Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

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 ?

14 Responses to Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

  1. […] Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three. 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 … […]

  2. Black Dog says:

    11 o’ clock tick tock (a U2 reference by the way) – sharpen your pencils viewers
    DIUS response to Select committee review is imminent…oooo I can’t wait

    PS Good to see COO’s air miles are stacking up (I’ll leave you all to work that one out)
    Have a great day

  3. Conor says:

    “Because of history, and because of the cuts, the community 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.”

    Of this I am not so sure. Any cuts are a hard thing to deal with. I think a worthwhile question to ask is this: Had the STFC not come into existence, would we be facing the same situation in Physics and Astronomy? If the answer to this is yes, then I guess you are right to say that everybody would have been onside. If the cuts absolutely had to happen, then this is certainly the best way to go about dealing with it.

    I agree that the community is still not going to be happy, because there is no reason to be happy, but at least it is a reason to believe that someone, somewhere, has put thought and justification into their actions.

    So perhaps we’ve gotten what we can from this for the moment, but where do we go from here to stop this happening next time around? The government’s memory isn’t great when it comes to funding. How can we remind them that we’ll not sit idly by at the next review, and that they’d better get it right next time, first time around? I don’t want to see this become a trend.

  4. Paul Crowther says:

    I agree with much of Andy’s commentary, but the separation of the old “lower” priority into alpha 1 and 2 seems to be the primary outcome of the PPAN revised ranks, of which just alpha 1 is under imminent threat, rather than movement between bands following any advice from the panels.

    Had this outcome been made clear at the Science Board Town Meeting when anything in low or low-medium (now rebranded alpha 1-3) was under immediate threat there would have been less of an outcry. One wonders whether more cash has been diverted towards the PPAN programmes than was expected in March? If so, the consultation exercise and appeals through the media will have served a useful purpose.

    Still, quoting from para 79 of today’s response to the IUSS ctte from DIUS (actually STFC’s reply):

    ” The Committee is rightly keen that STFC should do robust peer review and consultation where possible before reaching decisions. That puts an onus on the community to treat the process responsibly and to try to avoid fomenting media headlines which undermine the consultation process.”

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    The level of facility cuts does now seem to be under control. However, the issue of how facility expenditure should be tensioned against exploiitation expenditure is surely now proportionately more out of control. I was struck by the report in the minutes of the RAS Coucil Meeting of May 9th:

    It appeared on close inspection that while the list of potential cuts to astronomy was considerable, the proposed ‘rebuild’ (using the £40m held back to fund new activity) would result in astro-projects ending up at roughly constant volume. The net outcome would be a cut of about £33m, of which all but £1m would fall on grants. The President added that if this had been known earlier, while the RAS would still have argued against precipitate withdrawals from or immediate closures of facilities and argued for a review of solar physics and ground-based STP and a plan for operating costs of High Performance Computers, and while there would still be a serious problem with grants, he might not have portrayed the situation as a crisis for UK astronomy.

    Are these numbers correct? If so, how can exploitation funding getting hammered (despite it being a top priority in essentially every previous review) while projects are largely untouched be viewed as anything other than a crisis for the UK astronomers who depend at least as much on exploitation funding as they do on facilities?

  6. Paul Crowther says:

    yes it is a little curious that exploitation grants have taken the full hit – the STFC restructuring plan stated £68M worth of cuts to the existing PPAN programmes (including grants) together with £35M new programmes (e.g. ELT, SKA) so a net saving of £33M which agrees with the RAS statement. The govt response to the IUSS report also notes in para 60:

    “The increased emphasis on facilities .. reflects their key role in ensuring the continued excellence of UK science and the UK’s strong performance in these areas”

    but also adds in para 76:

    “Ministers recognise the importance of predictable funding trajectories to ensure the research base can provide the best value for the nation”

    I suspect STFC management are comfortable keeping the community on-side over their renewed emphasis on facilities, and still rely on the Wakeham Review to decide whether the volume of grants should be at pre-SR04 (and post-CSR07) levels or those enjoyed during SR04 (2005-2008). Probably the least bad option at present…

  7. Dave Carter says:

    It does seem that people have taken their eye of this particular ball while the PR review has been taking place, and I am disturbed that the RAS and DIUS at face value think this is OK. Mike’s quote from the government response illustrates why some of us shouted long and hard against the formation of STFC as it is, and in favour of, if necessary, putting the grant funding in EPSRC. Great science is not done by great facilities, it is done by great people. People making these decisions may argue that this is OK, because they are great and all they need is the facilities to make them greater. We can argue all day about that, but what is incontrovertible is the irrelevance of that in the long term, because they will be dead and gone and the next generation will also be gone, having been made redundant in their 20s and 30s.

  8. Paul Crowther says:

    I fully agree, but the Wakeham Review is NOT going to revisit STFC’s decisions on facilities, but IS going to look at whether the broader funding Research Council structure is optimum, and what the appropriate grant support level should be.

    The post-restructuring plan division between astro facilities and exploitation grants is certainly out of balance (and contrary to the 2005 review panel recommendations), but until Wakeham reports to Government I have to conceed that STFC have made the right choice in the short-term. We have to hope that Wakeham reaches a sensible verdict over how grants should be administered and what the appropriate level should be.

    Mike M has been critical of the RAS written submission to the Wakeham Review, but disappointingly few departments answered MRR’s request for community input and there will be a further opportunity to get the message across during the Wakeham evidence sessions next week.

  9. Cheerful One says:

    I’ll have you know that not only am I obsessed by ukuleles and knitting, I also do a nice line in cake and snails! 😉

  10. Michael Merrifield says:

    To respond to Paul’s comment, it isn’t the information content from the community in the RAS submission that concerns me — it contains plenty of bulleted anecdotes cut-and-pasted from the community. What bothers me deeply is that it adds no value to these anecdotes by synthesizing any constructive conclusions. It also singularly fails to answer the questions that Wakeham specifically asked the professional societies to address (unlike, for example, the IoP submission, which does so in an exemplary manner); in fact, the points it does choose to address are in some cases actively damaging to our cause by, for example, seeming to make the case that UK astronomers are good at getting things for free from the Americans, which may be true but is hardly a good angle to pursue in the argument for maintaining our support.

    But don’t take my word for it: read the RAS and IoP submissions for yourself, along with the questions that Wakeham asked, and consider which is the more convincing advocate for our cause.

  11. Paul Crowther says:


    in fairness, Bill Wakeham asked the RAS to provide him with evidence of `resources acquired on non-STFC facilities’ (recall presumably as an indicator of the international competitiveness of UK astronomy. Would you have preferred the RAS to have sidestepped this request?

    Whatever one thinks of the RAS, its detailed response to Wakeham could only have been as good as the input received from the community, which was disappointing sparse.

  12. Michael Merrifield says:

    That’s rather the point, though: when faced with a potentially-loaded question like that, you absolutely don’t just feed back an arbitrary anecdotal list of examples, which can be used in evidence against you. What you have to do is present the argument as to the leveraging power of current funding, specified in quantitative terms, with a powerful argument as to why any reduction in funding will have a disproportionate impact, and use your examples to illustrate the point. It isn’t a particularly difficult argument to construct even with only the available examples, but it is nowhere to be seen in the document. Without it, the submission is actively damaging to the community.

  13. Paul Crowther says:


    Have you ever thought about volunteering to help out at the RAS as a “science policy” advisor?
    I’m sure Burlington House would welcome you with open arms. To mis-quote Lord Kitchener

    “Your community needs you!”

  14. Michael Merrifield says:

    They couldn’t afford me! More seriously, a couple of years back I was invited by the RAS to talk to them at an awayday on why I am not a member. Amongst their various limitations, I stressed the contrast with the AAS, who buy in serious policy advice and professional lobbying. I had hoped that the RAS might be going the same way (after all, it isn’t short of cash with its MN income and the money it had saved up when it thought it might have to start paying commercial rent on Burlington House), but if the Wakeham response is anything to go by, it has a very long way to go.

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