Research Fortnight 3 Dec 2008

View from the Top

When will the STFC get it right?

Bob Cywinski

Criticising the Science and Technology Facilities Council has become something of a national pastime, deservedly so, and now a new storm is starting to break over the beleaguered behemoth. This row is particularly significant as it is brewing in the STFC's usually mild-mannered, loyal and generally well-served neutron-scattering community-and I write from first hand experience.

Our large and scientifically diverse community exploits STFC's excellent neutron facilities at the Institut Laue Langevin, in Grenoble, and ISIS at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory to support studies that lead the world in the structure and dynamics of materials. More to the point, we would very much like to negotiate a UK role in the construction and use of Europe's next generation neutron facility, the European Spallation Source. Unfortunately, the STFC has seemed equally keen to discourage participation in the ESS, even to the point of misrepresenting to its own Council our views on participation in the project. Two weeks ago, at a public meeting, they promised to make amends, but we still don't know what's going on (see RF 19/11/08, p1).

The STFC's reluctance to entertain, let alone promote, participation in the construction of ESS is not a surprise. Although the STFC's forerunner, the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, strongly championed ESS for a decade until 2002, there has been little, if any, meaningful dialogue on the project since.

In 2003, bowing to direct pressure from UK advocates of ESS, the then science minister, David Sainsbury, instigated an open and transparent ministerial review of UK neutron strategy. The review concluded that, alongside enhanced investment in ILL and ISIS, the UK would indeed require access to a next generation neutron facility within 15 years, and that the UK should take the initiative in European discussions on such a facility. It also concluded that plans for an upgrade to ISIS, from kilowatt to megawatt generating capacity, should be deferred until a decision had been made on ESS.

These conclusions were clearly not commensurate with either the CCLRC's, or the STFC's, corporate neutron strategy, as the review has been almost entirely ignored since its publication in late 2005.

One problem is that the STFC has its own, internally defined, agenda. It is a poorly kept secret that, despite the recommendations of the neutron review, the STFC continues to work on designs for potential MW upgrades to its own 240kW ISIS facility, in an effort to catch-up with the new MW class spallation sources in the US and Japan. How these upgrades might compare technically, scientifically or financially with the fully designed, green-field 5MW ESS is unclear, as there has been no open discussion of the STFC's plans. However, what several neutron beam experts suspect is that these plans constitute a new facility on the ISIS site, rather than an upgrade. Such a development programme would take ISIS out of the European neutron beam pool for many years, just as the US and Japanese facilities are ramping up to full power and developing upgrades of their own.

A second problem is that the STFC is in an extremely privileged position. Not only is the council the only body that advises the government on large scale science facilities, it can spend large proportions of its budget on its own facilities and research programmes, thereby, in many cases, inextricably linking its strategic and operational roles. So, you might expect an open consultation with its researchers to be at the heart of the STFC's decision-making processes. Instead, the council appoints its own advisers using less than transparent processes.

The Haldane Principle, established 90 years ago, was intended to place decisions on science funding firmly in the hands of researchers and out of the reach of political and administrative interference. Indeed, autonomous research councils were established to ensure that this principle was fully enshrined in UK science policy. It seems to me, however, that the STFC is in danger of flouting that principle [see RF 21/5/08, p18].

The STFC's neutron hand is now being forced by three increasingly impatient European sites competing to host ESS, each supported financially and politically by their national government. This pressure, thankfully, caused the STFC to call the hurriedly convened consultation meeting with neutron users a fortnight ago in preparation for a spate of European discussions on ESS over the next few weeks. However, many participants at the meeting are still awaiting the STFC's publication of the definitive statement of support for ESS, ILL and ISIS that they had demanded, and the assurance that this statement will be taken to the STFC Council, to the science minister, and thence to Europe.

The STFC is the international face of British science, and international perception of British researchers is to a large extent defined by the way that the STFC conducts itself in international collaborations and negotiations. So, it is in all our interests that the council puts its house in order. If it does so, the UK neutron community has a chance of regaining its place at the helm of a world leading project intended to ensure that the centre of gravity of excellence in neutron research, and the science and technology it supports, remains within Europe.

Bob Cywinski, who specialises in condensed matter physics, is university research professor in the School of Applied Sciences at the University of Huddersfield.