Stormy Space Weather

January 31, 2008

One of the victims of the STFC funding crisis is ground-based solar-terrestrial physics : STFC decided to pull out of ground-based radar systems. A few years back, many mainstream astronomers would have quietly let it slip, as it seemed rather dull compared to cosmology, solar physics, or planet hunting : good stuff but not top priority. But now its not so clear, as space weather has an important part in the climate change story; and now of course its all part of the “man the barricades” defence campaign. On January 21, the informal club of that community, known as MIST, had a meeting following which they issued an extremely strident set of resolutions. They also issued a press release, which was picked up by the BBC, and by New Scientist. The tone is getting tougher all round. Here is a toughly worded article in New Statesman, brought to my attention by Rob Ivison.

Behind the scenes, very strongly worded emails are flying around. Not sure where this is all headed… Meanwhile the IUS select committee continues. The next evidence session is on Feb 20th, when they will interview Science Minister Ian Pearson and Research Councils Supremo Keith O’Nions. Meanwhile, subsets of the committee are on a fact finding tour. They were at RAL today; are due at ATC on Feb 5th; and they will presumably be visiting Daresbury, but I haven’t heard about this …


More than coincidence ? Part II

January 30, 2008

Some weeks back I drew to your attention (along with about three thousand other bloggers) to the eery appearance of the previous Pope in a bonfire, and the spooky similarities between Anglo-Saxons and Angled Saxophones. A few days back I reported Omar Almaini’s contention that Keef Mason is actually Chas from Chas and Dave. For the avoidance of doubt, I present the evidence:

Keith Mason with astronomical chums

Chas from Chas and Dave

It now seems that Omar’s detective juices are continuing to flow; he has discovered that our hero Brain Cox and the apparently inferior crooner James Blunt are actually the same person. See for yourself:

reamboat Brain Cox

Crooner and Military Superhero James Blunt

Well I needed cheering up. I’ve got a cold and the STFC cuts are getting me down. There is an upside. Since converting my blog into astro-politics, the readership has zoomed up. Monday I broke a thousand page views on one day for the first time ever. The wordpress stats are not that sophisticated so I have no idea if this is a thousand people or five nutters looking at their favourite bits again and again and again and again. Probably somewhere logarithmically in between.

Omar Almaini is eighty three.


Gemini Roller Coaster

January 28, 2008

Things have been happening fast over the weekend… On Friday STFC announced that the UK had been summarily evicted from Gemini. They consider us not just to be giving notice of withdrawal, but to have left the partnership immediately, and not even the next semester’s observing allocations will be honoured. The same day the relevant Gemini Board resolutions appeared on the Gemini website. (Committees are so efficient these days !). By late Friday evening and Saturday morning emails with words like “stunned and appalled” and “spectacular failure of diplomacy” and “call for resignation” were flying round the community. Part of the upset was the suddeness of the announcement without going through the UK Gemini team first.

By teatime on Saturday, Stuart had written things up nicely on the Astronomy Blog. Saturday night I went to a Burns Supper at Andy Taylor’s house. John Peacock and I chinked our glasses of Talisker and toasted the death of Gemini. This all feels particularly depressing in Edinburgh. Gemini withdrawal knocked out key parts of the ATC work programme, and now US astronomers will find it easier to follow up UKIDSS than we will in the UK. The timing is horrible. On Thursday, Dan Mortlock, Steve Warren et al announced the discovery of our first z>6 quasar – using Gemini of course…

Next morning however, a kind of community PR fightback started. Paul Crowther circulated a message from Richard Wade setting out what he believed to have been the real sequence of events. Given that this emailed to a huge list of people, I see no harm in attaching it here, as it is interesting reading. Even more fun is the attached exchange between Keith Mason, Steve Miller and Hugh Jones, in which amongst other things the whole sorry episode is compared to a Marx Brothers film. (Don’t forget, there ain’t no such a thing as Sanity Clause). Finally for your edification, you might be interested to see the message that has been circulating to US astronomers, sent on to me by Martin Elvis. (Hope thats ok Martin). Hey, at least there is some good news for US astronomers !

One thing that is interesting and encouraging about all this is just that Keith and Richard have been actively engaging with UK astronomers. After last week’s select committee hearings, everybody was very depressed because it didn’t sound like Keith was sticking up for us. (The comments on my blog posts were getting mildly unpleasant but understandable.. and even the normally mild mannered Omar Almaini sent me an email wondering if Keith was really Chas from Chas and Dave)

I wasn’t surprised; Keith Mason’s job is to run the whole of STFC, not astronomy; and he has a horrible tightrope to walk between the community, his Council, DIUS, the Minister, the press…He couldn’t possibly be seen to be knocking DIUS at the select committee. He had to do the opposite. Still, he could have handled us with more tact at the same time …and the lack of community engagement (as opposed to bigwig consultation) has been the poorest thing about STFC performance. So I wonder, is it a coincidence that suddenly the Gemini fiasco has been handled in a very different way, with mass emailing and “lets all pull together chaps” ??

Sunday evening Andrew Jaffe covered the issue in his blog and included the nice phrase “you attract more flies with honey than vinegar”. Putting aside the issue of whether you want to attract more flies, this is certainly what concerns me about the whole STFC funding gap crisis pallaver brouhaha thingy. When to shout and when to help…


How to pay for Astronomy

January 25, 2008

Name A Star Gift Box Keen readers may remember me uncovering the Great Armenian Star Naming Rip Off. Now Waterstones are at it too. Today in Princes Street, I was depressed to find them selling “name a star” gift sets for £20. You also can get this wondrous product direct from Gift Republic. Inside you find the co-ordinates of your star. You invent a name and register this, and periodically Gift Republic submit their information to the British Library. Coo. Well that sounds important.

Interestingly, the box I saw in Waterstones had some tiny small print which does not appear on the web site. This said, roughly “..this will not necessarily be recognised by any official scientific organisation… this is a novelty gift and should be taken as such.” This made me much more relaxed. If anybody is dumb enough to read that and still cough up twenty quid then its their own fault.

Why not start up our own, and covenant all the profits to the Gemini Observatory ? We could do a much better job. There could be a premium rate for special objects like cataclysmic variables. People could pay a monthly fee to get gamma ray burst alerts within 10 degrees of their star. There could be a discount rate for a thousand objects at a time. Or maybe we charge £5000 for a complete open cluster. We could guarantee annotations in the SuperCosmos Science Archive.

Does this count as Knowledge Exchange ?


Our day in Court

January 23, 2008

So the Select Committee hearing on the Science Budget Allocations finally came and went. You can listen to the proceedings
at the Parliament web site. There are postings at the Astronomy Blog and at Chris Lintott’s Universe . There are already all sorts of angry comments on earlier posts of mine here and here . STFC have put out a positive news spin on the BBC , but Ken Peach has produced a Panglossian parody of this . I didn’t know Ken was quite so erudite. (My daughter once asked what “erudite” meant. I told her it described the kind of person who knew what “erudite” meant).

So what have we learned ? Here’s my take.

It was all a mistake.

Oh no it wasn’t.

“Unintended consequences” was the line taken by Michael Rowan-Robinson and Peter Main, who were utterly cogent overall – but wrong on this point. This was a conscious act by DIUS. To be fair to Keith Mason, he says this consistently and firmly. The priority was medicine. Who is going to argue ? And they had to fund FEC, and the subscriptions; and meeting the costs of Diamond and ISIS. Fine. Tick, as MRR said. STFC and DIUS knew that this left the rest of the programme in a hole. They could then have added just a wee bit more. They chose not to. They chose not to because astronomy and particle physics did not make a strong enough case; and some people believe genuinely that University departments are too reliant on particle physics and astronomy.

Whatever short term help we may or may not get, this is the big message. We aint getting the message across, and unless we do, at the next CSR we are utterly sunk. Mason et al have screwed up in all sorts of ways, but on this basic issue they have told the truth repeatedly.

But the hearing was depressing because it sounded like Keith agreed with this government view of astronomy.

FEC : watch the lady

Paying for Full Economic Costing really is a problem. And it is going to be worse for EPSRC, as they are grants dominated. If you are doing condensed matter physics, don’t be smug … EPSRC will probably start announcing cuts a few months from now. But how can this be ? Surely the whole FEC thing should be cost neutral ? It looks like the Government has not passed enough money to the Research Councils to pay for FEC .. so this is really a hidden cut that we hadn’t understood.

But there is some extra money here … and its flowing to our Universities. Where will it go ? Its meant for infrastructure, not PDRAs, but we should asking our admins for that lab refurbishment and extra server and so on that we might have put on grants … Don’t wait until that new Management School Building appears and you wonder where it came from …

Diamond is not the problem .. or is it ?

Diamond is not the problem. CCLRC underprovisioning is. The Diamond and ISIS guys are professionals. By 2003-4 they had accurate operating cost estimates, and have stuck to them since. But CCLRC never had enough money in their budget to cover this : they were £25M/year short, as explained in the National Audit Office report. They were crossing their fingers. It seems they were right to trust in God. Eventually, God agreed that exploiting Diamond and ISIS was top priority and just had to be paid for. At the hearing, it was pointed out that the consequences of this were stated clearly in the Delivery Plan. I quote from page 7 :

Our ability to fully exploit the facility will depend on the success in making the savings elsewhere in this plan.

Remember, this what they had to write after their bid for that wee bit extra had failed.

Was PPARC Science damaged by the merger ?

Of course it was. At the hearings, Keith denied this, pointing out that their initial budget was equal to the sum of the two old Research Councils. But as explained above, the CCLRC budget had a £25M/yr hole in it. Derrrh.

Should we go for a vote of no confidence ?

I am not going to go for personal criticisms in my blog, although I won’t stop other’s comments unless they are really over the top. I don’t think its the right place.

What do we do ?

Either back room deals are happening or they’re not. Most of us can’t do much about that. Hopefully they are, and it will produce enough money to smooth over the chaos.

But get ready for the future. Make the case for fundamental science. Brain Cox can’t do it all.


Dinner at Hogwarts

January 22, 2008

Sometimes life converges, crosses, and then spreads, like peaking waves in a choppy sea.

Yesterday I went to Oxford. I had been invited to give a seminar about AstroGrid at the Oxford e-Research Centre. This felt weird. The software is in a good state, and will be released in April, but the staff on my project don’t know if they will get paid this month; our expected grant announcement is on hold because of all the STFC problems. That stream of thought continued as I crossed Keble Road to Astrophysics, to meet Roger Davies, who like myself is entangled in all the astro-politics. We asked each other if there was any news of the Select Committee hearings..

Roger had invited me to Dinner (capital D) at Christchuch College. This was extraordinary, in the painfully beautiful but privileged Oxford manner; ancient quadrangle, sonorous bell, flapping gowns, glass of sherry in wood panelled room. Then into the Great Hall to sit at top table next to the Dean, three feet above theGreat Hall at Christchurch, aka Hogwarts massed ranks of Christchurch students, seventeenth century portraits staring down from every wall. “Wow” says I to Roger, “this is so Harry Potter”. “Yes of course” says Roger, “this is where it was filmed…”.

Back to sherry land, more Oxford banter. Roger and I trying to avoid talking about STFC politics, as we have done it to death. In comes a tall, bright, and cheerful young chap. “Have you met Chris Lintott ?” says Roger. “No” says I, “but I feel I should have done – we read each others blogs…”

My blog, my science, my politics, my children’s fantasy worlds collided in that moment. But then the clock struck nine and I had to leave before missing my train.


DIUS on a sticky wicket

January 16, 2008

During the whole STFC-cuts-crisis thingy, a controversial issue has been the question of who knew when just how bad this would be. Was it just an STFC cock-up, or did the Minister know it would be bad, and still not give them enough money ? Through a combination of logic and gossip, I think most of us pretty much knew the answer. My take on this was set out in this wee playlet on December 14th. But now we have proof, cos a bunch of intrepid particle physicists got all the right documents out of STFC using the Freedom of Information Act. The key documents are loaded up here. They show clearly that STFC warned DIUS pretty clearly several times. This doesn’t mean the Minister(s) knew of course. They would have been relying on their officials.

Excellent work by our particle physics chums, followed up swiftly by a piece on the Today programme this morning at 0845. (For those who didn’t catch the Today programme this morning, you can listen again here.) D:reamy Brian Cox tried to explain the difference between Resource, Near Cash and Non Cash to Sarah Montague. Quantum Field Theory might have been easier.

Brian is available for weddings and barmitzvahs.


STFC : more heat

January 15, 2008

You can see a video of the private members debate on the STFC crisis initiated by Wantage MP Ed Vaizey at this link here. Move the slider to four hours in to get the right bit.

The Today programme at8:30 Wednesday should also be fun..


HECToR launch : another free lunch ?

January 14, 2008

Well, in today’s comments someone accused me of being on an ego trip cos I was brown nosing with Mason, Wade, Efstathiou, Rowan-Robinson et al at the “ad hoc” meeting. So maybe I shouldn’t mention having a free lunch today, listening to the Chancellor of the Exchequer tell us that Science is safe in his hands, and chatting to O’Nions over a glass of champagne ? Except of course I didn’t get within twelve feet of that nice Mr Darling, and O’Nions pretended to know who I was but actually couldn’t quite remember. I only mention this to point out the contrast with the ad hoc meeting… everybody at the ad hoc meeting was someone I’ve known for twenty years or more, and have sunk many pints with, so it didn’t exactly feel like an ego trip… Old Boys Club, maybe …

So why was I hobnobbing with the big boys today ? It was the official opening of HECToR, the new national supercomputer, paid for by EPSRC but run by the University of Edinburgh. Its the seventeenth most powerful computer in the world apparently. If you like lists, check out www.top500.org. Its a Cray XT5, and I finally got to see the beast today. Rows of black boxes with identical racks of identical boards. One of the Crayons showed us the inside of a board. This was weird cos it looked just like the inside of my PC. Opteron CPUs and a bunch of DIMMS. Oh and some super fast interconnect ..

Meanwhile, the IOP and RAS have released their joint submission to the upcoming select committee. You can find it here.


RAS-STFC joint communique

January 13, 2008

Last Wednesday I zooted down to Londinium for an informal ad-hoc meeting of senior astronomers with STFC bosses Keith Mason and Richard Wade. It was Chatham House rules, which means no quotes; but we therefore made a point of arriving at a statement we could all agree on. Enjoy.
Meanwhile Stuart over at the Astronomy Blog has a summary of recent parliamentary debates.