Our Day in Court : Part Three

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 …

14 Responses to Our Day in Court : Part Three

  1. Very Anonymous Physicist says:

    Chattopadhyay was a star.
    Holdaway was weak.
    Warry was leaving brown patches on the chair.
    Keef was openly contemptuous. The man must go, he’s a zealot. I think the Phil Willis show have the same opinion.

    Re: £50M for DL and diddly-squat for ATC. Don’t count the chickens, they haven’t hatched.

    Re: Inexorable growth of Harwell. People at A. N. Other Lab felt sorry for ATC when it came under the auspices of a RAL dominated institution. After all, you are a LONG WAY NORTH!!!

    I think it’s about time addressed the following. Is STFC a national agency? Or is it just another unjustified subsidy for Oxford University? Why should the rest of the UK science community be sucked dry for the benefit of the South East?

  2. Em says:

    I know you’ll hate me for harping on about ground-based STP, but it wasn’t just PPARC minutes saying “some” it was the public face of PPARC’s strategy on their website. This also said “[we] will maintain a capacity in ground based STP” – here’s the old website http://www.pparc.ac.uk/Nw/Council0306.asp

    How is this, in any shape or form, removing support from “all” STP???? I’m so, so glad the committee called him out on this because it clearly wound him up enormously and gave us all a good laugh at the same time.

    And yes, perhaps ground based STP should go as was mentioned in the session – the way our science works (in my opinion) would more naturally fit in NERC (but let us not pretend that NERC will neccessarily want us). I categorically do not accept that our science is not worthwhile.

    Right on Prof Chattopadhyay!!

  3. Kav says:

    “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 ????”

    Okay but how is this not just a lottery? What if it is not the right decision?

    There is no one there to argue the case as there might be for other disciplines. It would be nice to have someone with a passing familiarity with the subject and its import. I think that the assertion that has been made that people in those panels do not feel the urge to advocate for their own discipline is ludicrous. I know that is not the case for at least one person who has admitted as much. Also if you are referring to my past suggestion about filling panels with STP and solar folks I am not sure you understood what I was getting at. I think if an astronomer came up against such a panel they would (and should) feel totally aggrieved.

    How can reducing the size of the panel so that it can make decisions remove the natural bias from the panel members to such an extent that a fair decision can be made? That makes no sense at all!!!

    Let’s use your own logic; you say if there is a g-b STP person on the panel how would g-b STP ever be closed (even if that was the right* decision to make). Surely then that obviously applies to any sub-discipline of astronomy or particle physics that is represented? What if closing down cosmology is the right thing to do but the panel has a cosmologist on it that manages to block the decision?

    What you are essentially saying, whether you mean to or not, is that it is an unfair system, deal with it. And it is always going to be most unfair to the least-related field whose terminology, by its very nature is far removed from the language spoken by astronomers. I know others would just dismiss this as whining from a g-b STPer (though personally I make no distinction between g-b and s-b, part of the problem is that people who don’t know better do), but that just reveals their own prejudices and brushes the problem aside.

    I actually give kudos to Keith for acknowledging the broad relevance that STP has and if he had just said some years ago that it would be better suited elsewhere he could have received a sympathetic ear. But that would have meant direct communication. I was at that community meeting in Aber and I know what he recommended and what he said, that is why the declaration of ‘all g-b STP’ being cut came as a shock. That was not the message he imparted to us, he stuck to the ‘some’ line that was in the public domain.

    It is just a shame that when NERC offered to take STP (and solar and planetary I believe) back when STFC was formed the offer was not taken up. Now, although there are fine words spoken it is too late for much of our infrastructure so how attractive are we?

    *where right is based on some fair metric system removing the obvious subjectivity of what ‘right’ means.

  4. andyxl says:

    Kav and Em : please note I am not saying STFC have got this right (let alone saying STP should close…). On the one hand there are problems if you try to represent every corner of parameter space; on the other hand as you say, this may be outweighed by not having the right knowledge and expertise available. PPARC had quite a good compromise solution, with advisory panels with wide coverage feeding up to science committee which actually made the decisions. Now this is expensive and slow, and even harder for STFC because of the wider range, but I do think its crucial, bot to take the right decisions and to keep the community engaged. So I think the big mistake was not setting up equivalent advisory panels.

    Very Anonymous : I don’t think this is an Oxford thing, just a Big Government Lab thing. (Do they sprinkle paranoia on the cornflakes in W- wherever you are ?)

  5. Alan says:

    When asked about the division of cuts between Daresbury, Harwell and ATC, Keith discussed only Daresbury and Harwell. What is your interpretation of this?

  6. dave says:

    There is one place notable by its absence from that list as well.

  7. andyxl says:

    Do you mean Swindon, or Chilbolton ???

  8. dave says:

    I meant Swindon, I had forgotten Chilbolton, though I think it was mentioned in the enquiry session.

  9. Very Anonymous Physicist says:

    Andy – It’s a Big Government Lab that just happens to be right next to Oxford. Surely you agree that Oxford has disproportionate political influence.

    Paranoid?! Absolutely not. Let’s look at the facts:

    1. Diamond – Designed at Daresbury using SRS experience under the assumption it would be built at Daresbury, the only natural site. Diamond IS over budget (the original Daresbury budget). This is because staff costs are 15% higher at RAL (cost of living) and Daresbury is much more geologically stable. Tens of millions extra were spent on piles because Thames Valley clay is softer than Cheshire Ridge sandstone. The original siting report concluded Daresbury was by far the best choice. This report was then systematically suppressed by CLRC management at RAL and never published. They commissioned another report and put placemen on the panel to ensure that they got the desired answer the second time, i.e. site at RAL. This is not paranoia, it is fact.
    2. 4GLS – The world’s most ambitious light source proposal. Designed by Daresbury under very close international peer review. These peers successfully circumvented by STFC in the so-called “Light Source Review”. This was a cabal of 4 placemen who are not experts in FEL based light sources. These are the people Chattopadhyay meant when he said that “the reviewers were of a lower standing than the people they reviewed” (Phil Willis then reminded him about our wonderful libel laws… so democratic, eh). This review was then used to cancel 4GLS, which was according to a senior RAL person “seen as a sop to Daresbury”.
    3. Next Light Source Project – A “fresh start”, drawing a line under 4GLS. But the proposal must be ready for submission to LFCF in 15 months! The new project leader says himself it must therefore be heavily based on the work done for 4GLS. But the Daresbury management have been jettisoned and replaced with Diamond and CLF people.
    4. Manipulation of SRS redundancies – 110 has been the number since 2005. Then, last month this has mysteriously increased to 180. Ostensibly, nothing to do with the CSR.
    5. Colin Whitehouse – the man who is “supposed” to be look after Daresbury’s interests. Last week he tells an influential parliamentary committee that his vision of Government science facilities is of a “one stop shop”. Where is that one stop, Edinburgh, Daresbury? Every other country rejects such a policy, why, because they see the benefits of spreading the economic benefits.

    So, are you all ready for the almighty bunfight after tomorrow’s announcement. That’s when it will get really nasty.
    Andy, you’re not the only one who’s pig sick of this farce. Maybe I should take Keith’s advice and go and be a stockbroker instead.

  10. andyxl says:

    Dear Very Anonymous – fascinating stuff but no demonstrated link with Oxford University.

  11. Very anonymous physicist says:

    Yes, i agree the evidence is circumstantial.

    Perhaps it would be best to make the links explicit. I.e. Have Oxford manage RAL, Liverpool + Manchester + Lancaster run DL and Edinburgh (+ SUPA?) run ATC. Then each would be independent and bid for funds on an equal basis. The biggest difficulty i can see is that the money to run facilities needs some sort of ring fence. Also running facilities doesn’t sit at all with the RAE judged allocation of funds. Many technicians are required to build and run “big bits of kit”. They can’t all write peer-reviewed publications – it isn’t their job.
    The US labs seem to manage though.

  12. andyxl says:

    Dear very anonymous – this is exactly the sort of question that should be raised in Wakeham. There is a lot to be said for separating delivery from policy and funding. In the US there are several different models. Stanford runs SLAC under contract from DOE; but FermiLab is not run directly by U.Chicago but through URA. Ground based telescopes are run by AURA, which is an independent not for a profit corporation. Universities are “members” but don’t own it. On the other hand Goddard is a simple NASA establishment. Likewise DL, ATC and RAL could continue as STFC establishments, but stay behind the Holdaway “Chinese Wall”. I could imagine any of these working. but to be fair to Oxford it would be very very scary taking over RAL. Imagine the redundancy risk, let alone decomissioning costs…

  13. CC says:

    I suspect that one of the underlying problems is that committees always make “safe” decisions. That means Peer Review is inherently conservative and consensus-based, whereas step advances require vision. That means inevitable conflict between Council management and the consultation process; nobody wants to Administer science – the only reason for going for those jobs is to try to Change things, and yet trying to implement ideas through a set of committees full of people with vested interests is impossible. (Lots of respect for all concerned – everybody tries to be impartial, but as has been pointed out, turkeys don’t vote for Christmas.)
    I fully agree with the concern about centralisation of physics facilities, though. A good argument for Regional Government, subsidiarity and all that stuff.

  14. […] Budget Allocations. Paul Crowther has all sorts of details, and my own reports of the hearings are here, here, and here . Well … they have finally completed their deliberations and published a […]

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