Its the Economy Stupid

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

8 Responses to Its the Economy Stupid

  1. Kav says:

    A question with regards to engaging with industry:

    Where is the line between showing a demonstrable knowledge transfer and being told that if what you are doing is so important for industry then they should pay for it?

  2. Some tall chap says:

    “How do we engage with industry when we study the stars ?”


    There must be other bits that we do which could be used to beat the drum for the application of blue (black?) sky research?

  3. andyxl says:

    Absolutely. There is certainly some astro-KT, especially in ATC land. But my instinct is it will always small beer compared to our economic impact via skills training.

  4. Dan says:

    Something always puzzles me. If the economy (and especially the private sector) really needs more skilled people – whether they are physics grads or HND students too – to fill technical jobs, are the salaries being offered for these jobs on the up?

  5. KOMbat17 says:

    Question: how can you describe this process as open and transparent when STFC have refused to publish the scores for each item on their list (making it impossible to write accurate rebuttals) despite Professor Sir Peter Knight promising he would do so at the London town meeting?

    Wouldn’t be brown-nosing would we?

  6. andyxl says:

    Answer : err… are you saying I said the process was open and transparent ? Cos I didn’t. And it isn’t. All I said was STFC could claim it was a “real community consultation” meaning everybody can have a say, not just Roger Davies and Martin Barstow and me and Carlos Frenk. I think what I was getting at was that apparent but shallow populism has its own dangers. But at least the trains run on time. Maybe my point was obscured by my tendency to quote Marlowe unnecessarily.

    Brown-nosing ?? Do me a lemon John.

    Dan : good question.. sorry I don’t have an answer !

  7. KOMbat17 says:

    Marlowe? Are you Stephen Fry in disguise? You shouldn’t be wasting your literary talents on a blog read largely by academics with too much time on their hands…

  8. Richard McMahon says:

    Hi Andy, yes the economy is important but for astronomy the more immediate impact is public inspiration and on example is below from the BBC website profile of Paul Nurse
    (2001 Nobel Prize Winner and Head of the Imperial Cancer Research). Bearing
    in mind that this the guy who manages a project that could have a major
    effect on most of us since this is the main disease that brings about premature death
    in the first world.

    The article is entitled “The David Beckham of Science”

    An eighth birthday present of a telescope began his fascination with science and he graduated in Biology from Birmingham University, the first of his family to go to university.

    “I could have gone into industry and been a multi-millionaire by now”, Sir Paul once admitted, “but I wanted to be at the cutting edge of research, helping to save lives without the constraint of the market.”

    This is a refreshing statement since I have a brother who left school with no A’ levels and he
    is the only millionaire so far from my own family.

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