The latest act in the black comedy which is the running of the Science and Technology Funding Council is being played out. The Science Minister, Lord Drayson (which sounds, with “science”, “minister” and “lord” all in one title, to my US ears more like a character from bad science fiction than an actual member of the Government) has announced “new arrangements” for STFC (press-release version here or here) . Basically, the government will try to insulate grant funding from two big sources of uncertainty. First, BIS would [attempt to] protect STFC from fluctuations in international currency rates which impact the cost in pounds sterling of being a member of international organizations like CERN, ESO and ESA (although the latter would eventually be moved into the nascent UK Space Agency). Second, the costs of running “our large domestic facilities, Diamond, the Central Laser Facility and ISIS” would be separated from the grants — the money for doing physics. This is crucial since these facilities actually don’t themselves do very much physics at all — rather, they use physics to probe the properties of matter in order to do biology, materials science, chemistry and more. So we physicists shouldn’t be saddled with the costs of running these machines.
Alas, these changes, although positive, may be too little, too late, despite the cliché. The amount of money available for grants still seems to remain significantly below the level of a few years ago. There may be perfectly reasonable arguments for decreasing the amount of physics being done in the UK, but we have not had them. Rather, this entire process began with the creation of the STFC, before the financial crisis, with what seemed at the time to be a toxic combination of mistakes and mismanagement. Since then, we’ve been fire-fighting, dealing with sharp cuts without being told about the long-term financial strategy. There have been several “consultation exercises” and “programmatic reviews” but in the curious we-don’t-talk-about-money way that seems to pervade the UK, the community was never really given enough financial information (which, as far as I can tell, should be absolutely all of it) to give truly useful input. Instead, the community just gives “peer review” of the science, but all of the real decisions are made by the so-called Executive — whom, in so doing, have utterly and completely lost the confidence of their community. Indeed, today’s changes, welcome though they may be, seem to have come not because of the Executive, but despite them.
[As usual, Paul Crowther is the best clearinghouse of information; Peter Coles has already weighed in with similar sentiments; and Roger Highfield of New Scientist takes a slightly more positive view, as does the BBC.]