Gemini Roller Coaster

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…

19 Responses to Gemini Roller Coaster

  1. Another Anonymous Physicist says:

    I wouldn’t get too excited by Keith’s sudden damascene conversion to consultation. I don’t doubt that he’s a nice chap really.

    We have a sneaking suspicion that the redundancy exercise falls on the wrong side of the law and are spending time when we should be researching reading employment law. Injunction anyone?

  2. andyxl says:

    I keep saying this in various quarters, but I would make a clear distinction between “consultation” and “engagement” …

  3. andyxl says:

    Oh and whether Keith is a nice chap is irrelevant. I have known some utter bastards who were rather good at their job.

  4. Cuthbert Bede says:

    Do we know whether the Gemini withdrawal penalty is already included in the £80m shortfall, or is that an extra £7m cut elsewhere, e.g. to the grants line?

  5. Another Anonymous physicis says:

    Hmmm, let me look at the spreadsheet that’s embedded in slide 16 of the FOI power point presentation. You know, the one with all the numbers for each project and their priority for the next 3 years. Nope, the £7M is not accounted for there. Hmm, maybe it’s under the bed. Nope not there either. Perhaps under the floorboards, Nope.
    Seven million, seven million, come out come out wherever you are.

  6. Kav says:

    Maybe I am becoming more embittered as I go along but quite frankly regarding your comment “When to shout and when to help…” my distinct impression is that too many folk don’t know how to shout.

    This all seems too familiar

  7. andyxl says:

    kav – in most political situations I would agree – people don’t shout enough; its how the British political system works. In this case we as a commmunity have done a lot of shouting, and quite right too – we have very much been noticed. But just as in any argument, once you have made your strong feelings clear, and left no doubt that you could shout again, you may need to switch to friendly negotiation, rather than backing your opponent into a corner….

  8. Alternate reality says:

    Golly andyxl have we really been that rude and forceful? Personally I’m not convinced appeasement appeals …

  9. andyxl says:

    You misunderstand me. Big stick soft voice better than loud voice no stick. Of course you might now reasonably ask, whats this big stick then ? Errrr .. good question.

  10. Kav says:

    I take your point, but given past comments from STFC management I have little confidence that friendly negotiation will work.

    It failed spectacularly for STP in the past . As we thought we were making headway suddenly we are hearing things that, let us say, conflict with the recollections of many (and existing documentation), being put forward by certain folk.

    I should be clear that I have been impressed with the community fight back from all areas of STFC funded science – I don’t think we have been so united before (though that might be my short memory).

    Also, you might be right about backing your opponent into a corner, but I would note that there is a door in that corner with a large, flashing ‘exit’ sign above it. And it can be opened from the outside…

  11. CityLife says:

    Keith Mason and his chief henchmen have openly stated that the programme will be more focused and razor-sharp as a result of this exercise. I would like to suggest, since this kind of logic apparently gets one promoted to CEO, that we pee £80M down the toilet each CSR round from now on.

  12. Cuthbert Bede says:

    “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” ?? ”

    Of course not. It’s simply that the outcome can now be blamed squarely on the Gemini Board and their “regrettable”, “precipitative” and “unilateral” actions. (Not to mention their failure to “allow proper discussion and communication”, a particular specialty of STFC). So stop complaining — Mason et al. have done their best, and they feel your pain.

  13. andyxl says:

    Nothing like a common enemy eh ? Damned Yanks.

  14. UK Physics RIP says:

    Cuthbert Bede has it just right. Let us quote it in full:

    “I fully appreciate the pain and anger that this situation is going to cause but I think people need be aware that the actions of the Gemini Board have been precipitative and have not allowed proper discussion or communication.


    No way to run an organisation, clearly.

  15. The Anonymous Physicist says:

    Like my esteemed anonymous colleague, I’ve also been looking through the FOI-released STFC spreadsheets, and they make no f-ing sense. There are far too many curiously-round numbers. Joel Best taught me not to believe in numbers with lots of zeros at the end, as they’re almost certainly just plucked out of the air, and I can tell you that this spreadsheet is full of them.

    What’s most interesting are the nebulous sums divided over several lines regarding space science, with huge numbers such as 14M and 20M just dumped into them, and huge increases planned in this CSR. How does STFC plan to recruit all these extra spacemen? Maybe by subcontracting to his mates in Surrey

    And of course, the news of the 7M penalty – and it definitely isn’t in the spreadsheets (yet) – is just the icing on the cake. But in this case, you pay for the cake but can’t eat it.

  16. Gemini Roller Coaster says:

    For many people working in the fields that are affected it is unbelievable that STFC managers could have been so inept as to have negotiated with the Gemini Board in a way that led to the UK being ejected in this inglorious way. The UK’s investment of almost £40M in this is now lost for future generations, the near-term prospects for UK astronomy looks bleak, and in the case of ground based STP, decimated, and our international reputation is blighted. How can any negotiators have messed it up and misjudged it so badly? How?

    We see from andxl’s copied email that a select group of senior astronomers were then treated to spin and diversion by both Keith and Richard over the weekend to try to cast the blame elsewhere on the Gemini Board. Many people are now realizing that the problem is so bad that STFC Managers are in complete denial of the problem (and I’m equally sure that they will deny this …) – see the disrespectful quotes on the BBC article telling us that Physics has a brighter future – how could STFC managers have been so insensitive to the people they were about to commit to the dole queues – how could they be so blind to what is happening around them at ground zero.

    The UK Astronomy community has completely lost confidence in the senior management of STFC, with direct calls over the last few days for senior STFC staff and Board Members to stand down coming from the MIST community. These are only the first – other votes of no confidence will come after this. The staff at STFC Swindon are in limbo and totally dismayed with all decision making having been taken away from them, and the research programmes of many people in the university community are being decimated by the cuts that are to come. Do STFC Senior managers ever talk to their own staff … the same people that the UK community actually have a very good relationship with that has been built up over years of trust – perhaps STFC manager should try to talk to their own loyal staff sometime?

    We should perhaps also ask the CEO and Deputy CEO to confirm that they have performance related parts to their contracts and salaries (most civil servants at their level are) and whether it is in fact better for them to quell the community and force the cuts through that DIUS want, rather than fighting for the community against DIUS (their salary bonuses after all depend on them doing as their political masters say). I’m sure it’s none of our business to ask about their salary conditions, on the other hand, it might be nice to know whether they really are there serving us, or DIUS. But I guess we already know that answer.

    Perhaps we should also ask them whether a disproportionate number of projects appeared in the STFC Delivery plan happen to have MSSL (The CEO’s institution) involved, or maybe to ask them whether there was manipulation of the previous grants round last year to award extra posts to MSSL that were not recommended by peer review (which it is widely known led to the resignation of the Committee Chairman), perhaps we should try asking whether any of there are any of leading astronomers in the UK who retain confidence in the STFC CEO and Deputy CEO following this disgraceful exercise that has led to the community being shattered and tattered – probably not too wise to go near Oxford City centre at the moment.

    Oh yes – I forgot – then when the heat gets a little intense and the natives start grumbling about 25% cuts to the grants line, let’s just change the statistics so that we count numbers of lost postdocs lost compared to 2005 figures rather than today – then, almost magically – golly – we turn the threatened cuts in numbers of postdocs from 25% to 10%. Great trick – wish I’d thought about doing that. Why not be even cleverer, and go back to 1905, and then tell us how many Postdocs we will have *increased* over the 108 years, that comes from the generous Government spun 13.6% increase in funding. I’m sure that this could lead to some ‘it’s even brighter than bright new future’ quotes based on this new viewpoint.

  17. Martin says:

    Holy mother – have you just given up fags or something?

    Just kidding. Agree with most of your rant, though I was unaware of anyone resigning from MSSL’s roller review committee – do tell? This person should be deified…

  18. Martin says:

    Pondering the identity of this deity, newly arrived amongst us, I realised that of the six or so female astronomers I know well (stop sniggering back there), all six would have seriously considered resigning, whereas of my six closest male colleagues, perhaps one would have resigned. Perhaps I finally found a good reason for positive discrimination?

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