Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Fundamental Elements

Magazine article The Times Higher Education Supplement : THE

Fundamental Elements

Article excerpt

The STFC's achievements offer a template for extracting the full value from UK research, suggests Keith Mason.

The UK's economic woes have been severe, but they have had one potentially beneficial effect on research: the financial crisis has underlined the fundamental importance of science to the future health of the economy.

This enhanced status is to be welcomed, but it also imposes a responsibility on individuals and institutions to deliver, which in turn requires organisational structures that are fit for purpose.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council was established in 2007 to nurture and promote the fundamental research that is the basic fuel for a knowledge economy while also improving links to the wider world.

As chief executive of the new council, however, I faced a more pressing concern: the programmes of both of its predecessors, planned in the good times, were unaffordable given the emerging economic realities and the large sums tied up in long-term commitments, including subscriptions to Cern, the European Organization for Nuclear Research and the European Space Agency.

There followed a difficult restructuring, including the winding down of still-productive activities to make room for initiatives essential to keeping the UK at the forefront of world science, plus reductions in the number of supported postdoctoral researchers and research students. This was painful, and the fact that it was necessary for the long-term credibility of the programme and done in the full glare of peer review did not lessen its unpopularity.

But the programme that emerged was, and remains, world-class and financially credible, and this combination led to a good settlement in the generally difficult 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review. We also succeeded in pushing through major structural reforms to the STFC's funding for international subscriptions and domestic facilities.

While the revamped programme was an excellent basis on which to build for the future, the other side of my agenda for the STFC was to improve the way in which the UK as a whole benefits from our undoubtedly world-class research base. The motivation was to build the case for sustained and ultimately increased investment in science. …

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