Our day in Court

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.

17 Responses to Our day in Court

  1. Should we go for a vote of no confidence ? says:

    An absolutelyappalling and insensitive piece of spin on the BBC website from Keith Mason. Can there be any credibilty left in the abilities of the leaders of STFC? Time’s up Guys.


  2. Alternate reality says:

    Hear, hear, Keith’s BBC website piece is an atrocious and shameful down-playing of what the rest of us see as a very serious situation. Until recently some of us fondly believed he might still secretly be on our side and had an amazingly cunning plan to save physics and astronomy which we were too dim to be able to follow. Some hope. Keith’s version of reality is now abundantly clear.

    Vote of no confidence? Who knows? Mike Cruise thinks it might bring down the edifice with unknown consequences. Ken Pounds believes it might be very effective. If you take the question literally though (rather than as a political statement), the answer is clear to me at least – I have absolutely no confidence in Keith any more. Makes me sad.

  3. trevor macdonald says:

    Having watched Mason perform in front of people he’s laying off, he clearly has psychopathic tendencies. He really doesn’t give a damn. I’ve seen some pretty nasty bosses come and go, but Mason is a bone fide hard man.

    In November he had two choices, to put up and shut up, or to resign. Not only did he choose the wrong course, but he forgot to shut up. Instead, he’s left a stain on the character of many of us in astronomy and PP with his recent “they’re exaggerating – everything’s rosy” press release.

    Easy for him to say. What about the blameless hundreds he’s consigned to the dole, when they should be leading this country into a solid technological future? Where will we be when his precious medics need the next Diamond?

  4. Martin says:

    I wonder if this sorry mess could have been avoided if members of the panel that were over-ruled by Mason re: the MSSL rolling grant had done the right thing and resigned? The Czechoslovakia to our current Poland?

  5. CityLife says:

    Keith Mason’s admission of £4M/yr VAT on Diamond running costs must surely be worth a mention? Avoiding that one screw-up by STFC HQ would have saved us from ~15% of the cuts. £12M over the CSR is roughly equivalent to that saved from Gemini (£2-3M in year 3) plus ATC’s cuts (£11M over 3 years, minus £5-6M of redundancy payments), plus a year or two of grants line savings.

  6. UK Physics RIP says:

    It is clear from all of Keith Mason’s pronouncements that the Innovation centres and the Space Programme are all that matters. My conclusion is that DIUS was not concerned about the appalling damage to Particle Physics and Astronomy, not because we as a community have not made the case, but because Keith Mason did not. He set out what would happen, agreed, but there is no evidence anywhere that he warned that IT MATTERS. If he wonders why he has lost the confidence of the community, he needs to look no further than his lukewarm support and insistence that there is nothing too much which is wrong with the settlement and the priorities. There is.

  7. UK Physics RIP says:

    andyxl, looking at the register of interests of STFC Council members ( http://www.scitech.ac.uk/About/Strat/Council/register.aspx ), I see that there are two members of the board of the Daresbury Science and Innovation Campus (DSIC Ltd), Directors of the Diamond Light Source Ltd, members of the Executive Board of the Diamond Light Source, and members with interests in Harwell. These are facilities which are being protected and promoted in the STFC delivery plan, as it happens, but I would like to know your views in general on whether STFC Council members should have interests in the facilities whose budgets they decide upon, and whether or not we should be concerned.

  8. Another anonymous physicist says:

    Don’t worry UKPRIP, Whitehouse has never stuck up for Daresbury yet. And Mason has just sold us down the river.

    As for the Diamond people – now that’s a different matter…

  9. andyxl says:

    UKRIP : given the way STFC is constituted, there is nothing inappropriate about there being cross-representation with the major facilities it pays for. Richard Wade is also President of ESO Council – is that wrong too ? I would actually be worried if there were not such cross-representation. It would be suggesting they didn’t care.

    However, one could make the case that it would be healthier if the facilities and labs were clearly distinct from the agency, just as University groups are, and made peer reviewed bids for support. This is certainly one suggestion I will make to the Wakeham review.

  10. ian smail says:

    andy: i’m still trying to understand the purpose of the “new” STFC.

    the increased focus on KE/outreach is all very well – but the UK doesn’t really need to pay subscriptions to ESO/ESA/etc to reap the attendent modest KE gains – the reason the UK paid these subscriptions was to exploit those facilities for fundamental science.

    so where is the focus on science exploitation of all our facilities in the new strategy? i guess it should have been obvious when they forgot to include an “R” (as in Research) in STFC – but science exploitation by the STFC community doesn’t appear to be a priority in the new plan (otherwise why are we cutting back the grants quite so excessively). STFC is simply going to be relegated to being a support organisation for MRC/EPSRC-funded researchers – and that doesn’t seem a sustainable strategy.

    i agree that FEC is also eating into the science exploitation budget. there is no downward pressure on costs from the universities – and so as a result these are ballooning. a rough estimate suggests that they soaked up 20% more of the grants line this year than was anticipated – and that’s before we have to apply a 25% cut. so the claim that the number of PDRAs will only drop by ~10% by the end of the CSR is fantasy – its going to be more like ~40% (assuming of course that the 25% cuts get applied in 2009/2010 – and aren’t scaled back when it becomes apparent the damage they’re doing). this will obviously have a very dramatic impact on our ability to lead the exploitation of ESO/ESA/etc – no doubt raising questions at the next CSR of why we’re paying for these facilities if we don’t have anyone to exploit them?

  11. consultation > /dev/null says:

    “Science and Technology Facilities Council” is an anagram of “Filthy Science Cancellation Suicide Congo”.

  12. andyxl says:

    Hmm.. the Congo bit is a tad abritrary …

  13. K. Mason says:

    I cut local needy scientific cash. Logic? None.

  14. andyxl says:

    Now that’s neat. Before you all get too excited, I don’t think this is really Keith…

  15. The Anonymous Physicist says:

    Spot on with your analysis. You know, I was curious why no-one took up on the FEC steal before. It looks like a standard Govt. policy – give more on one side whilst simutaneously taking it back elsewhere, and then telling everyone only the upside. What else would you expect? Watch the lady indeed.

  16. […] You can listen to the live recording of the proceedings. I reported on the first session here, and you can find the transcript […]

  17. […] can listen to the recording, and check out my spin on Part One and Part Two. This time the session came in two halves. In Fit the First we had operations guys […]

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