Mini-STFC Update

20Dec07

Caveat: I have chosen to omit topics that may be sensitive due to the ongoing nature of the STFC funding decision. I’ve also chosen to omit names for this reason. While I have done my best to be as accurate as possible, please note that I am not a journalist and should not be taken as a primary source of information.

The recent annual theory meeting included a townhall meeting focusing on the STFC £80M STFC `Diamond Affair’ (at least that’s what I’m calling it). While I attended the townhall hoping for some answers, what was mostly discussed was clarifying the UK physics community’s current situation and the way forward. It was clear that the physics community is not yet sure about the details of the £80M debacle, but that everyone agreed that an proper investigation was in order.

Unfortunately there was no representative from the STFC to discuss the funding situation, but it was explained that this wasn’t a rebuff since such representatives are busy `putting out more urgent fires.’ A member of the audience suggested instead that the STFC couldn’t send someone since it had to reduce its travelling budget by 25%.

One of the main topics discussed was the breakdown of communication between the STFC management and the Particle Physics Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN), which is an advisory subset of the STFC Science Board. It was reported that PPAN was given a list of items to prioritise in light of funding limitations, but had not yet made formal recommendations when the 11 Dec Delivery Plan was made public.

(A personal comment here: This sounds rather similar to the situation at NASA a year ago, as reported in SC’s post in CV. In fact, I first heard about those recommendations during a chat with Dr Carroll at last year’s Annual Theory Meeting.)

PPAN’s role is purely advisory, and it was unclear to me what effect their recommendations might have. It was mentioned that the list of items presentd to PPAN some time ago still included the Gemini project, which has `gone the way of the ILC’ in the latest Delivery Plan. The emphasis was that there was a breakdown in communication where PPAN’s constituent research communities appear to not have had their fair say in the matter.

Some community members wanted to connect the dots, claiming that the funding debacle and recent merger of PPARC and CCLRC into STFC ‘hardly seems [coincidental].’ Recall that the seperate PPARC and CCLRC research councils were merged into the STFC with the promise that the merger wouldn’t affect the funding levels of either. Now, barely half a year after the STFC was formed, money is being taken out of particle physics because of [apparently] accounting errors with a synchrotron. Is there an agenda to shift the focus of UK science? While not defending the STFC, more knowledgeable community members were quick to snuff out any conspiracy theories, and instead reminded the community to be vigilant in defending funding support.

Perhaps a bit more to the point, they also explained that in the pre-STFC system, PPARC’s liability for the `Diamond Affair’ would have been £30M out of the £80M. This is certainly not pocket change by any measure and would still have been protested, but the difference they emphasised was that this would have been a £30M cut that would have gone through a structure and system with represenation that the PPARC community trusted and believed in. The current situation has cast doubt on the role of peer review in the STFC. In short, `the way business is done’ is being changed.

There was a question whether other UK scientific communities were as upset as the particle physicists, to which one attendee responded that the nuclear physics community (ok, only slightly removed from the particle community) is especially up at arms. Apparently the nuclear community recently left the EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Science) research council for the STFC expecting more stable funding, but the current problems have left researchers `completely up in the air with no guaranteed funding beyond September 2008.’

So where does the community go from here? There isn’t much to be said at the moment about the underlying problems (kinks to be worked out, perhaps) with the current STFC set up. Until a proper investigation is conducted, it won’t be clear where the process broke down. However, some members were sufficiently fed up with the situation that they openly wondered about a `nuclear option’ where the community rejects the delivery plan and proposes a vote of no confidence in the management. I should note that this appeared to be a minority opinion that appeared to be brushed off rather briskly. Though many seemed to agree with the spirit of the idea, there is too much at stake with the projects that are still being funded.

(Personal comment: this sounds a little like `no taxation without represenation,’ which I thought was rather cute since the conference overlapepd with the 234th anniverary of the Boston Tea Party.)

Practically, the physics community must focus on the immediate issue of considering what options are available to support the field in the face of broad funding cuts. Community members asked about the effect of letter-writing campaigns and attempts to encourage the government to infuse emergency funds into the field. One question regarding whether letters are read was posed: “Is the government convinced that this is a complete disaster?” On these points it was emphasised that the main issue with waiting for `deus ex machina’ funding from above the STFC had to do with the STFC `saving face.’ As I understood it, the issue was whether it would be feasible for a sympathetic MP to propose a way to effectively go over the STFC without admitting that the STFC was broken. In particular, any further support would probably be contingent on a scapegoat for the £80M shortfall. There was some hope for a proper investigation in the near future, perhaps with the January parliamentary review; but unfortunately I wasn’t well-versed enough in these matters to quite follow what was likely to happen.

A related issue is the particular plight of the ILC. The exact words used in the 11 December Delivery plan regarding the ILC were:

We will cease investment in the International Linear Collider. We do not see a practicable path towards the realisation of this facility as currently conceived on a reasonable timescale.

This is especially distressing, since even if there were to be some infusion of funding, it would be hard to justify saving the ILC since the phrasing of the above document says, “The ILC isn’t worth it,” rather than, “We can’t afford the ILC.” (Personal comment: In some extended sense, I have a personal investment in this. The US particle physics community is hedging its future on an ILC built within the next decade or so in Fermilab.)

Many groups have been writing letters to their MPs, which generally was recommended. However, there were some reservations mentioned about the tone and approach of some letters that have been circulated. Those with the most familiarity with the situation urge letter writers not to make letters too long, self-righteous or confrontational. We do not want to “back [MPs] into a corner” from a policy perspective. So be sure to use good judgement and tact when contacting your representatives. (That goes for Americans writing to Congress, as well!)



%d bloggers like this: