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More money, better advice: STFC chief sets out his plans

The Science and Technology Facilities Council’s science board is to put forward a detailed proposal on the future of its advisory panels on 22 November, John Womersley, the council’s new chief executive, has revealed.

Speaking at his first press briefing as chief executive on 21 November, Womersley said that the board will “maintain the concept of advisory panels” and will present its plans to the STFC council at its next meeting.

Speaking about an ongoing review of the advisory panel structure, he said that the science board is “committed to having this sort of input” but will “refresh” the panels and bring in new members.

The STFC announced on 25 July that it was considering reducing the number of subject-specific panels that feed into science board decisions in order to “streamline advice while reducing the cost of operating the system”. A consultation on the matter closed on 14 October.

Reviewing the panels is part of a wider effort to “streamline” the STFC’s top-level advisory structure. The council has already announced that its science board will absorb the two bodies that report directly to it—the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Committee and the Physical and Life Sciences Committee.

After taking over as chief executive on 1 November, Womersley is now committing to fighting hard for a better deal for science at the next spending review. “I’m going to energetically argue in the next spending review that continued flat budgets for science is not good for the UK and not good for maintaining the strengths of our universities,” he pledged.

He plans to bring about a “change in tone” at the STFC by being an “enthusiastic advocate for the whole of the STFC programme and the whole of UK science”.

In his personal connection with the research community, he added, he intends to be accessible, visible and transparent.

“You can see in the reactions to some of the other research councils right now that the [community] want to be involved in the process, they don’t necessarily have to have the final word on it,” he told the meeting. “We in the STFC have learned that”.

Despite the tough economic climate, he added, the council is trying to find ways of breathing life into its nuclear physics programme, which has suffered major cuts since the 2007 spending review.

“In our delivery plan we have sketched out a moderate increase in funding for nuclear physics and we have encouraged our nuclear physics advisory panel to think about future initiatives,” he said.

Similarly, the council has set aside a small amount of money to promote certain other areas that have suffered cuts following its 2009 prioritisation exercise, such as particle astrophysics.