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