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STFC prepares for early spending review

Rumours prompt council to bring forward priorities exercise

The Science and Technology Facilities Council is preparing to speed up a review of its science programme following rumours that the government’s spending review could be brought forward from 2014 to next year.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, John Womersley, the STFC’s chief executive, says the council can’t ignore suggestions that the Treasury might make spending decisions on the science budget in 2013, rather than 2014. A 2013 review would see early decisions made on spending for 2015-16 onwards in a bid to have the process finished as far in advance of the next election as possible. “We need to be aware of the possibly accelerating timetable for the spending review,” he says. “That has not been officially announced yet, but I’ve told the science board and our own executive board to plan on that basis…We had thought that we had a couple of years before we would need to apply the results of this review—it may now be that we need to be presenting our case for the next spending round about one year from now.”

A spokeswoman for the Treasury, contacted by Research Fortnight, said a date for the spending review was yet to be set.

The STFC had originally planned to review its programme between June 2012 and September 2013, but could now be forced to get it done by next spring. It will assess and rank the quality of all the projects it funds and decide a future research portfolio, perhaps including new projects. In its previous programmatic review in 2008, the council was forced to cut a number of lower-priority projects to make up for a significant budget shortfall.

However, Womersley says the coming review will not be a repeat of the events of 2008 or the controversial prioritisation exercise that followed in 2009. “This is not about budget cuts, we’re not doing this because we anticipate reduced funding,” he says. “We’re doing this because we want to have a refreshed and up-to-date view of our forward science programme.”

Günther Rosner, a nuclear physicist at the University of Glasgow and director of the Facility for Antiproton and Ion Research in Darmstadt, Germany, was a member of the STFC science board during the 2009 review. He said that the “unfortunate situation” at the time, when the STFC faced a huge deficit, meant that the exercise ended up as a battle for funding between research fields. “The outcome of that programmatic review was quite unbalanced…with nuclear physics almost getting killed,” he says. “Of course the fat cats such as particle physics and astronomy dominated just by sheer numbers.”

Rosner says that, by contrast, nuclear physics is actually funded on a par with particle physics in most other industrialised countries and emerging economies—a fact that he argues was never taken into account. “It was an inbred process. To get better input, one also needs to have international guidance in the review.” This time around, he says, the STFC needs to have a “strategic opinion” about funding different fields. However, he adds he is less worried now as he thinks the STFC has come of age and he has confidence in Womersley’s leadership.

Womersley says the council has gained experience from past reviews. Apart from the “obvious lesson” of the need to communicate clearly and consult thoroughly, there could also be changes to the actual ranking system used to assess projects. One of the criticisms from 2008, he says, was that the system was too simplistic.

He wants to make sure the council funds a good breadth of programmes following concerns that the choices made during those years left it with too narrow a focus. Also, when assessing project priorities you need to include a time dimension, he says. For example, it may make sense to do some projects now but if they are delayed their priority reduces.

The STFC has also made changes to the number and scope of its advisory panels, but their members have yet to be announced.