Saturday, 19 July 2008

The final outcome

I remember going on a trip to Manchester University earlier this year to do a profile for PhysicsWorld on the particle physicist Robin Marshall. It was over lunch that we began to talk about topics other his career and onto the hot issue of the day: the funding rumblings in a major research council in the UK.

Being my first encounter with a funding disaster, I was not too sure how bad it all sounded, but it was something that the 68 year old physicist said that always stuck in my mind: "there is something about this one, something really nasty about it," he said. Given his experience, I took note.

There was a lot of anger in January when the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced, without any consultation with the community, that the UK would pull out of the International Linear Collider as well as the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile as well as potentially cutting research grants by 25%.

Even though the government had given above inflation increases to each funding council, at the launch of the science budget in January, the public relations fanfare turned into a disaster. Question after question about the STFC's £80m black hole came from members of the community and the media to the panel, containing a nervous looking science minister, Ian Pearson, and John Denham the Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills.

I was at that meeting in January and I was also in attendance of the meeting in London a few weeks ago where the STFC made the announcement of the final programmatic review into which projects it will now fund after a major consultation exercise. The two meetings couldn't have been any more different.

Or the one a few weeks ago couldn't have been more dull. This was mainly because of two reasons. One, the final programmatic review was released a week before the meeting, so most people found out whether their projects would be funded anyway. The resulting turn-out was minimal; probably most people who attended were actually based in London. I doubt the STFC had travel budgets in mind when they put the pdf of the review on their website.

The second reason is the rather disappointing statement from Richard Wade at the beginning of the meeting who asked if the media could wait until afterwards to put their questions to the panel members, consisting of STFC CEO Keith Mason, director of science programmes John Womersley and Peter Knights science-board chair. It probably turned out that the media would have added more fire to the question and answer session. Most people in the community were praising the STFC's consultation exercise -- the fire seemed to have been extinguished.

When we have been covering stories about the saga, we always tried to get to the bottom of how all this came about. Various proposals had been given: merging of two councils into the STFC, currency fluctuations, bad bookkeeping (probably a mixture of all three). So I guess the only memorable part of the meeting for me was when a member commented that he still didn't understand why the physics community had to go through it all for the last half a year. Mason reponded, rather discouragingly, that he didn't know either.

So is the saga at an end? Or is that the end of the beginning?