Britain's 'big science' funding agency is now in a position to regain much-needed credibility.
Last week, an official opened a meeting between scientists and the UK Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) by asking that those present leave their weapons at the front desk.
The joke, which met with anaemic laughter, shows how bad things have been between the council, whose responsibilities include high-energy physics and astronomy, and the scientists it serves. In December, the council announced that it had an £80-million (US$160-million) spending shortfall in its latest budget, which runs until 2011. Council officials laid out preliminary plans to withdraw from such key projects as the International Linear Collider, a next-generation particle accelerator, and the Gemini Observatory, a pair of 8-metre telescopes located in Hawaii and Chile. Many were furious over the cuts, which came with no consultation.
Gallows humour aside, last week's meeting showed that the STFC has gone some considerable way towards repairing its relationship with the community. Resentment remains, especially towards Keith Mason, the council's sometimes truculent chief executive. But by and large, the researchers who depend on the STFC to back their work seem ready to accept a programme that includes some cuts. This transformation is thanks to the rapid formation of ten specialist advisory committees to help inform the final version of the STFC's budget.
Although the plan looks similar to the original package, important concessions have been made and priorities shifted in a way that has ameliorated the community's initial rage. The final plan sets aside around £1 million for 'advanced detector work', similar to that being done in preparation for the linear collider. It also continues participation in the Gemini telescopes, although it will seek to sell half of Britain's observing time in the project. The plan also promises support to projects in other fields, such as nuclear and neutrino physics.
The truce between community and council comes just in time. Already the UK government is gearing up for its next budget review, and the STFC and its constituent physicists must be able to work in concert if they are to win a bigger slice of the cake in the next round. They must speak with a single voice to policy-makers about the broader value of their work, and they must be coherent about the consequences of lower funding levels.
Coming up with a consistent message will not be easy. The STFC supports many disciplines. Yet at last week's meeting there was a sense of common purpose. The message from both the crowd and the STFC was that their work and especially the people who do it provide an intellectual foundation on which the knowledge economy is built. That message should resonate reasonably well with the Treasury, which is seeking economic returns on its investment in science, and will ring more true to scientists than promises of spin-off technologies and business–government partnerships.
It is up to both sides to develop last week's germ of an idea into a full-blown campaign. The STFC can work with the community to communicate effectively to policy-makers, while researchers, through the newly formed advisory committees, must tell the council how their work fits with the broader goals of the STFC. A dialogue of this sort, sorely absent this past eight months, is essential if the funding shortfalls seen last winter are not to be repeated in the next spending cycle.