On Thursday I attended a meeting of the SLAC User’s Organisation (SLUO). Half the talks were about astrophysics, and even some about light sources, but the tone and the worry was dominated by particle physics and its position in the US. There were talks from suits at DOE, the NSF, and the OMB, all of whom had warm words and encouragement, but also barely coded hints about the scepticism in Washington. “Why does it have to be so all or nothing ?” and “does the US really need to lead this area ?'” and of course “whats the economic impact” ? Its very frustrating because the people in power do believe its gripping stuff – thats not the problem – and with the LHC switching on the next few years will be very exciting .. but they don’t see where its going, why it has to cost so much, or why anybody needs a big machine in the US, as opposed to some postdocs analysing data. Strikingly, the afternoon had several talks from particle physicists who were re-training themselves as astrophysicists, who explained how much fun it was. More of them later …
Two days later I was catching a flight from San Francisco to London, for a two week stint of back-to-back meetings in the UK. I am typing this about thirty hours later, still only mid-Atlantic, having been booked at various times on seven different flights (involving five different cities) only three of which I have actually been on … This sort of thing hasn’t happened to me too often I am glad to say, but periodically every traveller hits a nightmare journey like this. At first you get real tense, and your adrenalin rises as you try to calculate the options and optimise .. but eventually you just figure what the heck, when I get there I’ll be there, and you start joking with the flight attendants stuck in the same situation.
Suddenly I remembered a poem I read many many years ago. I can’t remember the title or the author, so if the the poet happens to read this blog one day, please forgive me for stealing your idea uncredited. It was in a magazine called Crabgrass. So here is my clumsy prose rendering …
… one morning the citizens of London wake up to find the streets entirely filled with stone lions. Motion is impossible. Half the workforce get on the phone, try to figure out a way round it, register complaints, send apologies to bosses and instructions to underlings, and so on, but all to no avail. The other half stare for a few minutes, then go back inside, make some coffee, read a book, and have an unexpectedly pleasant day.
You join the dots.
Join the dots? I’d prefer to kick back with a cup of decaf, thanks all the same.
At least some people will be trying to work out where the stone lions have come from. (And to get funding for that from the others).
I think Andy is encouraging me (and the rest of his group) to take a few more days off, and to relax with a nice cup of coffee and a good book. Sounds like a good idea.
Certainly not. Back to work immediately !!!!
When I am on such a journey from hell, I am always reminded of the film “Clockwise.” John Cleese’s character finds himself making such a trip, and comes out with the most insightful line, “It’s not the despair… I can take the despair; it’s the hope I can’t stand.” It is so true: once the hope of making that 20 minute connection at O’Hare as long as the plane gets a gate not a bus and the connecting flight is from the same terminal and… has gone, well, life is just so much better.
You know, it’s not the messed up flight plans that would have me depairing, it’s the thought of a two week stint of back-to-back meetings.
I’m disappointed. Was hoping for strident denial of end-particle-physics, but all the comments so far are about airplanes and such.
David, I guess your meetings are rather duller than mine. But I like the idea of de-pairing. Is this how ex-Cavendish people refer to divorce ?
Not ex-Cavendish people – just those with a type O personality.
I’d be worried if people weren’t asking the difficult questions about the worth of spending so much money: at a time when global warming threatens us all, people are still dying of starvation, new and old diseases are wiping out whole populations, species are disappearing at an increasing rate, it is essential that every million dollars of public expenditure is scrutinized. And at the top of the tree they do have to decide which fields the country needs to lead in: which fields will provide the best *total* benefit for the country.
Look at it this way, if they weren’t asking those questions of particle physics, they’d have already written it off!
Has particle physics finally run out of steam from the Atom Bomb? That’s obvkously the driving force behind why the high energy types had such street creds for so long surely? What if the Russkies* get the new death ray first? After 50+ years of not producing another superweapon, or energy source, has the magic just gone?
Or is the reason for decline the end of the actual Manhattan Project team members, who really were a pretty amazing bunch and got trained in making things happen. Last weekend I was at a party with an unnamed SLAC physicist who bemoaned the decline in strong, visionary leadership in US Particle physics. We commiserated, as I reckon the situation is similar in high energy astrophysics, world-wide. [Shocked? Please send hate mail to email@example.com]
You guys seem hung up about the Cavendish. What Cambridge wants, Cambridge gets – is that still the problem? I maintain that the best reason to spend a few years there is not the chance to work among a smattering of Nobel winners, but the hand-selected and jaw-droppingly biased undergraduate population. Forget their intellect. Feast your eyes 🙂
Dave – we only picked up the Cavendish thing because you stressed it some posts back. No, the Cavendish is not a problem. Anybody remember this phrase from the old Observatory Wars days ? “Observatories come, Observatories go, but the XXX grant goes on for ever”. Name of large University group removed to protect the innocent. In fact you can just insert the name of the group you like least.
Ah, but in these more enlightened STFC days, it’s “Observatories go, observatories come [a note of uncertainty that has been pointed out to the members of the Gemini Visiting Committee over the last couple of days], and the XXX grant gets cut by 25% out of all proportion to the cuts to facilities.”
Which Observatory and which telescope do you miss the most?
Watcher — perhaps you should read what I actually wrote first, as it rather undermines an attempt to be clever when you miss the point entirely.
What I pointed out was that facilities like observatories and telescopes have not been cut much compared to the 25% cut in the exploitation budget. If you would like, I will happily describe some of the masses of exciting science that was very highly rated by the grant panel which now will not get done.
So now we may still have most of the facilities and even some shiny new ones; we just don’t have the support to use them. Money well spent, huh?
I confess I’ve been unable to fathom how the astronomy community went from “losing UKIRT, (e)MERLIN, Gemini, SPICA, XMM-Newton, etc.” to “on with the show!” in such a short period of time. Who took the bullet? It feels as though I’ve accidentally skipped a chapter in a thriller.
Mike – stop cheating on me with Watcher – I thought it was only me you spoke dirty to.
What can I say? I’m a tart…
As for where the bullet landed, my understanding is that the cut to the whole PPAN programme over the CSR period is £33M out of a total budget (not including the international subscriptions) of around £500M. Of this saving, the cut to the grant line is around £32M. Doesn’t seem a particularly balanced restructuring programme, does it?
Dave, Mike : I feel obliged to remind you that AstroGrid is being closed a year early. Thats not a cut against possibiity; its a removal of awarded money.
It’s Friday, so it’s time for some fun: vote for the astronomy department you consider most riven by strife 🙂
My point is exactly that. Whenever STFC tries to close something, there is an outcry, pressure is applied in the press and elswhere, headlines appear in The Times. So perhaps I could ask a different question. Which telescope would you cut in order to maintain the grants line at its high of two years ago.
I find it difficult to see AstroGrid as a facility, in the sense that UKIRT is a facility, though I understand why you mourn its passing.
AstroGrid indeed is not a facility, and should never have been thought of as one. I just meant that its a clear example of a real cut. (There are others). Watch this space.
AstroGrid could have been thought of as a facility: it took a lot of time, money and effort from a dedicated and enthusiastic team of people to build something that would have been of very real benefit to the majority of UK (and the world’s) astronomers. It was then terminated just as it was about to move into operational mode.
(And no this isn’t self-interest or self-pity, I left the project at the end of last year to work on other stuff.)
Watcher: I thought that was the point of the programmatic review, not to mention the subsequent review of the programmatic review. Then there were all those Astronomy Advisory Panel reports advising that even the previous “high” was not the appropriate balance point for the exploitation/facility balance.
In any case, you have two choices: either PPARC was incompetent in its previous choice of balance between exploitation funding and facilities by a massive 24%, or STFC is incompetent to destroy the previous appropraite balance by a swinging 25% cut to grants while hardly cutting the facilities budget at all. Which incompetence would you rather accept responsibility for?
Although actually taking responsibility isn’t one of STFC’s strong points either, so I am not holding my breath.
I don’t accept that either PPARC or STFC were incompetent in this respect. PPARC tried to protect the real level of the grants (by trying to compensate for real inflation levels). In fact this led to some growth in numbers, which I don’t think was their intention and which in the end was not sustainable. You can call that incompetence but it was well intentioned and it did lead to an increase in the volume of research even if that volume can’t be sustained now. But that would be a judgement you would make with the benefit of hindsight. I’m sure you didn’t argue for a limit to the growth of the grants line at the time.
And yet the Astronomy Advisory Panel repeatedly advised PPARC that the balance between instrumentation expenditure and research expenditure was wrong, and that the number one priority was to redress this imbalance by increasing the grant line. And PPARC followed the usual path of ignoring any advice that it didn’t like and pursuing its own agenda. Plus ca change…
I would love to see you stand up at a town meeting and try to argue that the reason the grant line is bearing the entire brunt of astronomy cuts is that it had been previously generously overfunded. The audience wouldn’t know whether to laugh at you or lynch you.
Good grief – lynching people now? The audience would be too busy beating the heck out of each other to lynch the Watcher, based on some of the entries in this blog.
Being a little obtusely literal now, Dave? If you had been at any of STFC’s recent town meetings, in fact if you knew anything at all about what you are talking about, you would know that there was very little internicine strife: there’s nothing like idiocy from on high to unite a community.
Lynching? Would that be during the RAS session at the NAM? I see there is a call out for proposals for sessions at the next meeting. Perhaps you sould send in your suggestion.
The last AAP strategy I could find on the web came from 2003. It didn’t have grants as its highest priority. The Chair of that panel is now a member of STFC Council I believe. I’m not sure I recall the AAP putting grants at the top of their list after that date but I suspect you will know better Mike.
Watcher, Mike et al.
The 2005 International Review panel
report, co-sponsored by PPARC, included the following recommendation
One may argue that the UK reduction in ING access from 2009 together with planned cost savings at UKIRT and Gemini require less grant support, but UK exploitation of other recent/upcoming facilities still looks set to be rather thread-bare.
Of course STFC still doesn’t have a (public) science strategy, but judging from it’s 2008-11 Delivery Plan, UK ground-based facilities other than ESO and JCMT (and LT!) look as though they’re on a permanently downward spiral (witness the largely ignored recommendations from ground-based astronomy consultation panel).
Watcher correctly emphasises that something has to be cut when faced with a reduced budget. No change there from past SR’s, but the difference in 2007 was that peer review had largely been dismantled (witness the most recent AAP strategy report from 2003!), plus Science Board itself felt it necessary to express concerns over planned expenditure for specific “strategically important” programmes. These issues inevitably led to protests through the wider media given the insensitive Gemini negotiation and political concerns by North-West MP’s over eMERLIN & Daresbury Lab.
AAP certainly made recommendations to Science Committee after 2003, which placed grant funding as the absolute top priority. As Paul pointed out, the fact that those recommendations disappeared without trace says quite a lot in itself.
Looking from the outside, Mike, and assuming that you don’t really know it all – a fairly safe bet – and that you’re not representative of the community – another safe bet (for the sake of everyone!) – it appears that many facilities are duplicated – Gemini and UKIRT and VLT and bits of this, that and the other – and it looks like there are too many astronomy departments and astronomers and that many of those astronomers are too concerned with playing well out of their depth in politics whilst sniping at the leaders that have somehow managed to steer a course that avoids the closures astronomers were screaming about on the BBC only 6 months ago. I also note that what people previously referred to as 40% cuts to the grants line are now referred to as 25% cuts, yet no-one has so much batted an eyelid. If DIUS read this blog (and the fact I do makes this reasonably likely), then the lunacy of certain members of the community won’t do STFC any favours.
I’d like to suggest, out of courtesy to Andy whose blog this is, that people refrain from attacking individuals in their posts: it *is* possible to counter another’s argument without slagging them off.
you are correct that astro is certainly in better shape now than it had looked 6 months ago, but this might not have been the situation without the campaign that was picked up by the media and subsequent pressure upon STFC Executive.
Where you see duplication, the ground-based astro review panel saw complementarity (e.g. UKIRT imaging surveys feed Gemini-N). This is what it take to be world-leading in astro observation – there aren’t too many other disciplines in which the UK is ranked in the top two countries by way of citation.
As we shift to focus upon new facilities, cuts to smaller/older bits-of-kit are inevitable. However, this was hardly the situation with e-MERLIN, Gemini (top ranked ground-based facility according to STFC in 2007/08 Delivery Plan!) and related items such as AstroGrid.
I believe WFMOS (joint Gemini/Subaru instrument) was the number one ranked individual item from the final AAP report. It may still go ahead, but UK handling of the attempted withdrawal from Gemini hardly instills confidence in our international partners.
STFC initially quoted a 25% (or worse) cut in the grants line compared to 2007/08, which the CEO subsequently spun as a 10% reduction through a comparison with 2005. Members of the community have uniformly stuck to the 25% reduction, not 40%, in dealings with the media. We are not so blind as to notice problems in the “real world” but the STFC scientific community across astro, space science, particle and nuclear physics are still facing a disproportionate cut to grants over CSR07 with respect to other Research Councls (e.g. 3-5% in EPSRC).
The 40% figure you may be thinking of was the increase in astro academic numbers within the last two years according to STFC’s CEO. The actual change was 4%. Regardless, no doubt Bill Wakeham has already told Gov’t whether he thinks there are too many astronomers in the UK.
Paul – thanks for the facts and figures. “UK 2nd in worldwide astro citations” should be very powerful ammunition, weakened only a little by the world-leaders applying similar financial restraints.
The stats do not mask the obvious fact that these panels were self-interested pressure groups, their game having been to avoid cuts on one’s patch, by calling upon “complementarity” to counter “duplication” for example.
The comments from STFC’s high-level committees suggest that they have not bought into the reports, yet they haven’t applied the expected cuts.
I am left wondering whether anything truthful and honest is ever reported by DIUS, the STFC or the community it serves, which is a sad state of affairs, particularly when reported by a self-confessed banker.
P.S. Tony – could you be any more sanctimonious? Watcher is a big boy, Mike is a big boy, I am a big boy (George Michael may drop by any moment now).
WFMOS was indeed a high priority for PPARC but it was the uncertainty about the ability of the Gemini partnership to fund the project and the subsequent uncertainty about the future development of the observatory that contributed to the change in the overall priority of Gemini in the STFC programme. In fact I think SKA was the highest priority for the last AAP report to PPARC. Maybe the chair of that group could comment. Or maybe he is too busy getting on with his research.
The STFC programmatic review seems to be a bit of a dominating gravitational mass. This post was (provocatively) about particle physics running out of steam / money. Anybody out there fancy coming back on topic ? (I will soon write another post where the usual debate wil be more relevant).
And by the way Tony was right. Please debate without insult if you can.
Regardless of whether the LHC should be the last big physics experiment, the US media was looking rather enviously towards European leadership in particle physics, just before the latest financial crisis hit. Newsweek featured LHC on its cover a couple of weeks back. including
Wakeham will be out on Wednesday so that should provide some fuel for debate.
As far as the future of particle physics is concerned, I think reports of its end are premature. Even the delay to the start-up of the LHC has not dampened the public’s enthusiasm. And I think there is every reason to believe that the LHC will discover or point to new physics, which we will want to follow-up first by upgrades to the LHC itself and then via new experiments. Whether these will be e+,e- colliders (ILC, CLIC or something else) or wheather neutrinos will hold the answers is a matter for debate, but it seems clear that fundamental physics research will and must continue and that the US will be part of this.
Ok Andy, I will take the bait too.
I think the particle physics issue is planning blight. The LHC isn’t over-hyped, it really will change the picture one way or another and you can’t plan the next facility without knowing at least something from the LHC (though you can assess probabilities and increase technological capability in the the meantime). To push too hard for a specific facility right now runs a risk of looking like continuing just for the sake of it, and worse, may lead into a blind alley from which the field would find it very hard to extract itself.
But as Watcher says, there will remain a fundamental physics frontier at high energies (as well as in neutrino physics and possibly other directions). Everything we’ve seen about reaction to the LHC (even with our ‘glitch’) shows us the public are in general glad to spend a couple of quid a year on such things (even if David King isn’t), so long as great science is being done and there are people willing and able to communicate it.
The US is having a tough time right now, but I suspect they will recover. And in a way, not demanding to have a national facility is a sign of maturity. There will be only one of whatever follows the LHC I guess, and we’d all want to be involved whether it is on our continent or not. Same goes for the US, I think. You can get a lot of the economic & social benefits from being heavily involved, even if it isn’t in your country (or state). That said, I think the US are right to worry that they lost leadership over the past decade or so, and I hope they try and recover – and I hope we stay ahead 😉
Meanwhile, China and India are investing in particle physics too (as well as space-walking…).
Let’s see. I have never had any delusions that I know it all. Having lost the argument on the merger with CCLRC by about a factor of 2:1, I also know that I am not representative of the community. Anyone who thinks that UKIRT and VLT represent “duplicated” facilities is simply betraying their complete ignorance of what they are talking about. Since there is no “right number” of astronomers, it is meanngless to assert that there are too many, but bear in mind that the numbers have expanded primarily because physics departments recognized astronomy was a good way to convince more people to study physics rather than media studies at university — put a price on that. Unfortunately when it comes to science policy the politicians are more out of their depth than the scientists. But, for the record, you might want to read the A&G article I wrote that predicted in some detail the political outcome of the creation of STFC, which was more than any of the politicians, or indeed the leadership of STFC, managed.. And I don’t recall anyone referring to 40% cuts to the grant line: STFC promised us 25% cuts and that is what they have delivered. The point is that the facilities have hardly been cut at all. So either the previous balance between facility and exploitation was out of whack, or it is now. Either PPARC was incompetent in the past, or STFC is now. Or both.
I am a newcomer this blog, having resisted the urging of my colleagues to waste a lot of time arguing when I should be doing real work. However, I cannot resist making a few points.
When PPARC joined ESO, (a long time ago now) it was agreed and apparently understood by the community that this would mean closing existing telescopes to free up the money to pay the ESO subscription. This has not happened, and this is one of the reasons that there is so much pressure on the astronomy grants line now. The second point I would like to make is that it is not ALL of astronomy grants that have been cut by 25%. Only the worst 25%: Amazing though it may sound, the cuts were applied to a prioritised list. I presume the top 75% of astronomers are not complaining.
Watcher and Jon B : thanks for attempting to talk about particle physics, and I pretty much agree with what you have said…. I note the sensible use of the term “fundamental physics” rather than “particle physics”. Gravitational waves, neutrino physics and astrophysics, cosmological surveys, and dark matter searches should all compete in the same arena with collider physics, rather than thinking of a preserved area for the latter. In principle this is one of the good things about PPAN, if it can be fed competent advice.
George, welcome on board. People seem so keen to carry on arguing about astronomy grants, that I’d better write another post for them to put their comments in …
Your point about ESO membership is true to a degree, but since international agreements are long-term in nature, it takes a while to extract oneself from other facilities, such as
AAO (final withdrawal within a year or two),
ING (decrease in UK funding from £3M/p.a. a few years ago to £1M/p.a from 2009+)
Gemini (plan to reduced investment by 50% until end of agreement in 2012 still planned)
UK-only facilities such as UKIRT are still facing closure unless international partners can be found, despite a current world-beater through WFC.
On your other point, a relevant metric of the research support to astronomers is the ratio of the number of STFC funded PDRA’s divided by the number of academics. This would have been approx 0.6 in 2010/11, but is now heading towards 0.45, i.e. a switch from a majority of astronomers with post-docs, plus modest travel and equipment funds etc to a majority without.
The UK leadership in world astronomy may also take a nose-dive, unless DIUS can find a few coins down the RCUK sofa, and more worrying drive many of the best PhD astronomers overseas. Increasing post-doc numbers, followed quickly by a sharp decrease messes around with the normal career progression of young scientists, not to mention the long-term planning of physics departments (constant funding at whatever level is much preferable).
Some of the top 75% of astronomers are indeed complaining – unless you don’t count the Astronomer Royal or RAS President as “top astronomers” – which illustrates just how strong the community feeling has been.
You cannot be seriously suggesting that the correct metric is a ratio that depends on the total number of academic astronomers (a number which STFC has little control over).
And I suspect you are neglecting the number of PDRAs funded on project grants.
I was responding to George’s assertion that 75% of astronomers are happy, with just 25% depressed. The reality is rather different.
Don’t take my word for this metric – here is what your boss had to say to Evan Harris MP on 22 Feb 2008 (Q344 in Minutes of Evidence of the Science Budget Allocation report from the IUSS committee:
Indeed, we’re talking about responsive rather than project grants here since these form the vast majority of the total. These are the (only) statistics provided to me by STFC staff and presented by Science Board at their town meeting.
My Boss? Well Evan Harris asks what is the “right metric” . Mason talks about “One measure”. I’m not sure he answered the question (and don’t have the full transcript). It is clearly one measure but do you seriously think it is the correct one? Surely Mike’s implicit assertion that the correct metric is the ratio of spend on exploitation to that spent on facilities is closer to the mark.
I certainly agree with Mike that the expenditure on facilities and exploitation does seem out of balance. Its tragic that increases in subscriptions to ESA and ESO – by far the biggest components of astro/space science facilities and also beyond the control of STFC – contribute to astro exploitation grants getting trimmed back by £10M over CSR07. In my opinion the ratio of PDRA to academic is a reasonable measure of the health of the latter (Studentship quota exercise academic numbers were 484 in 2003, 545 in 2007).
Still, I do concede that the decision to safeguard most facilities in the short term was probably the “least bad” option taken by STFC in their April 08 restructuring plan. Wakeham was never going to recommend restoring funding to, say, e-MRLIN if it had already been stopped, but he just might conclude that the level of exploitation grant support in 2007/08 was appropriate. If your sources are correct, we will all get to find out on Wednesday.
“Anyone who thinks that UKIRT and VLT represent duplicated facilities is simply betraying their complete ignorance of what they are talking about.”
If it takes a complete idiot to spot the overlap between UKIRT Cassegrain instruments and those on VLT, so be it. But it is your turn to be the literalist now, Mike. By “VLT” I meant its parent organization, ESO, and even without the benefit of my idiocy you can surely acknowledge significant duplication between VISTA and UKIRT?
Since the last question here has been left hanging, I thought I’d try to answer it. Although I should emphasise that I’m not one of the experts on this topic.
First up: the VISTA/UKIRT comparison is a bit of a straw man. VISTA is going through commissioning at the moment, and at the same time the funding status for UKIRT is being changed. See http://www.jach.hawaii.edu/UKIRT/news/STFC_08A_08B_UPDATE5.html. So its unlikely both will be simultaneously fully funded as full-service observatories by the UK (via ESO in VISTA’s case: I don’t know the details of the UK contribution).
Of course historically the question was: Why do we need VISTA when we already have UKIRT? To which there’s 2 answers:
1) VISTA is a fundamentally different telescope, built for wide field work from the ground up, in both optical and near-IR. UKIRT has been successfully retro-fitted as a wide-field near-IR system, but VISTA will have a significantly higher throughput due to its design.
2) UKIRT/VISTA make a good North/South pairing. There’s many fields of research that require full sky coverage, this can either be achieved by competing/collaborating systems (VLT/KECK, UKST/Palomar) or by building 2 telescopes (Gemini, 2MASS).
Of course, a more interesting question might be why does ESO need both VST and VISTA? But then the comments section of this blog are exciting enough without adding European politics to the mix.
Which would be a fair point if it were true, but it isn’t. Last round, the cuts to astronomy postdocs were imposed at roughly 0% for the top third of grants, 25% for the middle third, and 50% for the bottom third, so that on its own means that only 33% of research groups have not suffered as a consequence. On top of that, almost all grants had the panel-recommended fEC support for staff research slashed by 50%, cutting the amount of time funded for research by permanent staff in half, so that almost 100% of astronomers have suffered the consequences of the cuts (or continue to have their research subsidized by other sources). This last aspect is particularly ironic given that STFC made play of the fact that their apparent increase in funding was illusory since the new money was to be used to support the proper fEC funding of research rather than subsidizing it from elsewhere.
I am happy to be explicit about it, but I guess I would argue that the appropriate metric depends on the question that you are addressing. If you are looking at the balance between, say, EPSRC and STFC funding, then the total number of academics in each area would be an appropriate metric to consider. Once the budgets have been set, then the ratio of expenditure on exploitation to that on facilities is certainly a sensible thing to look at, at least in that any significant change should be justified rather carefully and not just arbitrarily imposed.
Well, if you want to worry about basic ignorance of what you are talking about, there is the little matter of hemisphere to consider. But for those scientific studies that do not require access to a specific hemisphere, or both, I agree that there is significant duplication, which would presumably be why UKIRT has only a limited future ahead of it.