Diamond Geezers

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.

9 Responses to Diamond Geezers

  1. Tony says:

    ‘Some of the IUS report wording certainly did not help’

    I had to laugh at the earlier post comments with people using the IUS report to back their own positions – must be a first for scientists to use the self-important posturings of politicians to validate their case.

  2. Tony says:

    ignore this comment – just wanted to see if I got the same icon as before 🙂

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    Given the choice between the self-important posturing of politicians and the on-going self-justification of STFC, I know which carries more weight with me.

    There is little political capital to be made by the Select Committee by singling out CCLRC. In fact, in the current climate it would have scored a lot more partisan points by putting the blame on the PPARC side. Unlike STFC, the Select Committee have no political or personal agenda in digging for where the blame lies on this occasion. And the National Audit Office, on whose work they largely based their judgement, also has no such agenda.

    Whether this validates the case is a matter for legitimate debate. To dismiss it out of hand simply because it comes from poiticians does not seem something that anyone, least of all a scientist, should do.

  4. John Peacock says:

    Let me repeat in this context the argument I developed relating to the Select Committee report. STFC has an anomalously low near-cash settlement, in large part because the treasury has imposed a big non-cash bill for depreciation of capital assets. My estimate is a new 300M value for Diamond plus ISIS2. Depreciated over 20 years, this makes 45M over the CSR period, or more than half the 80M hole. This is not the running costs – it’s just because these new things exist.

    Under the old dispensation, all this bill would have needed to be met by CCLRC. In the brave new world, ex-PPARC is in effect sharing the cost. The PPAN side of things thus has about 45M/2 less cash as a result. Even if PPAN science is not contributing a penny to the running cost overruns on these facilities, we are still subsidising them. This point needs to be clearly understood and additional funds should be allocated to the PPAN programme in compensation.

    I’d be interested if anyone can produce more precise figures for the depreciation hit resulting from Diamond & ISIS2.

  5. Alan Heavens says:

    Indeed it does seem that Diamond and ISIS2 are hitting the ex-PPARC community twice – once through depreciation, and again through a legacy of high running costs which appears to have been known about since 2003, but not properly budgeted for. They may well be fabulous facilities which justify the closing down of others to fund them, but that is an argument which appears to be absent in all of this.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    Isn’t this in effect the same argument though, John: as with the operating costs highlighted by the NAO, CCLRC must have been well aware of Government accounting procedures regarding depreciation, so should have built them into its forward-look budgeting. The fact that CCLRC don’t seem to have been bothered by such niceties as a balanced forward-look budget is what is crippling us now.

  7. Watcher says:

    Mike and Alan. Research Councils bid for money at spending reviews. Saying CCLRC didn’t have these costs in their planning is meaningless. The costs where known about and CCLRC were well aware that they would have to be provided for. The first time CCLRC or STFC could have bid for these costs over the perid in question was CSR 07.

  8. Michael Merrifield says:

    Don’t be ridiculous. All organizations have forward planning figures that don’t come to a grinding halt at CSR deadlines, so of course it isn’t meaningless to discuss whether the costs were in their future planning. In fact, the fourth sentence of your own post does just that (which isn’t to say it isn’t meaningless in your case, of course — it just seems to be another example of your favoured approach of putting others down for something that you then go on to do yourself. Or “hypcrisy” as it is more usually known).

    The more salient point is that prudent organizations arrange their existing forward commitments within an envelope based upon pessimistic assumptions about their future budgets, with an optimistic outcome used to fund new developments. CCLRC clearly didn’t follow this basic competent approach, apparently gambling on a good outcome to the CSR based on the (in retrospect, spurious) presumption that they would get one because the Government wouldn’t let their new research council fall flat on its face.

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