. According to Michael Sterling, the process is controlled by BIS. Research scientists, including science members of Council, have no idea how appointments to STFC are decided.

[7] It is clear to me that the loss of confidence with STFC Executive, and many of the problems to be explored by your committee, are in large part due to governance issues, including the under-representation of senior scientists on Council. Academic members of Council are necessary: (a) to provide technical and scientific expertise; (b) to develop a coherent scientific strategy for STFC; (c) to advise Council on the impact of decisions on these subjects; (d) to challenge the Executive, when appropriate; (e) to retain the confidence of the academic community.

[8] I would be happy to submit supporting documentation.

Professor George Efstathious


Kavli Institute for Cosmology

University of Cambridge

10 February 2011