STFC review : bloodbath starts now …

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 Putting that together with the known fact that the material used by the Programmatic Reviewers was eighteen months out of date, I am confident sense will prevail in our case.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.

21 Responses to STFC review : bloodbath starts now …

  1. Kav says:

    I see the consultation is now open with a handy on-line form.

    My problem (just the one? shouts the crowd) is how do I provide positive feedback into a system that I have zero confidence in? I have other issues with the gb-STP ranking but I bet you are really sick of hearing about that… 😉

  2. Dave says:

    There’s a footnote to the rankings that states that UKIRT will ‘move … to 100% survey mode as soon as possible starting 1 April 2008’. This comes as a shock to someone (a) hoping to write proposals answering the current call for observations to Jan 2009 and (b) someone on the TAG who has approved programmes through to August 2008. Are these all cancelled now? The TAG certainly doesn’t know and UKIRT don’t seem to know and don’t seem to have even been consulted!

    This rather questions how well the people who wrote this document understand the things they’re reviewing…

  3. Ian says:

    My favourite item of lunacy in the rankings is that the Liverpool Telescope apparently outranks UKIRT and eMERLIN, truly world-class facilities by anyone’s metric. Are they extracting the urine? PPAN clearly shares my enormous respect for Mike Bode, but someone should have had the guts to point out how silly this would look to the ground-based astronomy community…

  4. John Peacock says:

    I’m told that the reason LT scores so well is that criteria such as outreach and industrial interest have to be given high weight. This is one of the problems: we don’t know (and probably wouldn’t agree with) the rules being used to play the game.

    But never mind the telescope rankings: the astro world will be making a big mistake if we start fighting each other. Remember why we’re in this mess, and ask questions like, “how much does UKIRT cost in terms of the running costs of Diamond?” (about 3%, I think) and “what scientific argument says that such economies should not be made in order to fund UKIRT in full?”.

  5. Nicholas Cross says:

    I think that given the cuts, it is a bit extravagent to fund 3 gravitational wave detectors given that no gravitational waves have been detected and the incredibly tight engineering requirements are way beyond any similar types of instrumentation. The number of scientists in the UK who will directly use these data are small, if they do indeed work.

    With the low priority given to Astrogrid and WFAU/CASU, and UKIRT the UK is throwing away its strength in survey astronomy, at a time when CCD surveys are advancing to the all sky synoptic surveys with extremely quick follow up and near-infrared surveys are beginning to mature. Perhaps they feel that all scientists should be processing, calibrating, cross matching and quality controlling the data themselves, rather than having it efficiently done by large data centres?

  6. Paul Crowther says:


    i can’t speak for myself, but most at the Town Meeting were remarkably well behaved, although one got the impression that the small group panels are still a “work in progress” (emails are inivted to suggest names for panel members.. but do it quick) and Mike Thompson noted that the “solar” community was notable by its absence, to which PEter Knight invited Mike to add solar stuff to which ever panel he liked. Panels will start sifting though the feedback once the exercise is completed on Good Friday (17 days and counting..).

    Alas panel chairs aren’t to be made public (though apparently SB have had some “input” into this process) so we can be assured that this exercise is being done in the name of transparency. Key priorities were scientific impact (however that is defined) and strategic priorities (there is a draft strategy but is not public, naturally). Steve Schwartz remarked that strategy really ought to come from the community, not in reverse, but there you go. Like it or lump it.

  7. Lisa Harvey-Smith says:

    You have the right to reply! This was my comment to the “consultation” web-form on the STFC website.

    Dear STFC panel members,

    I am gravely concerned at your proposal to remove funding from the MERLIN/e-MERLIN projects from 1st April 2009. It seems incredible that the huge amount of planning and investment in the e-MERLIN upgrades will now come to nothing, especially as e-VLBI is such a rapidly developing aspect of radio astronomy on a global scale, attracting funding across the world from Europe to South Africa, China and Australia. International efforts are underway to create fast fibre-optic VLBI networks across the globe and the European VLBI Network has just succeeded in data transfer at record data rates of 1 Gigabit per second for an entire experiment. The e-MERLIN upgrade would put U.K. radio astronomy at the very forefront of e-VLBI at a time when globally, SKA prototypes are incredibly important in building the reputation and standing of each country in the bid to develop and dictate the specifications of this global telescope. I believe that the removal of the U.K.’s upgraded radio facility will vastly damage the sway that U.K. astronomers have in the design of the SKA over the next decade and beyond, as well as discouraging (even preventing) new students from entering the field of Radio Astronomy (in which the U.K. has such a proud history and tradition).

    Notwithstanding these factors, in my own research into massive star-formation, I have found that MERLIN is the only instrument in the world that has the required combination of angular resolution and sensitivity to extended structures to properly image methanol masers. The new discovery of a methanol maser tracing a circumstellar disk around a still-forming massive star (Harvey-Smith et al. 2008, MNRAS, 384, 719.) could be vital in understanding how massive stars are formed. Future studies in this field absolutely require MERLIN, as VLBI instruments do not have sufficiently short baselines to image the extended emission.

    Radio Astronomy (especially interferometry) is an expanding global science which is of tremendous importance to our understanding of the universe. Global projects are being planned which use precisely the technology that e-MERLIN would showcase, putting our scientists and engineers in an excellent position to gain contracts to build these new instruments and their receivers, fibre links etc. I implore you to look at the future of Radio Astronomy without e-MERLIN and ask yourself not only “what is the U.K. contributing?”, but also “what can the U.K. get out of the SKA and other global projects?”. If we contribute nothing and demonstrate no working interferometer then I would argue that the answer will be simple – nothing.


    Dr. Lisa Harvey-Smith
    (U.K. citizen working as a Postdoctoral Fellow in Australia)

  8. Kav says:

    I agree with Steve’s comment. However as you allude to STFC does not agree; at the MIST business meeting Richard Wade was quite clear on this subject (refreshingly so). He said that strategy is a top-down process. So we do indeed have to lump it.

  9. KOMbat17 says:

    There have been calls for a vote of no confidence at the STFC session at NAM. Shouldn’t we just move straight to the lynching? Or should that be kneecapping, given the host city?

    I jest.

    I have nothing but respect for the sterling work done by our Keiff, his cuddly sidekick, Wichard, and all those nice people on PPAN who have so clearly managed to set aside self-interest (with apologies to those who just snorted coffee through their noses).

  10. Martin E. says:

    A quick look at the rankings suggests a strong ‘fundamental physics’ bias. There was a similar outcome to the ‘Beyond Einstein’ study in the US, which must have been heavily influenced by the choce of the committee (1/3 physicists, 1/3 astronomers, 1/3 mission experts), and the brief, which emphasized post-Einsteinian physics. I don’t even know what ‘fundamental’ really means. It seems like a biased and outdated way of describing one extreme corner of physics to me.
    [The BEPAC report is available at; free pdf is available.]

  11. andyxl says:

    Martin – Mike W suggested to me that actually what distinguished Band 4 was that they were the data centred things – either explicitly as with Astrogrid and WFAU/CASU, or as facilities that have just started major data collections – eg UKIRT (read UKIDSS), STEREO, and Hinode. So a worry is that top priority has been given to exciting new things before we have capitalised on the current things. Re the committee in this case, well I am very certain they have worked hard and done their best, but there are only a few of them and they are only human. They haven’t had the benefit of referee’s reports and a hierarchy of advisory panels, but worked on existing paperwork.

  12. Tom says:

    I would like to confirm the impression that Dave posted. The footnote about UKIRT moving to 100% survey mode was added at the 11th hour by STFC without any consultation with UKIRT, and was certainly news to UKIRT staff when it was announced. There is a link on the UKIRT home page to a short news article which states that PIs who have already been awarded cassegrain time in 08A should assume their observations will still be carried out, so as I’m sure you can infer, STFC’s decision is being fought.

    It is astonishing that after the Gemini “lack of consultation” debacle, STFC appear to have done a remarkably similar thing.

  13. Kav says:

    I’m not sure ‘astonishing’ is the right word, ‘depressingly expected and familiar’ might be a better description.

  14. Alan Heavens says:

    Is Richard right that strategy is a top-down process? I don’t believe it is, entirely. STFC strategy, as enunciated eloquently by John Womersley at a talk in Edinburgh recently, is to favour projects which are world-leading, UK-led and with potentially great impact (oh, I hate that word…). This is very laudable as a general strategy, but the ideas which make areas topical and important come not from the ‘top’, but from the scientists ‘below’ with the vision and skills. It is vital to have very capable scientists at the top, but even the best will need to draw heavily on the expertise of the wider community, and I am sure STFC acknowledges this.

    It will be interesting to assess the current rankings in the programmatic review according to these criteria. I already see a number of anomalies in both directions.

  15. D.Squat says:

    Re “I’m told that the reason LT scores so well is that criteria such as outreach and industrial interest have to be given high weight.”

    According to STFC’s own documents they scored projects using some kind of average of scoring against 3 primary criteria: current science output, future impact and match to strategy. Of course 2 of these 3 are largely subjective. In fact only where projects score equally against these 3 criteria were other criteria such as outreach, industrial ties etc supposed to have been factored in. There seem to have been contradictory statements at the town meeting about whether financial implications have yet been factored in to the ranking or not.

  16. KOMbat17 says:

    I’ve seen better bloodbaths!

    The result of a deep and widespread cynicism, presumably. This process is nothing but a whitewash, with a few pointless whippings thrown in (e.g. eMERLIN) to get the horses galloping again. Andy – one presumes you’re keeping a low profile so’s not to put WFAU and Astrogrid in view of PPAN snipers?

  17. andyxl says:

    Trust me, there will be vigorous responses re AstroGrid, WFAU and UKIRT (read UKIDSS). Its just that I am not sure I see the point of complaining about STFC on Radio Four.

  18. KOMbat17 says:

    That goes without saying, Kav, though it’s always useful to receive a lecture from someone “Living in the real world”. You wouldn’t read the Guardian, by any chance?

  19. Kav says:

    nope, not my rag of choice. Why, too many typos in my posts?

  20. Black Dog says:

    Hi Andy,

    You don’t know me but we have met – apologies to all but I am not a scientist, I do work for STFC though.

    Just wanted to mention the i saw Silence of the Lambs for the nth time and couldn’t get over the fact that Lecter’s voice bears an uncanny resemblance to……. leave you to muse on that one .

    ‘It’s the smiles that make life worth living’

  21. Tom says:

    Necrocommenting here, but since the subject of proposals for UKIRT time came up, please see the latest update (number 4) linked from the UKIRT home page:

    Direct link to the update is:

    For 2008, cassegrain and PATT-awarded WFCAM time should be safe.

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