Sticky Moments

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

24 Responses to Sticky Moments

  1. rob ivison says:

    I’ll try and record the session with the camera on my trusty MacBook Pro. In the unlikely event that anyone says anything useful, i’ll upload it.

  2. onlooker says:

    NAM/STFC meeting – Haldane principle

    It seems to me that something is amiss. KM says that, ala Haldane, the government does not interfere with science, but surely astronomers would never give Aurora 50m out of their budget by themselves.

  3. […] from beyond the cosy home we have here. Andy Lawrence’s comments on NAM can be found here; reading his archive will provide anyone with a pretty fair guide to the politics of the last few […]

  4. From Chris’s excellent NAM blog: […]John again – ‘If you cared about money you wouldn’t be a scientist’ […]

    That is quite possibly the most pathetic response I’ve ever heard, and I’m shocked that cries for blood weren’t made. While it is true that money is by no means a reason to stay in academia, the student was asking if he should ‘take the risk’. Is it really worth becoming involved in a career that offers no job security, and in which several years’ work can be thrown away because UK PLC doesn’t fancy checking their pockets for loose change?

    I am in a similar situation- I do what I love, but if what I love ceases to have a future, is it still worth doing? The fate of the UK involvement in the LHCb is still to be decided, and on that decision rests my own fate.

  5. Stuart says:

    Andy, we asked for permission from both the RAS and STFC to put the full, unedited audio from the STFC Community Forum online. We recorded directly from the mixing desk so the sound quality is as good as it was on the speakers in the Larmor lecture theatre. The audio can be found at (~50 MB).

  6. Watching says:

    BBC quotes Keith Mason as saying astronomers must make their case to Government. Surely it is his role to make all of the STFC case? If he is unable or unwilling to make the case for an important part of his brief (and the indications are he is at best lukewarm), he is not the right person to be CEO.

  7. Watcher says:

    Surely we all share the responsibility for making the case and the research community are well placed to do so (they are the ones producing the exciting results after all). Keith didn’t say he wouldn’t be making the case but he was pointing out the shared responsibility.

  8. Watching says:

    We can make the case, of course, but the strong impression we get is that Keith is overly focussed on space and the dipole. Perhaps CEO of STFC is just too big and varied a job for anyone to be able to look after all aspects of it. But OK, let’s put this to the test. If we are to make the case, let him ask the community to make the case for Aurora, or to make the case for saving the Aurora money and spending it on other projects. I would bet the balance will be firmly in favour of abandoning Aurora. Then he can quote the much-touted Haldane principle, and announce to government that STFC has decided to leave Aurora. That should free 50M.

  9. Paul Crowther says:

    Watching: That will never happen, since it is STFC management strategy to try to leverage an ESA Centre by pouring as much money into Aurora as possible, regardless of the consequences for the rest of the programme (as noted by Science Board in Annex I of their now-public 15 Nov 07 minutes). There is no public STFC strategy just yet, naturally, but the space agenda is most certainly being followed. Space exploration is a great thing, but needs its own agency if the gov’t genuinely wants to pursue this activity, or else fundamental physics research in the UK is stuffed.

    Watcher: Keith has admitted defeat already for the next CSR. Our present difficulties will have been ‘a walk in the park’ by comparison. You’re well aware that the STFC bid to the Director General of Research Councils falls to a single individual.. if that pitch falls flat, as was the case in CSR07, the community suffers but there seems to be no managerial accountability. To quote an anonymous STFC establishment employee from the Investors in People report: “Accountability sits at executive level.”

  10. Watcher says:

    Watching: While imitation is clearly a form of flattery it would avoid any confusion if you came up with a more creative alias for yourself.

    With regard to Aurora, PPARC was specifically allocated funds for our subscription to the ESA exploration programme as part of SR 2004 and this was rolled into STFC’s baseline in CSR 2007. The issue is about how much STFC spends from its science programme to support the domestic spend (payload provision). This was reviewed as part of the Programmatic Review and will need to be looked at again once the payload is fixed.

    Paul: I don’t think that Keith has given up at all on the next spending review but it does seem clear to most observers that the next review will be tougher than we have grown used to over recent years. The challenge is to secure a growth budget for our science in the face of what may well be, at best, a static overall settlement for science. We all need to make the case but we also need to find new arguments and new justifications for increased investment. I think Keith tried to explain at NAM that the idea that the CEO makes a pitch to the DGRC which results in more or less money for science and for STFC in particular is ridiculously simplistic.

  11. George Fraser says:

    Like many others in these troubled times, I return regularly to the e-astronomer and to paul crowther’s page to find out how the war is going. Never felt bold enough to make a comment myself.
    Until I thought : how did Andy’s remarks about SuperWASP and grains sticking together -planets and their formation, right? – lead on to the conclusion that Aurora (exploration of planets and how they formed) was – in the classic manner of “1066 And All That” – A Bad Thing?
    Aurora came into the programme as a CSR bid. So did membership of ESO, if I remember correctly. For anyone to suggest that the UK’s ongoing committment to ESO was an unregulated threat to the whole fabric of fundamental science in the UK would, of course, be ridiculous.

  12. Dave Carter says:

    Watcher I am concerned by the phrase “need to be looked at again once the payload is fixed”. We need to ensure that never again do we get into a situation where, like BepiColombo, a low science priority has to be funded because there is already an MOU. So to me this should be looked at again in the context of the rest of the programme before the payload is fixed, not after.

  13. Watcher says:

    Dave: Of course we need to re-examine the situation once the final payload for Exo-Mars is agreed. Clearly STFC is not going to fund payload that doesn’t fly and equally they are going to want to exploit UK leadership were we can win it. And of course if the whole cost of Exo-Mars increases the situation will need to be reviewed in the context of the rest of the programme.

    Meanwhile, I thought Diamond had been identified as the enemy, recent contributions suggested that Aurora was the problem but now it seems it’s down to BepiColombo (unless you believe Paul of course in which case it’s all Keith’s fault).

  14. Dave Carter says:

    Lets not talk about enemies here, the problem is lack of funds. I merely raise BepiColombo as an example of a commitment which would not have been made had it been peer reviewed prior to the commitment in the context of the hard choices being made elsewhere.

    How does one evaluate “UK leadership”? Is it UK leadership to be PI of an instrument that nobody else wants to use? Or is it UK leadership to be first author on a number of ApJ papers using an instrument that was built overseas? We have had this debate before and you know I favour the latter, but I think its something people all need to think about.

  15. Dave Carter says:

    George, regarding ESO membership, this was debated openly in full awareness of the pain that would be cause to other parts of the programme, but these parts of the programme were those used by the same community pushing for ESO membership (ING, AAO, RGO/ROE). The community decided nevertheless to support ESO membership, and to take that pain. The perception with AURORA is that the benefit is to a different, and maybe smaller, community than that feeling the pain. I don’t know how much of that pain is directly attributable to the ongoing commitment to Aurora, Watcher may have a view.

  16. andyxl says:

    Howdy folks. Totally un-anonymous AXL here. As George reminds us, you can I hope tell from my comments about sticky grains etc that although I work myself on AGN, galaxies, and astro-geekery, I think the astrobiology agenda in the very broadest sense is both fascinating and crucial. Furthermore as Head of Physics I am 100% in favour of Diamond and ISIS. ESO, Aurora and Diamond are all very similar in that they get UK scientists into an arena where we can bigger and better science; but they all cost extra dosh. We have chosen to dine at expensive restaurants. Joining ESO was a clear success because we convinced government we needed it and they coughed up; but we all knew it put Gemini at risk. Diamond was a success in capital terms but CCLRC never got given enough for ops leaving a gaping hole at the point of merger; this seems to have been fixed, but of course at the cost of leaving Government less inclined to give us even more. Aurora is also mixed. Initially a great success, but if I understand correctly, a CSR bid for the increased subscription cost announced by ESA was not met; so there is an ambiguity on what STFC is committed to. Note that all this is about big-project politics and gambling. Its not about science priorities. I take it as a starting point that gravitational waves, redshift seven quasars, life on mars, and the structure of proteins are all v.important problems.

    I am not into the Keith-bashing bit. Thats really for bar-room talk. This blog has become pretty public.

  17. Paul Crowther says:

    George: The UK would greatly benefit from an ESA centre and Aurora/ExoMars ticks lots of excellent science boxes, but other areas of PP+Astro _are_ being sacrificed at present to leverage the ESA centre through Aurora…To quote:

    “SB is gravely concerned about the level of resource being committed to the Aurora programme.. With a backdrop of Job losses, the loss of whole fields of science and the career demolition that will occur across the programme, it seems inappropriate to commit more resources to this project.”

    Shouldn’t our “space industry” (different from “space science”) be funded through an expanded BNSC-type agency rather than a _research_ council (even one without research in its title)? You express similar concerns in your quotes from the 20 Feb RF news item.

    Andy: your point on Keith is well made. Still, he’s asking _us_ to make the case to gov’t for the next CSR, when the present management made such a poor job this round.. If such criticism is for the pub, then how can anyone justify Gemini Board-bashing by the CEO of a research council in front of the UK media?

  18. Watcher says:

    Paul, I’m afraid that what your proposal amounts to is suggesting that rather than have STFC Science Board and Council having any say over spending on space science and exploration you would rather give the money to some other body who would be under no obligation to tension spending against other areas of science.

    You say that the present management of STFC made a poor job of making the case at this CSR round, but you have no evidence for this as you have no way of knowing whether a better settlement could have been achieved. Or maybe you do know differently in which case you could tell us how STFC could have made a better case.

  19. ian smail says:


    >rather than have STFC Science Board and Council having any say over spending on space science
    >and exploration you would rather give the money to some other body who would be under no
    >obligation to tension spending against other areas of science.

    at least in terms of space “exploration” – there has been precious little “science” justification provided to allow peer-review – so the idea that this funding-black-hole can be reasonably tensioned against, say, science from exploitation of “current” ground-based STP facilities is a joke…

    pushing space exploration out of STFC’s remit – as paul suggested – i’m sure would sound sensible to our PP colleagues (and perhaps even in time) diamond users.

  20. Peter Williams says:

    Ian’s suggestion certainly seems sensible to me as an accelerator physicist. Look at the setup in the US. NASA for space exploration, NSF for physics research. Space exploration is rather different from basic science – there is a larger strategic (+ economic) element to the decision making required – not just scientific peer review. Therefore an argument could be made that it is sufficiently outwith the expertise of a body based on running scientific facilities and giving grants to scientists.

  21. andyxl says:

    Getting perilously close to admitting the Government was right in 2006 and grants for science exploitation should have gone to EPSRC… but I don’t think thats right. At the moment everybody seems to be complaining that astro gets unfairly squeezed when put in bed with quite different and big things like light sources and space exploration… (I guess this is how STP feels in the company of cosmology..) Aurora sneezes and we catch a cold. But sometime in the future when money is sloshing around because Aurora has convinced Government that STFC is a success and should be well funded .. are we going to turn it down ?

    Pete :you don’t mention that in US PP is funded by the DOE .. how weird is that ?

  22. ian smail says:

    andy – do you really believe that the space banquet will be so generous that we can dine off the left-overs? or isn’t it more likely that as always we will end up with a broader scope to0 the programme and less money to go around?

    fundamentally it seems that the range of activities and communities/users falling within the current STFC remit makes it difficult to have a transparent process to tension the different elements: so we end up with apparently arbitrary strategic decisions. moving the astro/PP grants from STFC – who seem to take the facilities part of their title most seriously – would at least mean that they only have to decide about the relative importance of different facilities – not facilities versus exploitation (a balance that was hard enough to get right even for PPARC). such a move could be presented as more fine-tuning, than a u-turn, and so might be politically possible.

  23. Michael Merrifield says:

    Whatever your view on how much distance should be put between the facilities budget and the exploitation budget, surely the issue here is that the half-way house of the current STFC structure is the worst of all possible Worlds. With no mechanism for tensioning, say, the running costs of Diamond against the medical research exploitation budget that stands to benefit most from this facility, the organization is fundamentally unbalanced.

    In principle, astronomy could, indeed, win out from such an imbalance by “riding on the coat-tails” of unrelated well-funded facilities. However, as we know only too well at this point, there is a huge risk associated with such a gamble. All the existing history on facility costs, both nationally and internationally, should teach us that the generation of headroom through this route is most unlikely.

  24. andyxl says:

    I just edited this post, as the AstroGrid link went to orbiting frog … just proves that while the AstroGrid engineers are very competent, I ain’t … strangely, Andrew Jaffe’s comment pointing this out ended up in the spam filter ….

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