C-day Plus One

Here I am in the very thick of the madding crowd : Heathrow Terminal Three, en route to San Francisco. Yesterday STFC Council met and finally sealed the fates of various projects (*). The outcome is described in a pdf file you can get here. STFC folk will brave up to the crowd and explain it all at the Town Meeting on July 8th … but there ain’t really any surprises, so not sure how that will go. For me, its a mixed story; the approach to UKIRT/UKIDSS is much saner than before; the WFAU/CASU stuff is peripheral, outside the core work, and shouldn’t really have been in the review at all; and AstroGrid as expected is sacrificed. The previous two days I have been running the twice yearly AstroGrid Consortium Meeting, and we have planning how to “gift wrap” our product as professionally as we can, on the assumption that our early closure would indeed be announced. The referee’s decision is final; no barricades will be manned or TV crews invited; but if I hear that there are no cuts, only “unfulfilled aspirations”, I will spit. E-science fans may note that the long term situation is much more complex; the Astronet facility roadmap strongly recommends continued investment in the VO, and the international drive in this direction is undiminished; all we have done is relinquish the UK lead in this area. Hey, you can’t have everything. No really, you can’t. Probably we have just displaced the cost of dealing with the global data management infrastructure elsewhere. Watch this space.

So whither STFC ? They seem to be doing a Geoffrey Boycott, sticking doggedly at the wicket and adding a run or so every few minues. The Select Committee report was vicious, with many truths but also unecessary personal attacks on KOM. The Government response seemed to be a stubborn and patronising denial of all the points … but … you will note that there is now an organisational review of STFC underway. Is this a deflection, or a lining up for the firing squad ? Time will tell.

You have only until July 9th to make your input to the review

Meanwhile, lets look on the bright side ….

  • PPAN did make SOME changes
  • DIUS is looking hard at whether STFC is the right structure
  • MoonLite is being opened up to very public scrutiny
  • Advisory Panels are being re-invented
  • The competent ex-PPARC bureaucracy is re-asserting itself

* posted next day, stateside

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38 Responses to C-day Plus One

  1. Kav says:

    “but if I hear that there are no cuts, only “unfulfilled aspirations”, I will spit”

    Quite. This process has done much to bolster my confidence in the work carried out by our government. Deny and smear the enemy would seem to be order of the day on most days – and sadly some in STFC seem to have been complicit in this.

    I am curious, which bits of the IUSS report did you consider as “unecessary personal attacks”. Thinking back to the document I recall plenty of criticism of his managerial style and the evidence he gave to the committee. In the context of the document and the inquiry these were fair game; critiquing his demonstrated ability to do the job should not be considered as “personal attacks” otherwise no one could ever be held to account. Or have I missed/forgotten something in there?

  2. Nick says:

    I didn’t notice any personal attacks either. The report actually gave KOM a pretty easy ride in the circumstances. What did you think was personal?

  3. A competent ex-PPARC bureaucrat says:

    Thank you!

  4. andyxl says:

    Kav and Nick : let me clarify… by the standards of journalism, no there weren’t any personal attacks. But by the standards of committee reports, which are normally delicately phrasing, it was toughly worded, and KOM was repeatedly name personally, e.g.

    “We find Professor Mason’s explanation for the withdrawal of funding from ground-
    based solar-terrestrial physics (STP) facilities to be inaccurate, unconvincing and
    unacceptable.”

    “We are less convinced by Professor Mason’s excuse for the current situation”

    “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.”

    “We are not satisfied with this response, especially in the light of the short time remaining until Wakeham is due to report”.

    Now of course you may well think these are all fair and accurate statements, but in the context of a committee report they are pretty stark, and are phrased as being about “Professor Mason” not as being about “STFC”. Down the pub they would be mild; in this context they are pretty devastating.

  5. Broadsword calling... says:

    Not quite “devastating” in the Barnes Wallace sense of the word – KOM appears to be still standing!

    Maybe there are cracks beneath the waterline and one of this summer’s reviews will be enough to breach the stone-walling…

    (long-time reader, first-time poster)

  6. Dave says:

    Andy,

    All of those comments are about Keith’s handling of his role as CEO, and as such are within the remit of the committee and I would not call them personal attacks.

  7. Kav says:

    and I would not characterise them as ‘unnecessary’. Perhaps we should reflect on this. Committee reports are usually delicately phrased yet for some reason this one wasn’t. What does that tell us?

  8. Paul Crowther says:

    Kav,

    It tells us that witnesses should avoid attempting to mislead MPs on Select Committees during public evidence gathering sessions. Such attempts to mislead imply either:

    a) being innocently misinformed, although senior figures should check their facts before deciding to speak, especially after being called back for a second visit,

    b) deliberately lying, in which case forceful criticism is surely well deserved.

    I can’t say whether a) or b) apply in this case, but at least three of the Select Ctte MPs have a pretty clear opinion judging from the fact that they signed Peter Soulsby’s EDM.

  9. Nick says:

    There’s nothing in the committee’s report that isn’t true. In fact, arguably they could and should have used rather more forceful language – but perhaps they though that what they said was enough to make him resign without having to go any further? At any rate, I certainly thought he’d go after the report.

  10. Dave Morris says:

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/7487861.stm

    “”What we are doing is losing old stuff at lower priority to do new stuff, and it is vital that we do the new stuff to stay out in front”
    So that explains it, AstroGrid was ‘old stuff’ and we were lagging behind. It all makes sense now.

    “It is a fantastic time to be a scientist in our field …”
    Really, anyone want to do a quick straw poll on that one ?

    Well, I suppose he had to say something ….

  11. David says:

    “It should be stressed that there is no squeeze on projects; the volume of projects going forward is the same as going backwards,” said STFC chief executive Professor Keith Mason.

    So, which projects are actually going backwards, then? Drigortsa? TLE-E? Nilrem-e? Anything to do with Inimeg?

  12. andyxl says:

    David – I found that forwards/backwards quote particularly depressing and more or less insulting. Its one thing to say “we are broke, so we have to cut some stuff, even though its all good”; its another to say “hey, we want to do some new stuff, so we are going to cut some other stuff we already promised money to”. Thats what so bad about all this; simply not honouring commitments.

  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    “These [facilities] will do incredible things” So here’s a question: if a photon falls on a telescope, but there are no exploitation grants to hear it, does it make a sound?

  14. Cynic says:

    Here’s another question: how many astrophysicists does Britain need? A straw poll among my mates suggests a number in the low single digits would be about right, enough to keep Patrick Moore company. And another: how many telescopes do we need? Result of straw poll, this time informed by the cost of ESO membership and the typical tax-free salaries paid to their employees: “&^%*&^%$”.

  15. Michael Merrifield says:

    I tend to agree: if you predicate your argument on direct public engagement with science, then the correct number of astronomers is very low indeed (although Patrick Moore and his small number of friends would have little to talk about if there wasn’t a thriving research community to plunder for good stories). It’s why it is probably a good idea to be cautious about over-reliance on the broadest public understanding of science angle.

    But there are more convincing questions to ask. How many trained physicists does the country need, and what fraction of staff in universities earning their keep by providing that training are astronomers? How many highly-skilled people trained in the advanced research and technical skills of a PhD does the country need, and what fraction of people wanting to undertake such training choose to do it in astronomy because they are fascinated by the subject, instead of going to a better-paid job in unadventurous middle-management that does very little for the country in the long term? How much of the ESO and ESA subscriptions ends up being ploughed into UK high-tech industry? How much of the UK’s remaining prestige in high-tech industry on the World stage can be traced to the fact that it takes part in such cutting-edge enterprises, and what does that credibility translate into by way of contracts? In fact, what is the bottom line return on investment in astronomy in the UK? Unfortunately, no-one has ever sat down and tried to answer these questions in a systematic way. If they did, then I believe that we would be in a much better position than we are today.

    But my personal favourite remains one that also might not go down to well in a straw poll with your mates, and is even more imponderable than the above questions: what is the financial value of knowing more about our place in the Universe? If the Arts Council for England can spend the best part of a billion a year on the arts end of culture, shouldn’t we be making a comparable investment at the pure science end of culture? The main difference is that with pure science you also get the industrial economic payback from all of the above as a bonus.

  16. andyxl says:

    Mike – I have been meaning to write a post called “why do they pay us anything ?” for months now. Maybe I will finally do it. Averaged over time, I believe that upper layers of government understand the arguments you make perfectly well – training, high-tech feedback, culture – and indeed this is why they support us. But at the margins, there is no magic formula. How many telescopes do you need to make that population of astronomer-academics sustainable ? Not at all obvious.

  17. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Andy — indeed, in some ill-formulated way, politicians must buy into these arguments for us to exist at all. However, the arguments are sufficiently nebulous at present that politicians can equally buy out of them when times get a little tough. Like now, for instance, That is why it is so vital that we do the job of pinning down these arguments in quantitative detail, so the politicians don’t have such an easy ride on dismissing us when it suits them. Of course the numbers from any such study will be more precise than accurate, but if politicians keep hearing it repeated that astronomy is worth seven hundred and thirty two millions pounds a year to UK PLC, it would certainly make them more receptive to not undermining the whole profit-making enterprise for the sake of ten million. One would have thought that commissioning such a study for this purpose would be a fairly obvious and urgent thing for any professional body purporting to represent astronomy in the UK, but I am not holding my breath.

  18. Cynic says:

    An astrophysicist of my acquaintance likes to turn the tables and ask why Britain needs hundreds of thousands of lawyers, not to mention hairdressers, florists, DJs. He reserves a special mention for bankers. It doesn’t, but the key difference is that taxpayers aren’t paying for them. He replies that taxpayers provided a large subsidy to bankers by underwriting Northern Rock, and that bankers leach money from every person on the planet and provide no service of any note. We agree on this point at least, though there appears little hope of them returning to the holes from whence they came, and two wrongs don’t make a right.

  19. STFC says:

    Mike
    You will be delighted to learn that the IoP, STFC, RAS and EPSRC have in fact jointly instigated just such a study.

  20. Dave Carter says:

    Cynic, taxpayers pay for lots of lawyers.

  21. Cynic says:

    Yes they do, and those are amongst the few that can justify their existence.

  22. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi STFC. I was aware that this was in the offing (although in the version I heard the RAS’ role was more in signing up than instigating), but I don’t think it really fits the bill. A joint study by those bodies, whose top line conclusion will surely be “physics is good for the economy”, is far too easily interpreted as “directed applied physics is good for the economy,” which is even worse news for astronomy. While I would be happy to see a joint study with our particle physics cousins (not least because it would be handy to have the WWW included in the bottom line!), mixing astronomy up with EPSRC/IoP is really not in our interests. The main point we need to get across is that even “useless science” like astronomy is economically as well as culturally worthwhile, which needs a more selfishly-focused piece of research.

  23. STFC says:

    Mike
    You are a difficult man to please. So let me try this. There is a Particle Physics Action Group who are doing exactly what you want for PP. Maybe you should contact them and find out more. I’m sure you can look them up on Mark Lancaster’s site.

  24. Michael Merrifield says:

    Sorry, STFC, but I am sure you take the point. Clearly, the PPAG have figured it out. And perhaps you are right and I should get off my backside and do it myself. It just galls me that there is a supposed professional body for astronomers in this country that has a captive income in the million pound bracket to put toward this kind of research, which somehow fails to be as professional and farsighted as an ad hoc bunch of unfunded particle physicists.

  25. STFC says:

    Mike
    Yes I see your point. I just looked up the draft PP report. Its from the IoP PP2020 group and a third of the authors of the report work for STFC. So far sighted they may be but unfunded they aren’t.

  26. Michael Merrifield says:

    STFC employees farsighted? Surely not!

    Seriously, it is good to know that someone is pursuing this angle, and thank you for spreading the word. (Who was that masked man…)

  27. Rob Ivison says:

    your talents are wasted on this blog, Michael. do you recognise that the RAS is changing, if slowly?

    i was elected to RAS council recently, on a slightly tongue-in-cheek platform of modernising and ousting fuddy duddies. i stood because i enjoyed the progress under MR^2, with some caveats (e.g. over the handling of press releases) and i want to push for the kind of things you’re talking about.

    things at Burlington House won’t improve whilst we have some of the country’s most talented folk sniping from the sidelines rather than joining and helping (crikey – i sound like my boss, KOM). if you think little of the RAS, please help change it.

  28. Michael Merrifield says:

    It’s an argument I have heard before, Rob, but clearly there is a judgement call involved: does any minor influence I might be able to have on the direction of the Society by joining outweight the discomfort of giving my proxy to an organization that I think currently does more harm than good to our profession? To-date, I have concluded that I probably have had marginally more influence on the RAS by making it clear why I am not a member than I would if I signed up, without having to sell my soul to the likes of MRR.

    Fundamentally, though, I am not sure that the RAS is the right vehicle to represent professional astronomers in this country, since it will always be conflicted with its need to represent its amateur members, and, more worryingly, the geophycists, whose interests may well not coincide with ours. Though some will doubt it, I do remain open to being convinced…

  29. Rob Ivison says:

    Michael – if i were to accept that my only influence on the direction of the society would be minor then i would accept your argument in its entirety. indeed, i’ve heard the likes of Ian Smail and Walter Gear say vaguely similar things. perhaps i am more naive (or arrogant) than you, in thinking we can help the RAS move with the times and serve a more useful role. ask me again in a year’s time, when i’ve had a chance to see how its council works…

  30. andyxl says:

    Rob, I was on RAS Council many years ago, and after this experience I vowed never ever again to complain about any University committee being dull. Maybe I was tired after a long train journey, but somehow one day I found myself a vice president without quite noticing how it happened. It was all worthy stuff, but somehow it was like walking through treacle. However … since then we have invented the NAM – plus a hundred points – and now MRR has at least tried to act seriously as a professional representative body – plus fifty points. Currently my membership has lapsed not through any principle but for the embarassing reason that I kept forgetting to pay my subs … But I think you are doing the right thing. Its time to give the RAS another shot, and make it the RAS we want.

  31. Michael Merrifield says:

    All power to you, Rob. If you really can knock some sense into the place (and somehow come up with a way of representing the interests of professional astronomers rather than some unhappy compromise between amateurs, professionals, geophysicists and astronomers), I’ll be the first in line to join and vote for you as the next president.

    As for “inventing the NAM,” it always used to amuse me when the stalwarts of the RAS would accidentally revert to type and refer to it as the “out of Town meeting.” Having helped organize one a number of years ago, I can categorically state that, apart from a very modest cheque, the RAS made almost zero contribution.

  32. John Peacock says:

    Mike: like you, I have been a long-term RAS refusenik, for all the same reasons. But I have just sent in my application for membership. This is because I felt that the RAS and MRR in particular took a stand with STFC that was in some respects at last the sort of professional lobbying that was sorely needed. It’s not perfect, and I felt MRR tended to accept Mason’s utterances at face value too readily. But it was a big step in the right direction, and one I hope Andy Fabian will continue. At a time like this, it seemed important for all astronomers to show solidarity, and what other way is there? If progress is not maintained, I can always resign, so I think it’s worth the experiment.

  33. Michael Merrifield says:

    John: I have to agree that the sentiments are now far more in the right place, even if the specific personalities were not up to carrying them out. I also have high hopes that ACF will be more up to the job, though my confidence has been somewhat shaken by the document that the RAS submitted to the Wakeham Review, which seemed a complete throwback to the bad old days.

  34. D.Squat says:

    One thing people need to do is respond to the STFC online organisational review by TODAY. It has not been well advertised (why no astrocommunity email reminder for example this week?) The short online questionnaire canvesses opionions on what you think of STFC priorities, communications, responsivity and so on.

  35. Breaker 1-9 says:

    Point well made, D.Squat – astrocommunity managed to send several ads for a crappy-looking jolly (sorry, conference) in Kuala Lumpur, but nothing about this absolutely crucial questionnaire. Do they ever join the dots in Swindon?

  36. Michael Merrifield says:

    Guess we should cross you off the invite list, then… How disappointing for all concerned.

  37. Tony says:

    Not sure if anyone is still tracking the comments on this post but, if you want to contribute to a wider HE debate, check out http://hedebate.jiscinvolve.org/

    ‘DIUS is working on developing a framework for Higher Education in the UK for the next ten to fifteen years… and would be interested in hearing from anyone who might have an interest in one, some or all of the identified issues using this blog hosted on JISC Involve.’

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