Judge Willis Reports

April 30, 2008

If you are a UK astronomer or particle physicist, then two possible positions pertain. (a) You have been in a coma. (b) You are perfectly well aware that a Parliamentary Select Committee has been digging into the recent Science 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 report. If you were expecting a whitewash, think again. Its pure Semtex.

Quotes from the summary :

“… in merging two Research Councils, one research community has been saddled with the debt of another, despite assurances from the Government that STFC would be formed without any legacy issues.”

“In STFC itself, we found weaknesses in its peer review system, its communications and its management.”

“We recommend that STFC wait for the results of the Wakeham review of physics before implementing the cuts proposed in the Delivery Plan and that it use this time to consult with its stakeholders”

“…substantial and urgent changes need to be made to the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give the Council the leadership it desperately needs.”

Wow. As you would expect, STFC have issued a firm riposte which you will find at the STFC website. I am trying to decide whether the right comparison is Geoff Boycott or Edith Piaf …

Wakeham weirdness

April 27, 2008

This evening I have been drafting our submission to the Wakeham review – both the Departmental submission, and the Vice Chancellor’s submission, which of course I have the honour of having been asked to draft … The questions are quite striking. After Q1=”name please” (oooo der hard ones first eh…) we go straight into

Q2 Please list and describe five examples of non-academic impact that have stemmed from research carried out by members of your department …

Wow. It takes until Q9 before we get to the expected “so, is STFC crap or what ?” question. (Of course many of my colleagues are looking for the “so is EPSRC crap or what ?” question … you can stare at EPSRC documents all day trying to decide whether your grant application should fit into “digital economy” or “securing the future”…

Over at the VC questionnaire this looks like a key question :

Q3 : Has the focus of research in your Department had to be adjusted to attract students and ensure long term viability ?

Of course ! We hire nothing except astronomers, because this gets thousands of punters in. We tell them at interview they are almost certain to meet Heather Cooper at some point, or possibly just Chris Lintott. Meanwhile, every one of these astronomers demands a personal eight metre telescope.

My favourite though is Q12 on the Departmental submission :

Q12 : Please detail the number of staff in your Department that have received senior management training.


One Hundred and Fifteen and still counting

April 24, 2008

Oil is now $115 per barrel. We ‘re all going to hell in a handbasket. By the time STFC’s problems are sorted, Western Civilisation will have collapsed anyway. Sorry, got to go now, teaching my kids how to use a bow and arrow.

Wakeham Up

April 23, 2008

The long awaited RCUK review of the Health Of Physics in the UK, aka the Wakeham Review, is now thoroughly underway. The panel had their first meeting Feb 29th; by May 2nd Physics Departments and VCs etc have to return their questionnaire submissions; there is a two day meeting with witnesses on June 23-24; the panel reports to DIUS Sept 15th. The questionnaire is fairly weird … The review has a web page on which you can find the panel membership. You can also find the review remit. This of course is deathly dull and detailed, leading to one thinking “OK, what’s REALLY going on ?”. Coffee room chatter produces three theories :

(A) The Fix. Government knows that the funding crisis is real, and that the STFC is after all the wrong structure, but they can’t be seen to be caving in to whingeing and sensational press. So they need a nice quiet rational review to justify rescuing astro-pp without destroying facilities for condensed matter, chemistry, and biology in the process.

(B) The Kick into Touch. Government is uninterested in all the whingeing because they have given a broad area plenty of money and its up to us to sort out our own problems. So the review is just to keep us busy while we all gradually calm down and accept life.

(C) The Descending Boot. Government feels that the fundamental problem is in the Universities, who have been trapped into relying too much on “PPARC” science because of competing for student bums on seats. The balance of Physics is unhealthy in the UK and needs fixing.

Mesdames et Messieurs, faite vos jeux.

VISTA mirror at last !

April 17, 2008

I am in Heidelberg, at a meeting of the PanSTARRS science consortium. PanSTARRS is a very ambitious project : four identical telescopes with very wide field of view cameras, scanning the sky repeatedly. Right now we are doing the pilot project with just one telescope. Its built and currently under test and should start a three year survey programme pretty soon, doing dark matter mapping, killer rocks in space, acceleration from supernovae, and all that trendy stuff. Its not quite as fast at surveying as the planned LSST, but thats years away yet …

Meanwhile in the infrared … the survey speed is nowhere near good enough for this kind of repeated sky scanning, but since the UKIRT Wide Field Camera (WFCAM) arrived, the speed is at last fast enough to make proper sky surveys plausible. My own baby of course is UKIDSS (get your data at the WSA page, or write a Python script and run it through AstroGrid). In the Southern Hemisphere, the great hope has been VISTA, a 4m telescope entirely dedicated to IR surveying, and with a camera thats even bigger than WFCAM. Its been nearly ready for months, but we have all been waiting for the primary mirror – its been stuck in Moscow, getting polished. Its not just that we are itching for the data … VISTA was promised to ESO as part of the UK joining fee, and the contract had penalty clauses .. another financial problem looming over STFC.. But its arrived in Chile at last !!

There is a press release and multiple web site splashes : at QMW , at ROE, at STFC, and ESO.

I don’t know whether we finally finally avoid the penalties .. but at least the good PR should help cheer up our STFC chums.

Gordon’s Final Word

April 8, 2008

I got another email from 10 Downing Street today. (Yes I know, most of you did too..) I wrote about Gordon’s initial response to the famous petition in this post. Here is the text of the final response :

You signed a petition asking the Prime Minister to “reverse the decision to cut vital UK contributions to Particle Physics and Astronomy.”

The Prime Minister’s Office has responded to that petition and you can view it here:


Prime Minister’s Office

Petition information – http://petitions.pm.gov.uk/Physics-Funding/

If you would like to opt out of receiving further mail on this or any other
petitions you signed, please email optout@petitions.pm.gov.uk

Have a read of the petition. Its a mixture of depressing and encouraging. Of course, the Government was never going to say “Oh dear you are quite right, here is lots more money”. That ain’t how things work. However this :

Claimed reductions in STFC’s budget appear to have been derived from STFC’s aspirations for the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) period (2008/9 – 2010/11). These aspirations never constituted an agreed set of activities or funding for them, and the suggestion that £80m has been cut from its budget is wrong.

is close to insulting. We are not stupid. Nobody said £80M has been cut from the STFC budget. Merely unfunded aspirations ? That applies to the ILC, but not to discussing plans for several hundred job cuts, sending a message to every UK University saying “how would you respond to 25-40% grant cuts”, and publishing a Delivery Plan announcing “We plan to withdraw from future investment in the twin 8-metre Gemini telescopes” and “We will cease all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities” and “We will cease to invest in high-energy gamma ray astronomy experiments”. (I am avoiding plugging the cases that affect me personally). These are facts and quotes and they are cuts. I am not even saying they are wrong to do … I might have done these things too … but saying “there are no cuts, only unfunded aspirations” is more or less spitting in our face. I was actually pretty impressed with the STFC performance at NAM, and so really disappointed they allowed these patronising words to escape Number Ten.

On the other hand .. The response says

It is a tribute to UK science that it will always be the case that there will be more proposals for scientific research than the funding is able to cover. Funding bodies such as STFC will always have to make difficult decisions and it is both justified and understandable for there to be a debate over how these decisions are made.

Which seems to say it was ok for us to make a fuss. Huh. Maybe we are not foolish children after all. Perhaps more importantly the response says :

This follows large increases in funding in recent years and means that there would be no major reductions in physics funding before the outcome of the Wakeham Review is known. (Professor Bill Wakeham, Vice Chancellor of Southampton University, has been asked to lead an independent review of the health of physics overall and we, and the Research Councils UK (RCUK), will pay close attention to his conclusions, which are expected in the Autumn.)

The community and the RAS have been consistently asking for this, so its very good to see. So.. having had my hissy fit … lets all start working to make the best of this. We have time.

Next up, Wakeham. Just got the questionnaire … some thoughts on this soon…

World saved by the Wii

April 8, 2008

Sorry folks. Another title tease. Patience.

When I wasn’t at the STFC Community Forum on Thursday, I was instead at a really good seminar about renewable energy, given by David Mackay from the Cavendish. He gave a hard headed look at UK requirements and what various renewable schemes can deliver. (David has a marvellous book called “Sustainable Energy without the Hot Air“). The main conclusion was that if you insist on European or US levels of consumption, then any successful renewable scheme has to be country sized – cover Wales with photocells etc – which isn’t practically or politically possible for the UK. This didn’t surprise me. Before STFC politics took over this blog, my most read post was about how extrapolated world energy requirements will get uncomfortably close to the solar input. However, David was more optimistic than I was there, suggesting that if we take an international approach, we really can solar-farm several Wales-areas in the North African desert and fuel Europe and Africa. So its possible in principle but still politically kinda tricky… Alternatively of course you can do it the Roger Angel way. Mirrors in Space.

That evening I had dinner with David, Alan Heavens, and Stephen Salter, a well known Edinburgh engineering genius. In the 1970s he invented the wave duck, and now he is having another go at saving the world – global cooling with albedo control. All we need is a fleet of two thousand automated ships, that drift around the oceans, hoover up sea water, and shoot a fine spray of particles up to the clouds. The idea seems to be that this (err somehow) changes the way cloud particles nucleate, and so changes their size distribution, making the clouds more reflective to incoming visible and UV, but without changing the reflectivity for IR on the way up. We make the clouds whiter folks. This takes very little energy cost. I haven’t read his paper, which is in press in Phil Trans, but there is a BBC news item on it.

Back to energy. Of course if we can just cut our consumption … David said that our energy consumption is about equal amounts transport, heating, and making stuff. Of course we can insulate our drafty Victorian Edinburgh homes better, but we can also turn down the thermostat. David said (I think… this was after a few glasses of wine..) that in the 1950s the average household temperature in the winter was 12C, compared to 20C now. Part of the problem is, we are all so sedentary… but things are changing !

When I were a lad we watched TV all day. My kids of course have spent years playing on the Playstation or checking Bebo. But since Christmas – things have changed ! We have a Wii and now the whole damn family leaps about playing imaginary tennis and so forth. Much less heating needed.

There. You knew I’d get there.

Sticky Moments

April 3, 2008

I am back in Edinburgh after two days at the National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast, and then a day in St Andrews for the SUPA Advisory Committee. So today I will miss the session where STFC meet the community … I hope it will be positive, but it may well be a rather sticky moment. I had the feeling in Belfast that people were talking more about politics than science, but maybe that was just all the senior old farts like me. The grad students won’t have been wasting their time on politics. They will have been drinking beer.

I went to a talk by Don Pollacco summarising progress on discovering exoplanets, including an announcement that SuperWASP has found ten new transiting planets, a third of all those known. The exoplanet business is very exciting but puzzling as there are several odd and worrying things. there are too many elliptical orbits; planets only like high metallicity stars; and at a given mass they are nearly all larger than they should be. All these things are explained by theorists of course, but it feels uncomfortable.

Here is another piece of sticky discomfort. For years the standard picture of planet formation has this crucial period of time where grains start sticking together. Once they are big enough gravity starts to do its clumping thing, but first they have to collide, stick, and grow. So nobody ever tested this until recently, but now its been done by my SUPA chum Helen Fraser who runs an Astrochemistry lab at Strathclyde. She has a machine that she takes up on a zero-g parabolic flight ESA aircraft. She fires the grains at each other and makes a movie. They don’t stick. They bounce off each other and spin. She tried ice. It doesn’t stick either. Her last hope is spongy ice – fractal grains like those we do actually find in the interplanetary medium. (But how do they get made ?) She is in Bordeaux now about to fly with her toy. Sounds more fun than STFC bashing ..

Anyway, you won’t get a debrief on the STFC session from me .. hopefully it will be covered by Stu and Chris or the orbiting frog

Last but not least, we released the AstroGrid software on Tuesday. You can get it from http://www.astrogrid.org.