Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

June 16, 2008

So the advisory panel reports have been released ; PPAN has responded; and Science Board has endorsed PPAN’s pronouncements. The final word is with Council on July 1st. The rankings have been nicely analysed by Stuart over at The Astronomy Blog. So where are we now ?

Wandering the halls of academe, and reading my inbox, I get the impression most people are saying “why did we bother ? PPAN has changed almost nothing.”. I think this is a mistake for several reasons.

(1) Some things have changed. UKIRT went up a notch, and LT went down a notch – although the ground based advisory panel wanted a larger movement. PPAN took the theory panel idea of splitting HPC operations into strands so some of it could be funded. XMM went up a notch and SWIFT went down a notch, but is still high.

Of course I am being a big brave boy because AstroGrid and CASU/WFAU are still in the pits, and UKIDSS is still at risk, so thats ten years of my life down the toilet. Hey Ho.

(2) The advisory panel reports are excellent – really good pieces of analysis, accurate, well considered and argued. And the level of discussion from PPAN, while still not extensive, is much much more than the brief, vague and almost insulting “feedback” we had before. It engages with the arguments, and sometimes but not always concedes points. Its just all much healthier.

(3) Advisory panel members (including myself, on the space panel) had insisted that our reports be made public. But STFC had not committed to make the PPAN and PALS responses public. But they have done so, and this is a huge advance.

Because of history, and because of the cuts, the commmunity is still not going to be happy. But its a vast improvement. If we’d had these kind of detailed panel reports before the original PPAN deliberations, everybody would have been onside. The result might have been different. Or it might have been just the same. But the referee’s decision would have been accepted.

(This reminds me of a story by Borges, about a literary critic who immerses himself so deeply in Don Quixote that he is able to spontaneously recreate it word by word. But when he has, it is. of course, not the same book …)

So is the result scientifically wise and sound ? Well of course you can’t expect me to be unbiased on UKIRT, AstroGrid, and WFAU/CASU, so I won’t try. Standing back and looking at the big picture, many things are just clearly correct, but there is a tendency to fund the future by cutting the present – i.e. things like XMM and UKIDSS producing results NOW. This is kinda brave but foolish.


Postscript When I googled “reasons to be cheerful”, although Ian Dury did of course come up first, entry number three was a blog by a woman obsessed with ukeleles and knitting. Isn’t the Internet wonderful ?