Strategy and Responsiveness in Science

One strand in the disastrous history of the Science and Technology Facilities council (STFC) is a tension between “top-down” and “bottom-up” research funding. The science minister and the chair of STFC are currently reviewing the structures; this tension is something they should take into account.

Most scientists I know are driven by a desire to solve problems and learn how nature works; the mechanisms of life, galaxy formation, why things have mass; questions on the frontiers of knowledge. The sudden thrill, and long-term satisfaction, of extending the sum of human knowledge is what keeps people working through the less rewarding bits. I am not sure those who control science policy and administer resources always realise this. Of course people are motivated also by desire for money, approval, power, fun, as with other jobs, but the ability to follow your hunches and your curiosity is fundamental. Without it research is vastly poorer, and much more expensive. The thrill of knowledge may be our equivalent of the banker’s bonus.

It follows that research priorities should be decided, where possible, by the scientists who do the work, to maximise motivation and creativity.

Two important considerations can pull against this.

Firstly, there is the legitimate desire of society to benefit directly from the fruits of its investment. Lots of excellent researchers do become keen on the application of their research, and lots don’t. Encouraging the right people to exploit research and create the right kind of impact is important and tricky, but it’s not the topic I want to discuss here.

Secondly, some science requires large projects, big facilities and/or long term technology developments. Facilities like the Diamond light source, where the scientific questions are varied but the required capability is clear, and facilities like the Large Hadron Collider where although there will be many scientific outputs, a few primary questions (e.g. the origin of mass, in this case) justify the project. How one decides which large projects to invest in is critical. If a wrong decision is made, fixing it is either very slow (the lead time on the projects is typically several years) or very wasteful (not building it if you have already spent years working on it, or building something which turns out not to be what you needed). Also, typically these projects involve international partners, and betraying their trust will cripple your ability to participate in world-class science. So when you decide, you’d better have discussed it widely and be pretty sure. If you keep changing your mind mid project, you fail.

So to do some of the science we want to do, we have to lock ourselves into a rather unresponsive, top-down planning process, and stick to it. At the same time we have to keep room for innovative new ideas, for responding to new short term or serendipitous opportunities, often exploiting the facilities delivered by the long-term strategy. It is within this space, subject to peer review, that research really happens.

… and STFC?

STFC tries to do this; It has committees of scientists advising on strategy and priorities. I’ve been a member of STFC’s Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Science committee (PPAN) since it began. As well as prioritising within astronomy, particle and nuclear physics, PPAN advises on the balance between responsive grants (for students, for data analysis, for theoretical studies), strategic grants (for building and running new kit, for developing new technologies), and big international subscriptions. Science Board tries to balance this against the other facilities using advice from the Physical and Life Sciences Science Committee (PALS). After creating subject-specific panels to advise PPAN after the last round of cuts, the STFC committee structure is arguably the “least worst” solution the organisation could have come up with, but there are many problems. Some structural ones are:

  • STFC can’t really have total control of international subscription or domestic facility costs. At some point you either have Diamond or you don’t; you are a member of the European Space Agency or you are not. In reality these are decisions made at a higher level.
  • STFC does not balance costs for running Diamond or ISIS against the grants in those areas, since those grants are awarded by other research councils.
  • When money is short, the big projects are often effectively fixed costs, so small flexible grants suffer a much bigger cut than the headline cut in funding.
  • Construction or exploitation of important long-term projects can be cancelled (or never started) because of short term financial problems. In the end this could leave scientists on small grants with no equipment to use and no data to analyse; and it clearly means wasted investment in some cases.

There are some good suggestions circulating which would help address these problems (e.g. some good slides on this from Paul Crowther presented at the Astronomy forum). Three common themes are:

  • Remove short term currency risk from science planning. Gambling our research strategy on the foreign exchange markets is irresponsible and the UK is very unusual in doing this.
  • Have a high-level body, involving the whole science community, to discuss and advise on investment in major facilities.
  • There’s an obvious conflict of interest in a research council running its own labs and facilities and also funding subscriptions and grants. This needs resolving. A national lab with a strong director reporting to a board of university scientists, research councils and other interested parties could be a good way of dealing with this.

Lord Drayson has a chance to repair some of the dreadful damage inflicted by the hasty creation of the underfunded STFC. Unfortunately it’s a complicated problem with many pitfalls, and his solution also needs to be swift or it may be too late.

[ PS Added 23/1/2010. The Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics have now submitted carefully considered suggestions to the review. ]

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About Jon Butterworth

UCL Physics Prof working on LHC, dad, dodgy guitarist, Man City fan in exile.
This entry was posted in Politics, Science, Science Policy and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Strategy and Responsiveness in Science

  1. Kav says:

    Sorry Jon I cannot agree that STFC has come up with the ‘least worst’ solution as long as there is no proper science strategy in place for PPAN to work from. I also have issues with the level of cross-community representation on PPAN – something that the advisory panels are supposed to address but without an overarching strategy the process fails.

    This is not a critique of those folks on PPAN who are working hard to try and do the best they can, I just think that the system you operate within is too badly flawed.

    But that’s an old argument that its probably not worth getting into…

  2. I’m more familiar with the ISIS neutron and to a lesser extent synchrotron radiation facilities.

    It seems like these issues have been running for quite some time, during my PhD CCLRC was created and that didn’t seem a very smooth process, from the user point of view you were wacking on a massive fee to any grant involving neutron time which always felt like you were disadvantaging yourself in competition with other grants.

    It seems to me we make a decision on whether to be involved in a large collaboration (like CERN) or building a large facility (like Diamond) but don’t, at the same time, provide for subsequent utilisation or match running costs to utilisation.

    Is your point (3) CCLRC?

  3. I said “arguably” Kav, you can argue 😉 No doubt there are flaws, anyway, and I only mentioned what I thought were structural ones since those are the subject of the current review.

    I guess I was trying to point out also that one really needs a science strategy which includes facility provision, evolved by consent with the science community. One could be imposed from above and that would be as bad as none. Moving grants to EPSRC, for example could on the face of it ease financial tension, but would divorce grants from facility planning in a bad way, while potentially leaving us at the whim of top-down strategically-targeted grant schemes in areas we don’t necessarily find interesting.

    Ian (SmallCasserole) I agree. The decisions on a amjor project or facility should be “you’re in” or “you’re out”, and if you’re in you’d better fund exploitation as well as the facility itself.

    (3) Not CCLRC, more like a major US lab, with management often subcontracted to a university, IMHO. I wasn’t so involved in this kind of discussion in those days, but CCLRC seemed to go through several incarnations, and it never really functioned as though the buck stopped with a real lab director, as far as I could tell.

  4. Kav says:

    Jon, I agree that a science strategy needs provision for facility build – planning for the future – and that needs to be bottom-up led.

    Would a move of RC for research grant funding necessarily be such a bad thing? Surely smart people such as us can come up with mechanisms by which the user communities in other RCs have the say over what facilities STFC builds and supports. STFC could truly become a facilities council – a caretaker of facilities for the users across all the other RCs

  5. Perhaps, but I see no sign that without major reform EPSRC could or would cope with the kind of long term planning we need, even for our exploitation and R&D grants. They don’t seem to engage with STFC at all well on planning for Diamond or ISIS users for example, they just leave it to PALS, who have probably a harder job than PPAN even. I heard a senior EPSRC person say that they don’t care about the facilities provided by STFC. Astonishing – their scientists do!

    Maybe mungeing all the RCs back together again as “RCUK” or something, with subdirectorates for different science areas would work, and a directorate for facility/subscription planning. But I doubt this is really an option on the timescale we’re talking about.

  6. The depressing thing ius that we have been here before, and more than once.

    Here is a quote from 1992:

    “NEW PROPOSALS for financing the Science and Engineering Research
    Council’s £100 million a year spending on international science may solve one of SERC’s longest-running financial problems, the traumatic effects of fluctuations in the cost of international scientific collaboration.”

    Politicians have no knowledge of history. So they keep on making the same silly mistakes.

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