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.