Diamond Geezers

May 13, 2008

For many weeks, I have had interesting and difficult conversations with fellow Physicists in Edinburgh who have a somewhat different perspective on the STFC situation – condensed matter physicists who are long term users of ISIS, SRS, ESRF, and now ISIS-2 and Diamond. These guys are fed up with us astro-pp folk acting as if we were all of Physics; and fear that our whingeing is going to damage us all. A comment on this earlier post gave a link to a Research Fortnight piece. Not everybody has access, so here is a PDF.

Now these guys do some really good stuff. I would say that, because I am Head of the School of Physics, but its true. Even as an astronomer, I am fascinated by some of what they do. They are measuring material properties at pressures close to that in the centre of Jupiter, and within shouting distance of the outer parts of Brown Dwarfs. They want to understand the formation of planetary ices, and we are talking about simulated planetary atmosphere experiments.

As the STFC problems broke, they too were nervous, but for different reasons. It seemed obvious to them that the underlying problem was that astro-pp spending was out of control, as it periodically is (they say). This is mostly because subscriptions dominate the budget, are set in Europe not the UK, grow with GDP, and are subject to exchange rate fluctuations. But also there were vast aspirations such as ILC and Aurora, and looming problems such as the VISTA penalties. As far as they were concerned, the idea that problems were “due to Diamond and ISIS” were just a myth. There is no Diamond over-run they said – the costs have not changed since 2003. Diamond has been delivered on time and on budget. So they felt this was nothing to do with them.. but then ..woahh !! Hundreds of redundancies at Daresbury and RAL ! And rumours of closing down Diamond and ISIS for part of the year.

So.. since then the National Audit Office report has become well known, making it clear that the problem was indeed NOT with Diamond and ISIS. The problem was simply with CCLRC not putting enough money aside for all its commitments. But, my colleagues say, this is only one of several problems, along with the others above. Furthermore, if you know enough tensor calculus to understand near cash, non cash, DEL and all that mumbo jumbo (see John Peacock’s recent comment), it looks like Government has fixed the ~Diamond-ISIS ops costs problem, which means that what remains is that other astro-pp stuff.

So all this was coffee room grumbling until the IUS select committee report came out; now the “ex-CCLRC community” have gone public, because they fear our childish behaviour will bring us all down.

Some of the IUS report wording certainly did not help. “One community has been saddled with the debt of another” was an attempt at blunt truth, but its not fair – the debt had nothing to do with the community that used CCLRC facilities. Now STFC Council have fought back on this issue – news issued by Council states that pain has been equally shared – £38M cuts on the PPAN side, £45M cuts on the PALS side. My guess is some of you will be sceptical about that, so I will let you at it…

Actually the bit that made me larf in the RF piece was the suggestion that astronomers are organised … If Particle Physics is a Stalinist Economy, and EPSRC and their clients represent a perfect Free Market, then of course Astronomy is a bit of a good ole British muddle. You can do what you like, but we don’t do things like that here old chap.