World Wide Telescope : coming soon

February 29, 2008

At a TED conference in Monterrey, Roy Gould from the Science Education Department of CfA just gave a glitzy talk plugging Microsoft’s World Wide Telescope software. This is Jim Gray’s legacy, following on from his work with Alex Szalay and Sky Server. It sounds like its going to be very nice, maybe smoother and faster than Google Sky. But you can’t get it yet .. its promised for “Spring 2008”. When it is ready, it will be downloadable from the worldwidetelescope web site. Meanwhile that web site has pix of kids gawping cutely etc.

Apparently its so good it made Robert Scoble cry.

Our Day in Court : Part Three

February 28, 2008

Ladles and Jellyspoons, I preezent to yew, the Third, the Grandest, and the Very Final Part of The Grilling of Keef, in which the assembled forces of the Spanish Inquisition, the Sacred Congregation of the Index, and the IUS Select Committee, do assert and demonstrate that the said Keef did with malice aforethought and gross negligence of the Body Astronomickal, perpetrate gross, persistent, and heinous acts of heresy and apostasy, and also did quite blatantly take his library books back two weeks late.

You 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 from behind the Chinese Wall – Richard Holdaway, STFC Director of Space Science and Technology and Swapan Chattopadhyay, Director of the Cockcroft Institute. In Fit the Second we had the Big Cheeses, Chas, sorry I mean Keith Mason, CEO of STFC, and Peter Warry, Chairman of STFC. I am sure Peter must have a minor celebrity lookee-likee but I can’t think who. Answers to this address please on a twenty pound note.

Oh dear this is all a bit jaded. Am I getting tired of this show ? Well anyhoo, here are a few reactions.

The Chinese Wall. Richard Holdaway carefully explained that there is a Chinese Wall between the operations and strategy parts of STFC, so chaps like him and Swapan had no part in all those decisions, and first knew about the cuts at the same time as the rest of us. (I voz only doo-ink my job. I had no idea vair zose trains vere go-ink.) This is an interesting line to push in the Wakeham review. I think it is fundamentally correct that delivery should be separated from policy and funding; it would be sensible if RAL, Daresbury, and the ATC were independent (even if Government owned) and bidding for money just like Universities. This is (almost) how NPL works. But reality has always been a mongrel. CCLRC never was really a Research Council. It was two big labs. But it had to stay inside the machine; the story of British Government Science over the last fifty years has been the slow growth and unmoveable power of the Harwell campus.

But really, they are just like University research groups, says RH. An innocent abroad, our Dick.

The Death of Peer Review. Keith states he is proud of STFC’s peer review, and he seems to mean it. Swapan was scathing, saying that all the wrong people were involved (the committee had to stop him being almost libellous at one point..). Can they both be right ? Yup. STFC high-ups see themselves as delivering a strategy for UK PLC on behalf of DIUS, and hand pick experts to give them advice in this difficult task. Keith and Peter explained that it’s better to pick a tight and dedicated group; larger groups don’t get anything done. Furthermore, as every scientist who has been on science strategy committees knows, if you try to get every area and interest represented, you have too many people, you build inertia into the system, and you get perpetual tribal squabbling. If you start by insisting that every committee must have a representative of ground-based STP on, then they are hardly going to vote to close down ground-based STP. But suppose (just hypothesis guys!) that closing down ground-based STP is the right thing to do ????

However… the astronomy and particle physics communities have been used to running their own shows, with PPARC just a kind of administrative convenience. They are our telescopes, our decisions, surely ? Otherwise whats the point ? If you start from there, its not the same game. Unfortunately STFC is a different kind of beast, covering a much wider range of science, and with an explicitly strategic and economic remit. Its not that STFC are playing the game wrong. Its that they are playing a game we don’t like.

The Bright Future of Daresbury Lab. Yet again, there was hours of anguishing about Daresbury, and about thirteen seconds of “I expect you are chatting to people in Edinburgh” followed by “Oh yes, no doubt about it guv.” It emerged that Science Board actually recommended closing DL “to minimise overheads and maximise synergies”, and the CEO suggested that the logical thing was to “concentrate most if not all facilities on the Harwell campus and plan for all future national facilities to be located there”. (Hem. Kinda relevant to ATC too…) Then DL should be developed primarily as a private sector venture with some core science or technology. But Council decided not to follow these recommendations.

Keith was actually quite open here, stressing that the problems at DL are deep seated and long term, stemming from the Diamond decision taken before STFC’s time. So .. how to take DL forward ? Well, hope was pinned on 4GLS … but even before the two year stalling of 4GLS, this would not have started until 2012 anyway so there was a big hole however you looked at it. So his plan was to fill that gap with the Hartree Centre. Thats about £50M of gap filling. Stomach’s rumbling a bit up here actually ..

Keith also stated that the suggestion of closing DL was made at time when the financial situation looked even worse…. eg included 50% cut in grants not 25% …. gulp.

Killing STP : the mask slips. STFC have carefully insisted that the decision to close down ground-based STP was made by PPARC, before their time. They are just implementing the decision. Phil the Willis pointed out that the relevant PPARC minutes said “some facilities” whereas the STFC Delivery Plan said “all facilities”. Keith said this was not inconsistent and members of the committee giggled “this will be interesting” and “strange science you are giving us here” to which Keith responded “Welcome to my world”. At this point Willis just said quietly “Oh, right”. After hours of politeness, this was the moment when he couldn’t hide the scorn. Very very interesting.

What Keith meant – I think – was more or less that what the PPARC minutes were able to say was more cautious and guarded than people actually felt at the time.

The Zero Sum Game. The committee confessed to being confused about Gemini. Hours after the hearing, it was announced that we were definitely back in. Yes folks its the Gemini Hokey Cokey. Keith emphasised that there is no manna from heaven. This will cost us money. Indeed in emails later that day, and even on my blog, people started worrying about what we would lose instead. This outbreak of selfishness is going to reach fever pitch on Monday at the Science Board Town Meeting …

Gemini : outbreak of sanity

February 27, 2008

I am sitting at home listening to a recording of the last session of the IUS Select Committee .. when suddenly along comes an email from Roger Davies (to the SCAP list I think) alerting us to what Roger called “an outbreak of sanity”. There is an announcement at the Gemini web site. This has a joint statement from STFC and the Executive Agency (NSF) that UK is a Full Partner in Gemini. Here is the text :

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has reaffirmed the UK’s position as a full member of the Partnership under the terms of the current Gemini Agreement. The Gemini Board welcomes this statement. The Board acknowledges the STFC’s need to address its budgetary constraints and notes that, under the terms of the Agreement, the UK is entitled to seek to sell some of its telescope time both within the partnership and, subject to the approval of the Board, outside the current partnership. The Board has directed the Observatory to continue the UK as a full partner, participating in all subsequent observing semesters, and all relevant committees and functions of the Observatory.

Note it gives us permission to start flogging off time. Any takers ?


February 26, 2008

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Hundred Dollar Oil

February 21, 2008

Hey, why are we worried about science budget cuts and all that stuff ? The economy is going to collapse soon anyway. Oil just hit a hundred dollars a barrel. Its waggling up and down, but the ton has been cracked. You can track it at, read more newsy stuff at CNN, or deeper insights at The Oil Drum. As I scribbled back in November, we is all living in fantasy land.

Tighten your belt and get used to it.

Our Day in Court : Part two

February 21, 2008

Yesterday was the second session of the IUS Select Committee investigation into the Science Budget Allocations, with the comittee grilling the Science Minister Ian Pearson, and Research Council Supremo Keith O’Nions. You can listen to the live recording of the proceedings. I reported on the first session here, and you can find the transcript here.

Pearson and O’Nions were completely truthful throughout, but placed shall we say a certain gloss on matters. Likewise, in places they were interestingly helpful, and in others were careful to silently drive round certain holes in the road. Lets have a go at summarising/paraphrasing some of the key statements made by Pearson and O’Nions, and reversing back over the potholes.

Crisis ? What Crisis ? Its all over blown. Everything is fine.

I know this will have annoyed a lot of people, but lets not waste time on it. Politicians can’t agree there is a crisis in public. They never do. Would you ?

No grants cuts. There is an impression abroad of swingeing cuts, but actually they are staying broadly level.

Andrew King nailed this one in his piece in Research Fortnight the other day. First, it is true that in 2006 and 2007 astronomy grant awards went up; so the size of cut depends on what baseline you compare to. Second, grants last several years; O’Nions was quoting RAs in place, which will take about three years to show the full effect. This round, according to Andrew K, 88 RAs are leaving and 82 RAs are arriving. Those 88 however mostly come from the 2005 low year; if the awards stay at 82, then the un-replaced fraction will be going up over the next two years. After three years, the effect on RAs in place will be pretty much the 25% cut that STFC in December asked every University in the country to be ready for.

There is more money for Universities. Including FEC, money for astronomy grants is going up 67% over the CSR, and 43% for Particle Physics.

Absolutely correct. Don’t just shout at Keith Mason and Keith O’Nions. Get inside your University committee system and find out where the money is going. This is related to the next point : O’Nions was asked “so who is that extra money being taken away from” ?

Inappropriate unfunded research. FEC is not a shift from QR. Its real extra money. What was happening in the past was that Universities were doing underfunded research, and taking the money effectively from teaching and from not fixing the roof etc. This is what FEC is for.

Absolutely correct. However, as I said last time, watching the pea under the cup is tricky; its not clear enough extra money has been allocated to the Research Councils for this purpose, unless they cut grant volume.

This is only part of Physics. Not every area of Physics is damaged, or complaining. Some people are indifferent.

This was in fact a subtle but important understatement by O’Nions. My condensed matter and photonics colleagues (some of whom I know read this blog) are not just shrugging their shoulders and saying “nothing to with us”. They believe that any day now they will have to close down beamlines and so on because of problems originating in Particle Physics and Astronomy – uncontrollable subscriptions, huge project commitments, grants that had been going up. And they were made very nervous by STFC announcing that they would make £120M cuts to solve an £80M problem. Finally, they get annoyed by us guys referring to “core physics” and behaving as if STFC were the same thing as PPARC but gone a bit wrong. Even finally-er, they score points on KT and we don’t. (I know thats wrong in a deep way, but thats the way it looks).

Think on this hard as we come up to Wakeham. Is its remit “to look at the health of particle physics, astronomy, and nuclear physics” ? Nope. Its “to look at the health of physics.” Firm voices will be heard to argue as follows :

The essential problem is that university physics departments rely too much on astronomy and particle physics. For twenty years, universities have been hiring astronomers because it gets bums on seats; the number of academic astronomers has grown considerably. That army of astronomers of course demands more RAs and more telescopes, insisting that RC funding follow the same trend. But this is in the opposite direction to government policy towards more practical and economically focused research. This has to stop. Universities cannot blackmail the government in this way.

Answers on a postcard please.

STFC did not inherit any problems from the merger.
The budget of the merged council was the same as the sum of the two. An NAO report before the merger did due diligence and did not find either PPARC or CCLRC to have any deficits.

This really was economical with the actuality. The merger happened just in time before the deficits hit CCLRC. This is unambiguously stated in the NAO report and the later proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee. By 2003, the Diamond and ISIS-2 teams had correctly estimated the predicted operating costs, but the CCLRC projected budget did not have enough to cover these costs. This is what the NAO report says about CCLRC :

The anticipated total increase in its operating costs is in the region of £25 million per annum at 2006-07 prices or around 12 per cent of the Council’s current annual operating expenditure. If the Council does not secure additional resources, this degree of cost growth could exacerbate existing constraints….

That last bit means “they would have to shut down ISIS and Diamond half the year”. Now you see why our condensed matter chums are worried.

The STFC budget was increased. On the basis of flat-cash plus FEC, STFC had the second largest increase, after MRC. The net increase was 3.2%. NERC was 2%; EPSRC and AHRC were -1%.

This is very useful and fascinating in various ways. First, EPSRC and AHRC are probably worst off because they are completely dominated by grants, whereas NERC and STFC have a significant fraction of facilities costs. Second, it does indeed look like FEC has been slightly underfunded. Third, STFC, did indeed get a perfectly decent settlement. So what went wrong ? The answer is bleedin’ obvious, and is contained in the section above. Everything would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that STFC inherited from CCLRC an unfunded overcommitment of £25M/yr.

I can fine tune this a little. A colleague of mine recently got someone pretty knowledgeable in The Machine to say privately that “the CCLRC overcommitment is about 70% of the problem”. OK, so STFC got net 3% over three years, i.e. 1% per year, so an extra 6M/yr-ish. Thats about a quarter of of 25M/yr.

So in round terms, three quarters of our problem is inherited Harwell campus overcommitment, and one quarter is other stuff – loss of subscription protection etc. Keep repeating this mantra.

Daresbury has a healthy future.
We are absolutely committed to building up Daresbury as a Science and Innovation Campus. Every day new companies are signing up.

OK, we believe you. But as various committee members stressed, this policy may fail if there is negligible core science there. The SRS has gone and they didn’t get Diamond. ILC work has gone out the window. The future of the 4GLS concept is uncertain. They have a vague promise of 50M for a supercomputer centre (the Hartree centre) but does that make sense now ?

Pearson and O’Nions got lots of hard questions along these lines, and persistent pressure on whether there should be a policy of regional development. Mutter Mutter Haldane. By contrast, the discussion of ATC took ninety seconds. Blah Blah understand useful discussions going on about closer links with University etc etc. Wasn’t sure what to think about this. Keep my head down or climb up and wave the Scottish Banner ? Somewhere in between maybe.

Lessons learned in communication. The fuss made by certain parts of the physics community has been unfortunate, and obviously orchestrated. We must think about how to handle this better next time. There has been a lot of criticism of the STFC advisory process. It did not look anomalous from where we were sitting, but obviously this is something we can look at.

By Civil Service standards, this was actually quite strong stuff. “My underlings screwed this up. But I want you to understand it wasn’t my fault.”

That’ll do for now. Watch out for news from Council Feb 28th, and the Science Board Town Meeting on March 3rd. That is when the blood-fest starts.

Dragons, Nuns, and the ATC

February 19, 2008

History can vanish in an instant. Does it matter ?

Walking to the Royal Observatory from my house I start along Lover’s Loan. Where it ends, there is a strange pillar topped by a winged dragon. At the weekend I read that this is not a dragon, or a gryphon, but a wyvern. The pillar is a tiny saved piece of the grand house that stood here for centuries before the ground was washed over by a sea of Victorian villas. I also read that its matching twin is further along Grange Loan, so on the walk home I diverted and found it. The house was scrubbed from the surface of the earth in 1936, apart from the wyvern pillars. The once powerful families that owned the house – the Dicks and the Lauders – still have a ghostly presence in the names of streets. Nothing beside remains.

So thats the Grange. Further north, where I live, is Sciennes, pronounced “Sheens”. I had long heard that this is a corruption of “St Catherine of Siena”, the name of a convent founded after the Battle of Flodden. Like Grange House, it is now utterly vanished apart from the muffled resonance of place names. My weekend reading however told me that the convent was commemorated at 16 St Catherine’s Place, so I took another arc to look for this. There was nothing on the street, nothing on the side of the house. Then, as I peered along the driveway, I saw it – an eighteen inch plaque on a rock in the middle of the garden. I didn’t feel bold enough to walk into somebody else’s garden, so I don’t know what it says.

After a brief stay at home, I walked in to Old College, where the Principal was hosting a reception for all the boys and girls who worked so hard on our submission to the Research Assessment Exercise. From there I kinda drifted to the Royal Oak, and finally, late at night and somewhat stoatered, found myself buying a bag of chips at Luciano’s, opposite the Dick Vet School. Until a few years ago, Luciano’s, in an astonishing five hundred year chain of unbroken memory from the Battle of Flodden to Blair’s Britain, was called the Siena Fish Bar. Then some random guy buys it up, thinks huh, dumb name, and crunch – history snapped.

Some days, working at the Royal Observatory on Blackford Hill I can feel the history oozing out of the stones. The nightmare scenario is that if the ATC reduces in half, it becomes unviable and closes anyway; then the University can’t afford to keep a medium sized astronomy research group on a large ancient site, and finally we all get shifted down to Kings Buildings. History snapped again.

By the way, it ain’t happening.


February 18, 2008

On Thursday the RAS made a statement about the whole STFC thing so far. You canfind this here. Its mostly politely worded but is hard hitting in others, e.g.

STFC has failed miserably to communicate with the community


I think this might have been sent to all RAS Fellows, but err… ahh .. errr.. I somehow seem to have forgottn to pay my subscription so I have been chucked out. Oops. Sorry Michael.

Universal Understanding

February 17, 2008

I have been having a clearout this weekend and found a pile of last year’s Christmas Cards on a shelf. (I am talking 2006 here..) Now one weird thing about being Head of School is that I get a whole bunch of scientific-corporate xmas cards. I get a card from two different bits of ESO, one from JAC, one from the Principal, one from companies I bought a lot of computers from, and this year even one from AWE (don’t ask). But some cards from 2006 suddenly seemed evocative of a lost era – the last ever card from CCLRC, and the last ever card from PPARC. The latter says “Five Supernovas, Four Ghostly Neutrinos, Three Solar Orbiters, Two Sub-atomic particles, ONE BIG BANG”. I get the joke, but it doesn’t scan, and it doesn’t quite make sense ..

But saddest all is my card from the Gemini Observatory. It says “Best Wishes for a Season of Universal Understanding”.

Yeah, right.


February 14, 2008

My clumsy title is meant to be a merger of Moon and Steamroller. Maybe I should have called it JuggerMoon. Anhyoo.. through the mists of sleep the Today Programme is telling me that NASA is backing the “inspirational” MoonLITE project, and the Science Minister is reviewing whether to have a manned space programme. The BBC website has the story here . Radio Four also mentioned that Martin Rees has commented negatively on this, for the obvious “STFC is bust” reasons.

At the end of last week there were stories about ISS and ExoMars asking for twice as much money, and in fact there has been a steady stream of “we must get into space more” stories for months – e.g. this one Much of the argument is that there is clear economic impact – space industry is worth £7bn apparently, and ESA, unlike ESO, has juste retour. And in case you hadn’t noticed, STFC have been steadily negotiating the creation of a new ESA centre at RAL, that will actually return some subscription value. (There are big redundancies at RAL, as well as Daresbury and ATC; but if you include outside-the-fence stuff like this and Diamond, I assume the RAL-Harwell site is actually growing…)

This is big league stuff, and absolutely the kind of thing STFC was created to do. A bit of vision and gung ho-ness and economic impact is exactly what you need to leverage extra money from Government. So in a fundamental sense I have no problem with all this – STFC is doing its job. Of course as I said in a recent post, the worry is whether its as-well-as or instead-of.

Sooo … I would not recommend arguing that space exploration is a bad thing. Its a good thing. On the other hand cutting hundreds of high-tech jobs and decimating University Physics departments, now thats a bad thing.