Wakeham Up

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.

15 Responses to Wakeham Up

  1. Tony says:

    As with most assessments, it’ll depend on the given contexts. If we only look at the contribution of physics teaching & research to the economy, we’ll get one answer, to the advance of knowledge, another, to the creation of good citizens, yet another, etc etc. The ToR mentions some areas of consideration but gives them no weightings: which factors are more, and which less, important? Ah well, we shall see.

  2. ian smail says:


    A and C suggest that those in power think astro-pp is important… i can’t believe – given all the other issues on the global stage at the moment – that the survival or death of the UK astro-pp community would make it into their top-100 (even taking account of the very effecitve noise the community has been making).

    so i’d vote that this is an option B ploy.

    …which will nicely highlight that where these cuts fall is in part an internal decision by STFC – why don’t we cease all future funding for moon/mars missions and reduce diamond operations and sit back and wait for the headlines? threatening to sacrifice the “crown-jewels” has always been a traditional response to funding threats.


  3. Tony says:

    oh, and happy b’day, Andy!

  4. andyxl says:

    What a well informed chap you are Tony. Did you mean happy bidet ?

  5. Kav says:

    For what it is worth I think B is the correct answer as far as government is concerned.

    However there is a feeling in some quarters that I have heard (and seen) expressed that there is an unhealthy bias towards astronomy and particle physics. I think it is important to make the case to Wakeham that this is not so (unless one agrees!), otherwise we could be in for a real shock.

    Of course if Prof. Womersley is right the government might well be hoping for the panel to put the boot in to shut us whining scientists up! Something to think on I suppose.

  6. KOMbat17 says:

    B is already happening. Following NAM, when the head honchos at STFC appeared tp promise more openess and accountability if we would just quieten down and accept our fate, everyone has gone to sleep. It surely can’t have escaped people’s attention that the long-promised openess and accountability has failed to materialise. Where are the grades, the weights, the reasons why LT beats UKIRT? Indeed, instead of a thorough, open and scientific assessment, it appears that the ad hoc panel Chairs are having to be given an oral account of the decisions… nothing written down; no-one accountable. Are the leaders of our astronomy community really such a waste of space that they’ll take this lying down? What exactly is SCAP doing? Anything?? Is there a more senior group and, if so, what are they doing? Watching their own backs by the look of it.

  7. Harald says:

    What if it is option C: The government has nurtured us after the war as strategic reserve and now expects us to jump into the breaches that are opening up? Or at least give up some of the money to let others do the jumping, er, flying … to mars. The consistent message that STFC is handing down seems to be this: We haven’t brought our message across and are not high on the priority list. I think we better start looking for arguments. What’s wrong with “bums on seats”? The government wants to push science and engineering. Mark Lancaster has shown at the IOP that it’s in large parts PP and astronomy that’s attracting students into physics departments. Can we make clear that they’re destroying their own base by cutting these areas?

  8. Michael Merrifield says:

    What would you like SCAP to do? We could demand more accountability yet again, but it is a little hard to motivate people when, no matter how loud the howls of protest, STFC just keeps rolling its merry way. And, as you say, nothing much is happening at the moment for us to object to: the ad hoc panels have yet to make their reports to STFC, and STFC have yet to ignore them. When they do, we will have something substantive to get our teeth into, but until then there is really little to be gained by going around and around on the same issues.

  9. Russell Smith says:

    Maybe we’ll all up a little when the select committee report comes out next week.

  10. Russell Smith says:

    Wake up, I meant to write.

  11. Phil Uttley says:

    Here at Southampton, we have the pleasure of having Bill Wakeham as our very-own VC. A few weeks ago he came to our departmental away-day to give us an overview of the review, its remit, what he wanted to find out and what his own ‘hypothesis’ was. He stressed that he wanted to go and get as much data and submissions from various bodies as possible and test various ‘hypotheses’ that people had suggested (presumably his, the other panellists, and maybe anything they gleaned from the questionnaires to departments). So he was especially keen to point out that the review was trying to be open minded and would do things in a rigorous way.

    Anyways, he told us that his own ‘hypothesis’ was that the *funding* balance in many departments was too heavily skewed towards one or two sources, particularly STFC, so that some departments are hugely vulnerable to a crisis like this. He thinks that part of the problem is that many areas of applied physics start out as blue-skies physics and then spin off and eventually become engineering, and so by definition physics departments in the current system will always be tilted to just a few blue-skies areas because their successful applied research will eventually leave the departments. The examples of that in Southampton are our Electronics department (one of the top 5 in the world, so I’m told), Optoelectronics, Sound & Vibration Research and surely at some point in the future Nanotech will go the same way. So he thinks that there are lots of different bits of physics done on university campuses, not just in physics departments, and he is wondering if there is a way to bring them together to help stabilise the (as he sees it) blue-skies-heavy physics departments.

    So he didn’t necessarily say that there are too many Astronomers and Particle Physicists, just that the funding balance is unhealthily dependent on just a few sources of funding, and that this partly stems from our very success at producing applications for our applied physics research.

    How to remedy this is another matter…. and also how could this sound to government, would it be read simply as ‘physics departments are unbalanced’ or as ‘physics departments are a victim of their own success in applied research and should be given more support’?

  12. andyxl says:

    To KOMbat17 : I think you are being a little unfair to members of PPAN and Science Board. I agree that the STFC process should have been more open; but people serving on committees will have done so on a particular understanding of the rules of the game. You can’t tell people everything is confidential and then later on say “actually we are going to make everything you said public now”.

  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    I don’t think anyone is asking that the contributions of individual members of Science Board and PPAN should be published in an attributed fashion, Andy. However, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to ask for the final average scores that each facility received, and the strategic evidence used to justify adjusting those scores.

    Apart from anything else, in amongst the conflicting information that the ad hoc panels received from STFC, they were told that they should not go over the same ground as the original programmatic review, but should concentrate on any aspects that the review had failed to consider. Surely you will agree that this is a rather tricky task if the panels are not given the information that went into the original decisions.

  14. KOMbat17 says:

    You said it, Professor Merrifield. Hardly rocket science. You’d have thought your argument might have dawned on our esteemed host – a panel member, no less – but perhaps he would argue that the ad hoc panels have been given no Terms of Reference (surely a first, even for STFC) and thus he couldn’t be expected to differentiate ar*es and elbows.

  15. andyxl says:

    MM and K17 : you might detect me bending over backwards to be as fair as possible to STFC. (Bending over forwards would be different.) As a panel member, I have limited direct power. However, the panel chairmen, while they don’t speak to God, do speak to Moses, and I can tell you that there is a persistent campaign to increase the available information; and I can also tell you that the resistance to such full disclosure does not appear to come from the office.

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