Gemini and STFC’s problems : triple squeeze

Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, has written a piece for Research Fortnight about the Gemini-withdrawal issue. The RAS has put out the text of Michael’s article as a newsfeed. Its worth a read. I think Michael has the issues spot on (he usually does..)

STFC has a triple squeeze. Because of “Full Economic Costing” they have to give the Universities more money; the subscriptions they have to pay to CERN, ESA, and ESO are tied to GDP which is going up in real terms; and the operations costs of Diamond and ISIS are alarmingly larger than forecast.

UK astronomers understood that moving in with the big boys was going to be scary. When Diamond sneezes, we catch cold. But if something folds, we could be in the gravy. Hmm. Sorry about the gharrssly mixed metaphors.

Key point buried in Michael’s article : watch the spreadsheets at your University and make sure you are getting the FEC flowthrough. The biologists will be getting nervous as Charities, their main grant sources, don’t pay FEC, so their income generation now looks much weaker…

Details for political geeks only :

I was aware of the ops costs issue in general terms, but Michael refers to a report of the Public Accounts Committee which spells this out. You can find the report (HC 521, Nov 13) here. Dull reading but important … Big projects like Diamond, ISIS, MICE, and HECToR have all been very impressive in capital terms, mostly coming in on time and on budget, but they are nearly all coming in 50-80% higher in operations costs terms than originally approved. This particularly hits STFC, and looks like costing them £27M/year, even before paying all that FEC and growing subscription costs.

EPSRC will be hit too, as the new national supercomputer, HECToR has, like Diamond, ISIS-2, and MICE, come in on budget in capital terms, but has turned out to be more expensive to operate than originally expected. This is where I breathe nervously. HECToR is operated by EPCC within my own School. Its in an anonymous building out near where Dolly the Sheep was born. The costs of HECToR are dominated by the huge electricity bills, needed for cooling the darn thing. We are currently trying to work out if we can vent some of the heat into greenhouses and grow tomatoes. I jest not. Anyway, with the oil age about to end, electricity ain’t going to get any cheaper.

However … the contract we have signed makes it clear that EPSRC bears the operating costs, not the University of Edinburgh.

Or if thats not true, Richard Kenway and Arthur Trew are dead men.

4 Responses to Gemini and STFC’s problems : triple squeeze

  1. The Anonymous Physicist says:

    What annoys me about the Public Accounts Committee report on DIAMOND construction is that they are complaining about a £10M increase in £253M (which was down to increasing steel and other raw material costs). I’d like to see that compared to other major Govt. projects. Did anyone say ‘Scottish Parliament?’ The big joke about the operations costing is that the initial wet finger in the air value of £20M per annum – ‘it’ll be the same as the running the SRS’ seems to have stuck right up to turn-on this year, and suddenly everyone is looking around wondering why it’s different. Duh.

  2. andyxl says:

    Dear anonymous – sounds like you are pretty much agreeing with the PAC report. It is fairly complimentary about the various projects coming in on time and budget; the criticism is reserved for operations costs increases, in that these were not properly thought through – just as you say. I have no insight into whether this is fair or true, but it does seem to be the same as you are saying.

  3. The Anonymous Physicist says:

    I think a key point here is Keith Mason’s:

    ‘…If you look at the history of the projects that we are currently engaged in, none of
    these cost increases has been “uncontrolled”. They have been for specific reasons which are well understood, where key decisions were made, for
    example about the scope of the project and what it
    should deliver. Diamond is a case in point…’

    When DIAMOND was getting up and running, there was a huge increase in the size (scope) of the project (from 14 to 22 possible user beamlines) and therefore its likely running cost, but these were never properly tied together. Also, although it’s not present in this PAC report, there has been some criticism about the capital outlay, even though the project was never given the contingency it thought was necessary. I believe that ERLP (the one that is 65 percent over) had no contigency included either. And ERLP is a much higher-risk project (1st in Europe, and intrinsically hard technology).

  4. Engaging info:D hope to come back again soon.

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