DIUS on a sticky wicket

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.

24 Responses to DIUS on a sticky wicket

  1. […] what can be done? Andy reports that documents released by the freedom of information act reveal that the government knew […]

  2. Peter Williams says:

    The minister now MUST answer: Was this deliberate or not?

    If yes: Then it’s a political decision and Haldane goes out the window.

    If no: Then fix it.

  3. andyxl says:

    Well, depends how you interpret the Haldane principle. According to the wikipedia article, the principle is that “decisions about what to spend research funds on should be made by researchers rather than politicians”. This would normally be interpreted as not interfering in deciding which projects or grants to fund. It doesn’t mean politicians can’t decide the relative priorities of whole areas – i.e. how much money to allocate to medicine versus how much to chemistry. If PPARC still existed and had gotten a really low settlement we would have been distressed but wouldn’t have had a cause for complaint on “Haldane” grounds.

  4. Alan Penny says:

    Congratulations to you and Ken Peach and the FoI Act for making those STFC documents publically available, although even so it seems unlikely that the government can be persuaded to change its mind.

    I think that understanding the process, and what the present state of play is, helps us workers plan our research paths.

    Does this mean that for the next CSR we should do all this sort of lobbying BEFORE the CSR?

  5. Dan says:

    Picking up on the ealier thread really, about the report from the ad hoc meeting. Pleased to see the appeal of astronomy to schoolchildren being forward as a good reason to do astronomy. I have asked UK Association of Science Education (a teachers organisation) to submit there views on this to DIUS. Also, astronomers have among the best track records, experience and skills of all scientists in working with schools and the public. If astronomy implodes, this is a loss to the whole science community, not just astronomy.

  6. UK Physics RIP says:

    So how can STFC comtemplate a MoonLite mission for £100M at a time like this? It seems to have been made up by the people at the top of STFC without scientific justification or consultation. Oh, and can you say which UK institute leads this mission?

  7. andyxl says:

    I am sure they believe that this is the sort of thing that will get us more money from Government. This is great as long as it’s an adddition .. but the danger is that it just eats out of other things of course. If this was being done by PPARC, it would be unambiguous which was happening. But in the new larger structure its an ambiguous question ..There isn’t an “astronomy budget line” that this comes out of.

  8. UK Physics RIP says:

    Hmm – wasn’ t that the argument for the Aurora programme, though (which also lacks widespread communtity support)? Now it is in the programme, and high priority at STFC, when the going gets tough it ain’t Aurora which is getting hit!

  9. Stuart says:

    Andy, everyone’s favourite particle physicist was on the BBC’s North West Tonight programme (the regional news programme) the other day talking about how the cuts will affect Daresbury. If you’re quick you can watch it at: http://www.bbc.co.uk/northwesttonight/latest_stories/

  10. andyxl says:

    Yup the boy done a good job. Why do I have to be quick ? Does Brian decay into two other particle physicists after some timescale ?

    Re Aurora and Moonlite : some folk keep hinting at MSSL nepotism. but I don’t think thats the issue. Pushing space exploration is a gamble, and it doesn’t seem to be paying off, except that we will probably win a nice new ESA space centre at RAL. That should be cost neutral – ESA will spend money there – but its yet more growth in Oxfordshire while Daresbury and Edinburgh shrink.

  11. Stuart says:

    You don’t have to be quick but the folks at the BBC often like to make things disappear after seven days. Also, I couldn’t find an individual page for the story so it should drop off the “latest stories” page within a couple of days.

  12. Nopotism an MuSpScLab – oh surely not, Andylx – what can your co-respondent possibly be thinking of – manipulation of the grants round, GAIA, MoonLITE, XEUS – all missions or benefits to/of somewhere near the south coast as I remember – but then noone of the managers at Swindon Town Football club, or their ‘close friends’, have anything to do with MuSpScLab – do they … – so it canna really be described as nepotism – or … At least Newcastle had theguts to get rid of big Sam, maybe King Kev. or even King Michael, should be approached to move to Swindon to sort out the mess – in Kev’s spare time he might even help our football team as well – surely CEO of STFC is not that difficult a job?

  13. andyxl says:

    Dear NepBlaFoHill – you need to be careful what you say in public as opposed to down the pub. GAIA and XEUS are scientifically top rate, have been through repeated peer review, and benefit other institutions too, including us in the case of Gaia. MoonLite is an opening wedge but we have not yet committed large amounts of money; yes indeed we should make sure it is subject to rigorous peer review.

    CEO of STFC not a difficult job ??? Are you mad ???

  14. trevor macdonald says:

    XEUS has only ever been peer reviewed once at ESA – for Cosmic Visions 2015-25. Prior to that, it had received many millions of technology development support. If you think STFC is corrupt, try ESA for size – not only do vested interests stay in the room for critical decisions, they often draft the reports!

  15. andyxl says:

    I think somebody once explained to me that ESA works by fear and loathing. Or maybe that was Walmart. Anyhoo.. depends what you mean by “peer review”. Missions like XEUS get discussed many times by many grades of committee with community representatives on, and the agency read the atmosphere .. but genuine competitive-proposal, anonymous-referee, vote-and-choose kinda peer review – indeedy that is done very sparingly.

    This is why in the “ad-hoc group” communique, we made a careful statement about “consultation” as opposed to “peer review”.

    But this is the way that RAL have always run big facilities like ISIS, CLF etc. They have “user committees” but then, after listening to some opinions, wise management heads decide whats best for people and build it. The way PP and astro has been run in the UK the last two decades – with the community actually feeling like they owned the facilities and made decisions – is the anomaly. Well of course it is the Government’s money, not ours. This in part is why the US guys invented AURA : a consortium of Universities really DOES own the telescopes. Opinions on success of that ?

  16. Tone says:

    I don’t accept that ESA is run by fear and loathing – not on my watch! We have countless consultative committees, public meetings, international reviews, overviews, and recently underviews by RvD – what more do you expect us to do – why criticize us in this way. We listen intently to everything that you think you vant. In the end ve just have to do what is in your best interests. How elze would you expect us to run an Agency! Dankzegging andyxl

  17. Those parts of yesterday’s debate that I could listen to demonstrated STFC’s attempts at denial and buck passing, their lack of vision as to how we get out of the situation, and their acceptance that the Wakeham Review would have no real implications on the current problems of reducndancy, withdrawl from major international facilities, and reductions in Research Grants. How do you propose we recover from, and take ownership of this situation andyxl?

  18. andyxl says:

    Chris – I have only listened to a small part so far. Michael Rowan-Robinson and Peter Main were very cogent. However, the line taken “this must be a mistake” I think is wrong. Its not a mistake. Its a deliberate act – the Government gave science extra money; but commitments swallowed this up; they could have added some more to stop damage to astronomy; but they chose not to. Keith Mason knows this very well; he is both an astronomer and a loyal servant of DIUS, and so horribly conflicted. So what can be done in the short term ? Some smoothing over money. But what is the real point ? Convince the public and the government of the worth of astronomy …

  19. Peter Williams says:

    “Convince the public and the government of the worth of astronomy …” …and the rest of STFC funded science. Yes, Andy, that’s exactly what us Northern troglodytes are trying to do in the media. It’s not a difficult case to make, Brian has had journalists eating out of his hand. There is a lot of public enthusiasm for science.

  20. Anon says:

    The goverment is also enthusiastic about science. The problem is the enthusiasm seems to be for medical science and biophysics not astronomy or particle physics. At least thats the impression I got from listening to keith mason and Ian diamond speaking to the select committee. In fact the general impression I have is they only want to fund applied science, not fundamental science like particle physics.

  21. Concerned for the future says:

    But the reality is that Particle Physics and Astronomy remain of great interest to the public, and as has been well stated, are subjects that started many scientists off in their exploration of the subject in the first place

    Returning to the focus of this blog (it is getting a bit off track and losing sight of the real issues I’m afraid), to quote Prof Mason … ‘we are in this situation, so lets just get on with it’. Fine, thanks for those great words of support, just what we wanted to hear from you, a great way to marshal your troops around you.

    But does there really remain much confidence within the community that the present Senior Management at STFC are the right people to lead Particle Physics, Nuclear Physics and Astronomy out of the problem. The woeful lack of communication with the community as the crisis developed was dressed up in STFC-speak as being due to the need to act fast, and that it was adequately discussed with Committees. However, this has already been refuted by some members of those same committees (see Paul Crowther’s web page and the Jan 8th Guardian), leaving it difficult to believe anything we are told from STFC now.

    Maybe it’s time to stand back from this shambles and to take a fresh look at the future, and also to look inwardly, and outwardly, at who should be brought in to take the community forward. Should the community really seek to change personnel at the top now – should senior Management just be allowed to get on with it? There are arguments for this that they already know something about the system – but there is also so much angry sentiment in the PP, NP and Astronomy communities that enough is enough – and a resignation that we have been left exposed in the present situation by inadequate leadership (however STFC want to dress it up) that did not manage to contain the situation at an early stage in the development of the crisis. Maybe the best way forward now is just to have a clean sweep and regroup. Is this going to happen – well many people are talking about this privately – but everyone is worried that by putting their heads above the parapet, they will be the first to suffer. Perhaps it is time to appeal to the people involved to do the right thing to allow everyone to move forward

  22. To quote Keith Mason from the BBC website:

    ‘The “doom and gloom” being spread about the state of UK physics and the funding of research is unhelpful and paints an inaccurate picture, says Keith Mason. The chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council claims the likely fallout from its spending settlement has been exaggerated’


    What world are you living on – still in Holmbury St Mary perhaps?

    Look at the redundancies, the high quality research grants that will be rejected, the demoralisation of your own staff in Swindon, and tha appalling situation that has been allowed to develop whilst you were our representative, and the decimation that will occur in many areas of astronomy – whoops … STFC reprioritisation … pardon my incorrect terminology …

    It is clear that a clear that a clean out at the top of STFC is the only real way forward now

  23. […] 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 […]

  24. Very interesting article I like your blog keep up the good blog posts

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