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UK physics chief next for the chop in funding bloodbath?

Select committee evidence 'inaccurate, unconvincing and unacceptable'

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Professor Keith Mason, the man in charge of scything £80m from the UK's physics research budget, has been sharply criticised by MPs investigating cutbacks which have forced job losses in labs and threaten to shut down many projects.

The Commons select committee on innovation, universities, science and skills said in its report yesterday on the physics budgetary crisis that the explanation Mason gave for his decision to make cuts to ground-based solar-terrestrial physics (STP) was "inaccurate, unconvincing and unacceptable". The famous radio telescope at Jodrell Bank is one of the facilities threatened by STP cutbacks.

Mason is now under pressure to quit as chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) over his handling of the affair. The committee charged: "We are at a loss to understand how Professor Mason could think that secretive reviews would have anything other than a divisive effect on the community and undermine confidence in any of his future decisions."

The STFC was formed by the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council with the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils in 2007. The £80m hole in its finances emerged from those "secretive reviews" late last year, and has already caused major upheaval for the UK physics community.

The MPs were particularly concerned with how the cuts have damaged the UK's international research reputation. In January British researchers were humiliated when their funding to participate in the international Gemini infra-red telescope was withdrawn. STFC's failure to consult overseas partners on its plans was deplorable and made the UK look "unreliable and incompetent", the MPs said.

The select committee criticised both the department for innovation, universities and skills for its stinginess as part of last year's comprehensive spending review, and the STFC for how it delivered savings. The funding council's problems have been exacerbated by poor management. "Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive," it wrote.

That's being widely interpreted as a blatant call for Professor Mason to resign. The committee also called for a moratorium on all STFC funding decisions until a review by Southampton University vice-chancellor Bill Wakeham is completed in September.

In a statement, the STFC said: "Council believes that the executive and its new peer-review structure did a good job in developing a forward-looking and affordable programme within its allocations.

"Prior to the publication of the report Council and the executive recognised and accepted the need to strengthen the management team, to consult more widely on its future programme and to improve its communication with staff and its research community.

"Council is determined that STFC continues to move forward in addressing these challenges. It fully supports the Chief Executive and his management team in doing so."

You can read the full select committee report here. ®

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