Science and Technology Facilities Council is 'poorly managed', says report

An influential cross-party panel of MPs has blamed ’a few poor decisions’ by the UK government for recent cuts in research funding that is threatening many of the country’s largest science facilities. 

A report from the Innovation, universities, science and skills (IUSS) committee also says that the body which oversees these facilities - the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) - is ’poorly managed’ and that there were ’serious questions about the role and performance’ of its chief executive, Keith Mason. 

As reported by Chemistry World in January, the MPs say that the increase in the science budget announced last year is not enough to fully cover the more expensive ’Full Economic Cost’ (FEC) grants now given to universities to pay for the upkeep of labs, equipment and infrastructure. 

Large parts of the science budget have also been earmarked for specific cross-council research programmes that address government priorities. The MPs add that new bodies, such as the Energy Technologies Institute and the Technology Strategy Board, have also sapped money from basic research. 

According to the committee, this is a clear sign that the government is not sticking to the Haldane principle - the idea that science spending decisions should be made by scientists and not politicians. ’It is of course acceptable for the government to set priorities for UK research, but not for it to micromanage individual research council budgets,’ the MPs say. 

Nick Dusic, director of the lobby group Campaign for Science and Engineering, agrees that the government must stop earmarking research council cash for its own priorities. ’The government cannot have its cake and eat it to when it comes to the Haldane principle,’ he says. ’The government is interfering with how research councils allocate their funding, whilst not taking responsibility for the repercussions.’ 

Falling short

The budget shortfalls have led some research councils to cut the volume of research they fund. The Engineering and physical sciences research council, for example, recently announced that investigator-led funding would drop by 12-15 per cent. 

The STFC itself was left with an ?80 million hole in its budget after the government’s spending announcement, but MPs say the STFC ’compounded the problem with ineffective and secretive management’. It is ’poorly managed, with a weak peer review system and lamentable communications’, they add. 

’The events of the past few months have exposed serious deficiencies within STFC’s senior management, whose misjudgements could still significantly damage Britain’s research reputation in this area both at home and abroad,’ says the IUSS committee’s chairman, the Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis. ’Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs.’ 

The committee expressed particular concern over the future of the Daresbury Laboratory. The lab’s Synchrotron Radiation Source (SRC), widely used by chemists to determine the structures of new materials, is set to close in December 2008, and it is uncertain whether the site will host any large science facilities in future. 

’The merger of two organisations, coupled with a challenging spending review, has, as the committee points out, been difficult,’ admits Keith Mason. ’This is now in the past. I intend for STFC to look forward, though we will take account of some areas where we could have done better.’ 

A Royal Society of Chemistry spokesman says, ’The RSC is concerned that world-renowned facilities which provide the tools some chemical scientists need to carry out their research are under threat. The RSC has already spoken out on plans to reduce availability of lasers that are much used by UK scientists, and the select committee report adds strength to the RSC’s arguments.’ 

Ananyo Bhattacharya