Another STFC letter

Our Durham City MP, Roberta Blackman-Woods came to visit us in the physics department earlier today, to discuss the funding crisis in particle physics and astrophysics brought on by our piss-poor research council and a government department which didn't realise the significance of inflation or full economic costing on academic grants. They also forgot to include the VAT on the 2012 Olympics, so maybe this shouldn't be such a big shock. The difference is that no-one said "oh well, we'll just have to drop the 1500 metres" --- the money just appeared, hundreds of times more of it than the STFC budget for the same period.

Anyway, the session wasn't bad --- our MP at least appears to be on our side and sympathetic to concerns about young researchers having their careers cut short and the knock-on impact of these cuts on physics outreach --- but tellingly she didn't actually commit to doing anything either. So here's another letter winging its way to her courtesy of WriteToThem, sadly before I've had a response to the last one.

Dear Roberta Blackman-Woods,

Sorry to pre-empt your reply to my earlier letter (25 January), but I was in your discussion session with the Durham University physics department earlier today, re. the STFC funding crisis, and another letter now seems appropriate.

Firstly, thanks for attending: it was reassuring to find that you are sympathetic to our point of view and, like us, highly skeptical of the "everything's just fine" spin being applied by STFC's management. Why our research council is failing to complain about cuts which are decimating its own research community has thoroughly bewildered many of us.

Since today's session was short, I'm sure there were many unanswered questions. A lot of time was spent - necessarily, I think - on the general concerns of the research community, especially young researchers such as myself and our postgraduate students. However, I'm concerned about the details of what happens next: you said that we are "formidable campaigners", but in a recent meeting of young researchers in the IPPP it was evident that we are frustrated with our lack of representation through STFC, the lack of communication or consultation and the lack of rapid preventative action from government.

I'm sure we will take account of your suggestion to provide community submissions to the Select Committee. As Gudi Moortgat-Pick pointed out, though, a timescale of 6-12 months may be quick in parliamentary terms, but the economic benefit to be reaped from the ILC project will be decided during that period. Since the UK will not be a member at that time: the UK will miss the boat on ILC construction and engineering contracts. As you rightly said, we have had 8 years of welcome growth in science funding: that makes it all the more painful that projects which have taken all those 8 years of work (and hundreds of millions of pounds) are now being cancelled just as they come to fruition. This must be avoided as a matter of urgency - long term big science needs a correspondingly long term funding commitment.

What many of us would like to know is whether there is any possibility of an emergency settlement to STFC which would enable the UK interest in the ILC and Gemini programmes to be kept alive until the Wakeham review concludes? Our current "best case scenario" is that 12 months of economic devastation will be wreaked on the fundamental physics community, the opportunity for UK economic payback from ILC research will be missed, and then the Wakeham report declares "oops, we shouldn't have done that". By that time, it will be too late to right the wrong.

We would also like to know what we can do to ensure that the failure of STFC to represent or consult its scientists on major science funding decisions is put to an end, and does not happen again. Our gripe is not primarily with the Government, who appear to be unwitting partners in this disaster (admittedly the ministers' responses have not done them any favours), but with STFC, who have failed to communicate the effects that the "flat" 13% funding settlement would have on the research programme. We need the support of the Government to undo the damage done by this funding council mismanagement.

Finally, is there anything you can do in the near future to help our case? I hope that the fact that you are on the Select Committee does not prohibit you from holding an official opinion on this topic - from today's discussion it seemed obvious that you do hold a view and that it is compatible with that of our community. Perhaps you or another MP who considers this to be an important issue could sponsor an early day motion to provide for interim STFC funding to avoid irreversible effects until the Wakeham report is published. Are there any other official routes left to be investigated?

Once again, thanks for visiting us today and answering our questions. I hope we managed to also answer some of yours and that you will do what you can to avoid unnecessary devastation to our research, its economic associations and the public enthusiasm for science to which our field is so crucial.

Yours sincerely,
Dr Andy Buckley
IPPP, Durham University

(Signed with an electronic signature in accordance with subsection 7(3) of the Electronic Communications Act 2000.)

(Postscript: this never received a reply and there was no evidence of any action being taken. As on several other issues I raised with this MP during my time in Durham, there was a lot of apparent sympathy but never any action that might rock the Labour boat.)


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