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STFC replies to RAS

  STFC 'acknowledges the concerns and strong feelings evoked by the outcome of the CSR07 settlement...( and) recognises that it must improve its communications ...( and) ...  engage more actively with stakeholders including the RAS'. 
At its meeting on 28 February STFC Council discussed the RAS Statement of 14 February 2008 ( below) and issued the following statement...

'The Council acknowledges the concerns and strong feelings evoked by the outcome of the CSR07 settlement.  Difficult decisions have and will be necessary to live within our budget.  Council and its executive shares and regrets the impact this will cause to the plans and aspirations of some researchers.
The Council recognises that it must improve its communications and is setting in place plans to do so.  One key element of these plans will be to engage more actively with stakeholders including the RAS.  We aim to give stakeholders more information about the STFC’s plans and its decisions, and to argue collectively the case for more investment in our science.  The Council looks forward to such engagement and more constructive dialogue with all its stakeholders.
The delivery of world-class science is at heart of the Council’s mission.  As we set out in our Delivery Plan, STFC will invest more than £1.5b over the next three years to enable UK researchers to have access to and exploit some of the best facilities in the world.  Council acknowledges that a major part of its mission is specifically to carry out world-class science in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics. 
The Council has and will continue to argue that the science we support is crucial for the advancement of knowledge and vital for our economy and society.

Part of this case is the huge added value from investment in physics, which underpins developments (new technologies, skilled people) in many areas of science as well as driving innovation in the economy.  We will continue to emphasise that some of our programme, and, in particular, astronomy and space science, attract young people into science and that there has been a substantial growth in astronomy departments in the last few years.

STFC looks forward to the Wakeham review of physics and fully expects a strong endorsement of STFC’s physics areas as crucial to the health of the UK economy.   

The Council believes its peer-review structure has done an excellent job in re-prioritising the Council’s programme in difficult circumstances.  This re-prioritisation is not yet complete and the Council will announce later today details of a consultation on the outcome of its programmatic review.  The results of the consultation will be considered before decisions are made.  The Council will as intended also engage with the community and representative groups including the RAS in shaping its longer-term science and technology strategy.  The establishment of a more detailed advisory system is under consideration.'

Noting the STFC reply,RAS President Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson welcomed the recognition that communication with the community needed to be significantly improved. He said, ‘We need to see a culture change and look forward to learning, in detail, how STFC intends to engage with the community. I am pleased that STFC explicitly recognizes that an important part of its mission is to carry out world-class research in astronomy , particle and nuclear physics’.He added ‘With a clear science strategy and transparent and expert peer review systems I hope the community will be able to recover its confidence in STFC’

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RAS communication of 14 February 2008 to STFC about its handling of the recent Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR2007).

Mindful of very strong feelings in the entire astronomical community, the RAS Council expresses a lack of confidence in STFC’s handling of the current funding crisis:

(1)     In its actions since it was formed, STFC has failed to pay sufficient attention to the part of its mission associated with the delivery of first class science in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics.

(2)     In making its bid to CSR2007, little emphasis was placed on the importance of these areas for UK science and for UK physics in particular.  The DIUS does not seem to have been made sufficiently aware of the potential damage to the UK’s international science reputation and to UK Physics departments, despite the fact that the Government has made Physics a high-priority in its long-term economic policy. Astronomy and space science play a key role in attracting school-children to science and in drawing university students into physics and there is immense benefit to the UK economy of our skilled
 Physics graduates.  There is now a real danger that the recent improvement in Physics enrolment will be reversed

(3)     The STFC’s Delivery Plan pays lip-service to the need to foster the UK academic community, who play the key role in delivery of all of STFC’s outputs – first class science, facility design and usage, and knowledge exchange,  but has shown no evidence in its public statements or actions that it recognizes this duty.  The 25% decline in grants across the CSR period, with no sign of any intention or even desire to level this out in later years, has filled the community with deep pessimism and anger.

(4)     STFC has failed miserably to communicate with the community.  The experience of the community prior to the formation of STFC has been good communication and a sense of engagement in decisions.

(5)     STFC claims that its Delivery Plan has been and is being arrived at through a process of Peer Review.  Unfortunately, despite no doubt very hard work of those involved in this process on PPAN, PALS and Science Board, the community has no confidence in this process and is unlikely to accept the outcome as fair.  It was a catastrophic error not to set up an advisory structure below PPAN.  The requirement of confidentiality for members of Council, the Science Board, and PPAN and PALS, goes far beyond any legal requirements.

(6)     STFC needs to develop with the community a clear science strategy, so that both the community and those on STFC panels can make operational decisions with precision and clarity. 

(7)     In dealings with international partners, STFC needs to take advantage of the contacts and diplomatic skills of members of the community.  A take-it-or-leave-it approach to an international partnership will never succeed.


Glossary:

RAS= Royal Astronomical Society

STFC= Science and Technology Facilities Council

CSR=Comprehensive Spending Review

DIUS=Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills

PPAN=Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Committee

PALS=Physical and Life Sciences Committee