Education versus the Internet

March 27, 2008

I am a fan of Bob Cringely’s Pulpit. He is one of those guys who were blogging years before blogs, and his IT industry column is always fascinating and amusing. His latest column is very scary for an academic to read. Its about the impact of information technology on education. Most arguments on this take one of two positions; either that IT is a great opportunity we must seize, or that it is a threat that stops students concentrating. Cringely suggests that the search-and-graze style associated with the Google era will eventually be seen to be good for education per se, but that it will destroy the traditional institutions that get paid to deliver it. College not needed.

If this depresses you too much, head over to the latest xkcd cartoon. (Thanks to Dave Pearson).

The King’s Shilling

March 27, 2008

The panels for the STFC consultation exercise are filling up and starting work. I have taken the King’s Shilling and agreed to serve on the space science and space exploration panel, chaired by Steve Schwarz. I think I am seen as an independent in this context … although I have used all sorts of space-based data over many years, I am not an insider on any space project. A good colleague has suggested to the SCAP list that we only agree to serve under some sort of statement of fundamental disagreement with the process. This is a bit like those French citizens who voted for Chirac with pegs on their noses, to keep Le Pen out. I think that is going slightly too far; but I (and others) have asked that our deliberations should be public, and we can then include a statement of discomfort, along the lines that Walter Gear made for PPAN at the March Town Meeting

Paul Crowther’s web site contains an update today of a meeting that Oxford profs had with Science Minister Ian Pearson, who asked for details of grants cuts. According to the email circulated amongst the SCAP list, Pearson also said that we had to co-operate with the consultation exercise, rather than try to destroy it. I am pretty sure most people’s instincts will indeed be to co-operate to the fullest extent and to do a very thorough job. The result will be to make STFC’s job much much harder. What stands out in the Programmatic Review priority list is that a large fraction of the highest priority things are very exciting but speculative things – grand plans for the future – whereas a large fraction of the lower priority things are projects and facilities that are producing science now, or are just about to. The present is being sacrificed for the future. There is a brave logic to this; but my guess is that the instinct of most working scientists will swing the other way. Of course any sensible programme has some of each …

Here is the weekly reminder of the two mantras :

(1) STFC inherited a budget deficit of £75M from CLRC.

(2) Its the Economy Stupid

My understanding of Mike Green’s commentary on the papers released to him under his FoI request, is that the Executive explained to Science board that “previous inadequate provision by CCLRC” led to a “negative dowry of £40M”. Its not clear what time frame this refers to so we don’t have to agonise over the exact amounts, but at least the basic principle is clear.

This seems to me to be the thing to concentrate on politically. You can complain about STFC’s approach to community engagement; you can disagree if you like about their chosen science policy; but these things are within their rights as an organisation; and they may improve with time. But the political record states that the PPARC science programme was not to be damaged by the act of merger itself; this principle has blatantly been breached. And the extra cost of operating Diamond and ISIS-2, at +£25M/yr, goes on ad infinitum.

Moreover, someone high up understood this problem, and chose not to address it. This is is related to mantra number two.

Because I know these two things are really the problem, I can participate openly in the consultation exercise, and do my best for STFC under their own rules.

Keep your eye on the ball.

Repent Harlequin

March 20, 2008

Time passes, heading towards the closing hour for the STFC consultation. Who will be turned off, and who is the ticktock man anyway ?

I am in Strasbourg, running the bi-ennial Technology Forum for the European Virtual Observatory, as part of the VOTECH project. But actually I am spending half the time on email, preparing or helping to prepare multiple submissions to STFC to protect various projects – AstroGrid, UKIRT (read UKIDSS), WFAU/CASU, XMM.

It would be a depressing week if it weren’t for the fact that Strasbourg is a groovy place and the food is nice. I have of course been eating Tartes Flambees nearly all week. Just don’t call it pizza or the locals get cross.

Emptied out

March 17, 2008

Twice each year I attend a sacred ritual from which I emerge spiritually refreshed and emotionally drained; an empty sack but a happier man. I refer of course to the School Concert. There are two such rituals. The first involves the teeny ones : the Primary School Christmas Show. Here, it really doesn’t matter what happens on stage; the point is only and simply craning your neck to see your own cute wee thing. Flashlight photons scatter off the the weird parental chemicals that diffuse through the air of the room, and you weep buckets.

The second type of event – the Senior School Variety Concert – is abolutely dire in most Schools, but not in the place my two big kids go to. The annual show, called DiverseCity, is absolutely stunning and quite overpowering. The school (James Gillespies High School) has a kind of genteel minor fame as the inspiration for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Things have changed since the Thirties … for one things there are boys; for another, its the opposite of genteel. None of this rubbish about School Uniforms at Gillespies. Their motto is “Diversity” and their belief is that all that encourages the Life Force is good, and all that discourages it is bad. The school breeds musicians of all types, and has the best break dancing team you can see outside New York. Every act is greeted by whooping and hollering of a most un-British type. Gillespies is twinned with a School in a South African Township (Zwelibanze). Some of their pupils had been brought over, and performed in the concert. The black-and-white combination was a rich and emotive brew. After close harmony singing, the Zwelibanze kids started that extra-ordinary South African boot-slapping foot stomping dance. Then hordes of pallid but muscular teenage Scots lads ran on and joined in… wonderful. This, followed quickly by Dark Island on the bagpipes, was just too much. I didn’t have to discreetly hide the tears, as everybody else was doing it too. I think they had the flood defence team on standby…

So anyway. I feel morally refreshed, ready for the last week of the STFC consultation period ..

Budget 2008 surprise rescue plan for science allocation

March 13, 2008

Nah, only kidding.

Behave yourselves

March 13, 2008

I have just taken the difficult step of deleting a few comments. I am very happy for my blog to be a forum for people making quite strident comments – as long as others know these aren’t necessarily my opinions, hence the recent disclaimer box. (Some of them might be of course …) Also I do recognise that the option of being anonymous can make it easier to say things that you genuinely feel need saying. I am sure readers are able to calibrate appropriately.

When things get just slightly too personal however, its not healthy; and allegations of actual misconduct (rather than misjudgement) shouldn’t be made unless you have evidence, and are ready to disclose that through the proper channels. Otherwise its getting rather close to libel, innocent people get hurt, and it would be better for me, the respondent, and the accused parties not to go down that road.

I have also deleted some comments relating to the original inappropriate comment, even though these mostly stated that the comments shouldn’t have been made

Nuff said. I hope.

Mint in the box

March 11, 2008

You may have heard the rumours by now that some wag put Jodders on eBay. This was posted by Chris Lintott, but the link is broken .. some spoilsport removed the listing.

Paul Crowther also has the story, along with a listing of some other bargain basement items. I particularly liked his description of AstroGrid as “mint in the box”. Spot on Paul. In fact it aint even in the shops yet. Turn up at NAM and order your copy. May become a collectors item.

Its the Economy Stupid

March 10, 2008

Patience dear reader. The Clinton reference is explained at the end.

I haven’t posted for a few days. I have been visiting ESO, participating in an internal review they were having of their Virtual Observatory Systems (VOS) Department. This was a very interesting event : some hard bitten VO sceptics were converted. Of course as well as telling them how good our ESO chums were, I slipped in a quick demo of AstroGrid’s VO Desktop… sorry Paolo, couldn’t resist it. Meanwhile, like many other UK astronomers, I have been manning the barricades and joining about six telecons a minute trying to plot our rescue plans. On the plane home, somewhat exhausted, I was re-reading The Tragical History of Dr Faustus (pretentious ? moi ?)…

Now thou hast but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually !
Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That UKIRT may repent and save its soul !

For UKIRT, read MERLIN, AstroGrid, WFAU, etc. Mephistopheles cometh.

The community consultation is an interesting exercise. After being heavily criticised for not consulting the community, STFC has thrown things wide open for comment. Every postgrad in the land can vent her spleen. Of course “community consultation” is normally a euphemism for “allow the big profs to lobby”, so STFC may claim this is a real community consultation. As a Head of Department I know that the job is more like being King John than Louis Quinze if you know what I mean. How do you avoid being at the mercy of the squabbling barons ? Well of course, you appeal directly to the yeomen and peasants, and they become your power base. Hmm. Thinks. Maybe should change metaphor from mediaeval Europe to ancient Rome. Who are the People’s Tribunes ?

Well, anyhoo… you can’t have failed to notice that STFC is not exactly an anarcho-syndicalist commune, and in fact tends somewhat to the dirigiste. (Not inconsistent with populism of course…) There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is the personal management instinct of senior STFC staff. The second is the nature of STFC and its appointed mission. It is not the embodiment of the scientific community, channelling upwards to government; it is an arm of government, whose aim is to improve the performance of UK PLC. Keith keeps telling us this but we don’t listen. Its the economy stupid.

Some scientists are gung ho for Knowledge Transfer. Others are nervous and distressed, worrying that the purity and independence of academic science is being destroyed. These fears are growing as the commercial pressure builds on the teaching side too. According to the FT, a confidential DIUS report plans a new business focus on teaching. The FT article is here and a related Guardian leader is here.

The worries that commercial engagement will destroy academic science are a bit daft. They do both perfectly well in the USA. Galileo flogged his inventions as fast as he uncovered the secret laws of Nature. And the although the current government is even more insistent on economic relevance than before, notice that unlike governments in the 80s and 90s, they want to pay us extra to help industry. Up here in Schottish-land we don’t want less of this Science and Innovation stuff, we want more please.

Of course thats me talking as Head of Physics rather than Andy the Astronomer. How do we engage with industry when we study the stars ? Answer-1 is that we don’t have to. The Government does recognise the intrinsic value of pure science. But how do you put the correct number on that value ? Same budget as AHRC ?? Answer-2 is that we should re-define KT as “economic impact”. Or put another way, our Knowledge Transfer is people not widgets. This is all going to be vairy important in the Wakeham Review.

Meanwhile keep repeating these two mantras :

(1) STFC inherited a budget deficit of £75M from CLRC.

(2) Its the Economy Stupid

STFC review : bloodbath starts now …

March 3, 2008

STFC just announced the rankings in its infamous “Programmatic Review”. I have several favourites down in the dungeons, and on Friday at 5:21 p.m. got my “Dear John” letter. This was “in advance” of the Town Meeting being held today in London. Despite my personal interests, I am not at that meeting, even though I am in London today. Thats because I have been attending the Critical Service Review for AstroGrid. We concluded that everything looks on target for our planned public release of the software at the NAM in Belfast on March 31st. You will love it, trust me. Our attendees from the STFC Oversight Committee and from our own Science Advisory Group were really impressed. Putting that together with the known fact that the material used by the Programmatic Reviewers was eighteen months out of date, I am confident sense will prevail in our case. Honest.

But of course the other reason I am not at the Town Meeting is that it is bound to be horribly bad tempered – people will be queuing up to shout at anybody with an STFC badge on. My guess is that it won’t be the most productive of meetings.