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 …