STFC crisis : taking stock

I just got back to Palo Alto. It feels like a turning point. The rain finally came (first rain since March !), and my daughter just left home – off to China to teach English in her gap year. We have a new Science Minister (see Kav’s analysis) and the famous Wakeham review is finally out. People are still simmering and fizzing, but the sense of alarm and fury that dominated November to April has subsided. It seems a good time to attempt a summary of what really happened over the last year. Lots of public money is spent on astronomy, and the Government has been increasingly generous to science overall. Where does the alarm come from ?

(Note : to my condensed matter and PP chums … this is just an astro viewpoint …)

  • Diamond and ISIS-2 were over budget ? Nope.
  • Diamond and ISIS-2 ops costs were not in the pre-merger budget ? Kind of. But this problem is still to come …. its not the famous 80M. But watch this space. It will hit us later.
  • STFC is stuck with covering Diamond depreciation ? Yup. Once you realise this, you see that actually STFC had a very poor allocation. Thats it. (Thanks for pushing through that logic John..)
  • STFC did not have a CSR winning bid, which is why we have a crap allocation ? Yup. In other words, there was no equivalent to the ESO bid, or the e-science bid, from previous CSRs. I guess the whole Aurora-Moon etc thing was the attempt at this.
  • It was politically impossible to close Daresbury ? Yup. OK, I am putting my tin hat on now … But before my Daresbury correspondents kill me, what I mean is you could see it making sense to fund healthy scientific activity at Daresbury .. or to gulp and close the site … but being fobbed off with a glorified Business Development Park was a cunning but failed idea ..
  • STFC demonstrated arrogance and incompetence in its relationship with the Astro community ? Yup. Does this matter ? Yup. We aren’t children; we like solving problems; we have a long tradition of being a responsible and organised community; we had established an excellent relationship and understanding with PPARC programme managers. I think it is not a coincidence that public outcry reduced enormously after the consultation panels were established. They just should have been there first.

94 Responses to STFC crisis : taking stock

  1. Dave S says:

    And the astronomy community appears to have found its voice, via blogs (some of which appear as hardcopy on minister’s desks – take note), via the RAS, and elsewhere. And it found that the media is amenable to amplifying what it says, to the extent that DIUS takes notice. You guys need strong leadership – much better than that shown so far – is there an astronomical Brian Cox hidden away? You need to focus, right now, on the next CSR, and on Wakeham’s call for practical skills. And you need to hijack the new science minister and show him a good time 🙂

  2. John Peacock says:

    Andy: readership must have fallen, if you have to return to the funding crisis…..

    I feel the war movie cliche coming on: “I don’t like it, it’s too quiet…”. So far, the fallout from the programmatic review has been much less than the cataclysm we all feared. And yet the numbers haven’t changed – so how are the books being balanced? Either STFC is living above its means and hoping for total collapse of the financial system before year 3 of the CSR (perhaps a sensible strategy the way things are going) , or savings are being found somewhere below the surface. As we all know, the traditional place to do this was the grants line. As someone with a roller under consideration, this is not a happy thought. Somehow, we need to keep our eye on what’s happening out there, and not relax in the assumption that all is well because the guns aren’t firing just now.

  3. Kav says:

    John, I suspect that there will be appreciable cuts in this round, though people are currently living in hope (of getting funded).

    However, my hunch is that the brown stuff will really hit the fan in the next round when there really is no money left and that is when all those non-sustainable astronomers will feel the pinch. Just my guess, but saving the worst until the end means that STFC can keep hoping for some more money to come in.

    Dave S

    (some of which appear as hardcopy on minister’s desks – take note),


  4. Michael Merrifield says:

    Although I don’t have much respect for our current lords and masters, I do have enough inside information to know that ministers do not formulate policy on the basis of what they find on random blogs. Bending the science minister’s ear at an early stage does sound like a good policy, though at this point bending his shadow’s ear would be the better bet.

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    As for the grants thing, remember that this batch was significantly better funded in the previous cycle than last year’s round, so the cuts will dig much deeper. Whether that will be enough to get the community baying again, or whether we are all so exhausted as to be past the point of caring, remains to be seen.

  6. andyxl says:

    Mike, you’ve come over all reasonable, what happened ? W.r.t. minister’s reading blogs, its really just the same as letters to newspapers. They can gauge public alarm, and measure STFC’s performance in handling same. More than anything else, politicians understandably do not like being taken by surprise when there is a public fuss. Public opinion is what they are all about. Note that the attitude and perspective of senior civil servants as opposed to politicians will be quite different.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Andy — on the basis of the chats I have had with politicians, I don’t think your analysis is quite right. Although they do ineed pick up on the public mood through letters to newspapers, Any Answers, etc, most seem deeply sceptical of blogs, still equating them with the conspiracy-theory tinfoil-hat brigade. So I think we can continue to speak freely and be dismissed as nutters here.

  8. andyxl says:

    In a conversation with John Peacock and myself at the National Astronomy Meeting, Michael Rowan-Robinson referred to us as “the mad bloggers”. I thought that was most unfair on John.

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    Count yourself lucky — MRR reserves much choicer phrases for some, when he deigns to notice us at all.

  10. Kav says:

    Perhaps he meant mad as in angry?

  11. Watcher says:

    Reminds me of the Not-the-Nine-O’clock-News sketch (sorry I know it dates me).

    Scientist to talking ape: “Let me remind you that you were wild when I captured you”
    Ape to Scientist:” Wild?”…..” I was bloody livid”

  12. Paul Crowther says:

    Gerald was the talking ape. For those youngsters who missed it first time around in 1980, you can find him in action here.

    Back on track, i will defer responses to Wakeham to more qualified members of the community than myself in the upcoming issue of RF, but I do have a question to you mad bloggers out there.

    Linking into a comment made during the SCAP lunch at NAM, now that Wakeham is behind us, is it time for me to call a halt to updates to the “STFC funding crisis” webpage? I ask because PP seem to have decided to put a halt to their updates, and RAS management are keen to take a variation of this website under their wing?

  13. Kav says:


    I don’t think the “STFC funding crisis” is behind us yet (not until the end of the next grants round and Wakeham has not solved the issues (as he said they wouldn’t). If RAS management want to provide a similar sort of service that would be fine and right; however the onus is on them to get it up and running.

    You have provided an excellent service to the community, above and beyond the call of duty and I for one and grateful. It kept many people informed who would otherwise have missed out on information.

    That said, it is unfair to expect you to keep doing so and anytime you want to stop is the right time

  14. Michael Merrifield says:

    Ah Gerald… he does eat bloody daffodils, you know…. though for deciding what to do with STFC, perhaps the suggestion of this sketch would be more appropriate.

    I would vote that you keep up the good work on a somewhat more part-time basis, essentially because I don’t trust the RAS to do it right (after all, it never even occurred to them until you started), but also because all those members of the astronomical community who are not members of the RAS will no doubt be disenfranchised when they hide it away on a members- (sorry “fellows-“) only page.

  15. Kav says:

    Side-note: Pearson has been promoted to economic secretary to the Treasury.

  16. Rob Ivison says:

    Mike – I’ve long-since given up hope of convincing you to join, but I will soon convince you that the RAS is changing, albeit slowly (“like wading through treacle”, is how one ex-Council member described the process, and I stepped in the mire several times at their recent “away day”). Negatives aside, changes are afoot.

  17. Michael Merrifield says:

    Rob — a point I will happily concede: the RAS really does seem to be trying to get its act together as a professional body for astronomers, particularly with its latest president. I just worry that it is structurally so fatally flawed, with its mixed agenda of old duffers’ gentleman’s club, amateur membership, representation for geophysics, etc, that it can never be an effective professional organization comparable to the IoP.

  18. John Peacock says:

    Andy: “the mad bloggers” sounds like a great name for a rock group. Alas, seems to be taken already. I’m flattered to be considered worthy of membership.

    Paul: your efforts have been most valuable. Although the RAS did better in the crisis than many would have expected, the community would have missed your web page very much in recent months. My concern, as noted above, is that things have gone quiet, but this doesn’t mean the problem is solved. I suggest you maintain your independent voice, but reserve updates for more significant events.

  19. Rob Ivison says:

    Mike – genuine attempts are being made to address every one the issues you raise, and I will consider my stint on Council a failure if we’ve not significant progress on all those fronts, since I stood on a platform of “Ousting fuddy duddies” with tongue only slightly in cheek. My impression (after only a month or two, admittedly) is that the A/G issue is the only one with serious thorns. Alternatives are being explored, even so.

    Re: “Old Duffers’ Genteman’s Club” – was I alone in thinking the RAS Dining Club is affiliated to the RAS? I was recently told, quite forcefully, that the RAS Dining Club pre-dates the RAS, and has no affiliation, though the strength of feeling on the issue reinforces my feeling of wading through treacle…

  20. Michael Merrifield says:

    Exactly: the very facts that (a) it exists, (b) it is unaffiliated but continues to trade on the Society’s name, invite RAS speakers as guests at its ridiculously arcane events, etc; and (c) it cares passionately about the issue of precedence, rather underlines your uphill struggle.

    Why not simply ditch all the baggage and start again with an Institute of Professional Astronomers (IPA has a suitably alcoholic ring to it), or even, since the vast majority of us work in physics departments and consider ourselves to be just unusually-interesting physicists, a divison of the IoP?

  21. MikeW says:

    Not sure arcane is quite the right description of the RAS Dining Club events. Andy’s blog of May 10th is a very accurate description. I’d say quaint and mostly harmless, provided you don’t take it seriously (but I’m sure you will tell us why we should …).

  22. Michael Merrifield says:

    I wouldn’t dream of telling you why you should do anything — I make no claim to speak for anyone but myself, and what you choose to take seriously is entirely up to you.

    As for why I personally think the RAS Dining Club’s ridiculous antics are not entirely harmless, it is because it unavoidably gets confused with an organization that purports to represent our community — a confusion illustrated above by even a member of RAS Council. I don’t think that tangling UK professional astronomy with such nineteenth-century pseudo-elitism is a particularly good advertisment for what should be a dynamic forward-looking profession.

  23. Paul Crowther says:


    Whatever its (many) faults, the RAS is the only show in town. When Gov’t wants the view of “astronomers” they have a discrete chat with the RAS President. I would think that our efforts should presently be focused through RAS Council to ensure the best possible preparation for the next Spending Round.

    Wakeham missed the opportunity to address some of the issues thrown up at STFC in CSR07 so our task will inevitably be harder still, compounded further by the ongoing financial meltdown.

    The RAS is fortunate to have a President who is well aware of the current situation at STFC, plus a Council comprising a member of STFC’s Council, the chair of the STFC AGP panel, the General Secretary of the IAU from 2009 and not least Rob’s “fuddy duddy” broom.

  24. Whistleblower says:

    Hi Andy, your analysis is on the mark I think. From what I heard it was pretty touch-and-go whether Daresbury was shut or not. STFC management wanted it – the politicos knew that was dynamite so stopped them. However, Daresbusy will now face death by a thousand cuts, quietly and out of the public eye. Now the SRS has shut we wait to see if the Hartree centre gets put on the site – that’s the only saviour for the place. Otherwise – Business Park, here we come.

  25. Michael Merrifield says:

    Paul — it’s only the only show in town if we continue to allow it to be. It is deeply depressing that with all that talent on RAS Council it has achieved so little in the political process. I have no reason to doubt Keith Mason when he stated that the previous RAS president’s “discrete chats” with Government did us a good deal more harm than good in the aftermath of the CSR debacle, and I have no reason to doubt the previous president of the RAS when he stated that he was unaware he was doing any such damage.

    If the residue of the community that still subsidized Burlington House through its subscriptions were to up sticks and join the IoP, then the IoP would de facto represent us (as, in reality, it already does on many issues relating to our work), and when it comes to the lobbying of politicians they have a rather more professional track record.

  26. andyxl says:

    In my experience MRR’s political judgement is fairly shrewd, he did an excellent job at the select committee hearings, and STFC management were always keen to paint any community complaints as counter-productive, so I would be a bit careful about judging things here. I agree with Paul that the RAS is the only game in town. MRR started the process of making the RAS a professional voice, and I am sure Fabian will take this further. My membership had lapsed but I am about to re-join.

  27. Mike – I’m trying to understand the rationale of joining the IoP, as opposed to having a separate society for professional astronomers (whether that’s a reformed RAS or something new). I recall you arguing that astronomy’s voice has been dampened by being subsumed into STFC; wouldn’t the same be true if the astronomical community was subsumed into the IoP? I’m not disagreeing with you (yet) – just trying to understand the pros and cons…

  28. Michael Merrifield says:

    I am afraid MRR’s track record speaks for itself. He certainly liked to talk up his contributions, but those I heard tended to be rambling and self-aggrandizing. A classic case in point was the letter he sent to RAS Fellows back in March where, apropos of the review process for the Delivery Plan, he claimed

    Submissions will be considered by ad hoc panels covering ground-based astronomy; space science and exploration; astro-particle physics; solar physics and STP; and theory, computation and data analysis. The latter two panels were suggestions I made to John Wormersley, following input from some of you.

    which is quite interesting, because anyone who was actually at the town meeting where this came up will recall that in the Q&A MRR jumped up at the first opportunity to give his usual spiel about how well the RAS was doing under his leadership, with no mention of the latter two panels. A few contributors later, someone else pointed out the omission of coverage in those areas, and John Wormesley immediately recognized the omission and said that STFC would sort it out.

    Such re-writing of history in the interests of vanity is certainly not unique to MRR, but in most of us tripping over our own egos hurts no-one but ourselves by making us look faintly ridiculous. Unfortunately, in the president of the RAS it has rather wider impact. The thing I really cannot forgive in this regard was MRR’s obvious delight in “winning” the argument about where grants should go in the new world order. A competent and outward-looking president would have been altogether less graceless in his celebration, and would have been intelligent enough to at least consider the possibility that those on the other side of the issue could have had some validity in their arguments, and taken appopriate steps to mitigate the risks that they had identified. It is evident from the mess that we are in now that such steps were not effectively taken, and to that extent I hold him personally responsible.

  29. Paul Crowther says:

    Mike, following on from previous comments, would you not agree that RAS Council’s strong criticism of STFC’s handling of the CSR settlement was a significant step – even if certain elements were reluctant to go along with it – and might not have been so effective had it been made from merely a division with the IoP?

    I’d also argue that our colleagues in particle physics felt obliged to form an “action group”, rather than rely upon the IoP to fight their corner. The unified voice of RAS Council and PP action group was more powerful than disquiet from a minority(?) of the wider IoP community. Concerns of the EPSRC community were naturally focused upon access to Diamond and ISIS, rather than CERN, Gemini or PP/A research grants.

  30. Michael Merrifield says:

    Anthony: I agree that in an ideal World astronomy would have its own distinct voice. My view that we should join up with the IoP is at least partly a pragmatic one in that the IoP is demonstrably rather impressive in its lobbying, and has the larger-scale machinery of a bigger organization that allows it to carry out such activities effectively. For whatever reason, it also doesn’t have the mass of baggage that seems to hang like a millstone around the RAS’ neck, and comes across as a modern active professional body (compare going into reception at the IoP offices with having to ring the doorbell at Burlington House!). Lastly, I would note that most astronomers in this country work within universities, many in physics departments, so the IoP’s excellent activities in outreach into schools, bringing school teachers into universities, informing and developing the A-level syllabus, accreditation of degrees, etc, are all areas where it would be in our interests to have a strong direct input into the process.

  31. Michael Merrifield says:

    Paul: I don’t think it would have been made by a division of the IoP; it would have had the full weight of being IoP policy. In practice, I think that our PP brethren also lose out by the existence of the RAS, because there is at least a perception that the IoP speaks principally for EPSRC science. If astronomy were firmly embedded in the IoP, its portfolio would be much more balanced between PPARC and EPSRC, and the particle physicists would be winners as well.

    Indeed, the IoP would have to balance its responses to be fair to both Diamond/ISIS and PP/A, but isn’t that really all we want? We know that in a fair and open discussion we can get a fair return for our science, and surely our existing problems stem fundementally from the fact that we haven’t been able to have such a balanced argument.

  32. Tony says:

    As an outsider, I wonder what you think the leader of a representative body would say when even the few people on this blog cannot agree.

  33. Michael Merrifield says:

    One would hope he would say that we should air the issues across the community and try to reach a consensus. Not really the RAS’ way, though.

  34. Stephen Serjeant says:

    I’d like to offer some support to the previous RAS president. Before his tenure, the RAS had a low profile and didn’t do very much for the community apart from hosting monthly meetings and a nice quiet nook in central London with free coffee. Under his tenure, we had for the first time the RAS giving evidence to a parliamentary select committee. By any standards this is a transformation in the role and profile of the RAS. Like Andy XL, I’m sure Andy Fabian will take this further.

    Nor can I see any sense at all in abolishing the RAS because one doesn’t like the RAS’s policies. The RAS represents and is run by its constituent community, and there are elections for RAS positions. If you don’t like what the RAS does, stand for office and see if anyone supports you.

  35. Michael Merrifield says:

    I will happily agree that MRR raised the bar on the RAS trying to take a role in science policy. The downside to this development in the Society is that just as he would have been the first to take credit had his engagement resulted in a good outcome for the community, so he should accept some responsibility for the mess we now find ourselves in, having championed a policy position that was in part responsible for how matters played out.

    Having said that, I have no particular objection to the RAS’ policies, even those I disagree with, as long as they are developed by proper consultation with the broadest community that they wish to represent. It is its structure of the Society that I think is flawed. I agree that it is arguable whether that structure could be fixed to provide appropriate representation for professional astronomy in the UK. My personal view is that it has so many problems that we would be better off starting from scratch under the aegis of the IoP. To simply reject this option out of hand on the grounds that the “proper” approach is to work from within the existing organisation seems a recipe for continued mediocrity and stagnation.

  36. Michael Merrifield says:

    Oh, and one last thing (sorry to hog the blog Andy): where you say “the RAS represents and is run by its constituent community,” I would be interested to know what fraction of the community of professional astronomers is actually a member of the RAS. For some reason, the Society has not been very forthcoming on this statistic. I believe that within my own group they are 0 for 8 with the permanent staff (through, I hasten to add, no lobbying on my part).

  37. Rob Ivison says:

    Stephen – I echo your comments. I’ve been a member of the RAS, on and off, for 15 years and was compelled to get more involved by the actions of the previous president, MRR – partly because he was modernising the organisation, which i was delighted to see, and partly because i *disagreed* with some of his press releases and wanted other arguments to be heard.

    Michael – you make it sound like the RAS has dark statistical secrets – I only wish it were that exciting. I’m sure the numbers you request can and will be provided – perhaps here, on the sainted blogosphere.

    Others: change is very much on the RAS agenda right now, so this is a very good time make your ideas known. e-mail me, if you like – many of you already have. the next Council meeting is this Thursday.

  38. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Rob — I would be fascinated to learn. Certainly my attempts to find out have been stonewalled to date. I would put it down to the RAS viewing me as an unwelcome irritant, but I know that an altogether nicer colleague at the RSC (the Chemistry one, not the Shakespeare one) had similar problems getting data on membership for comparative purposes.It does seem a rather vital statistic if the RAS wants to support its claim to represent professional astronomy in this country, so if you could find the fraction of active professionals who are members, split into categories of professor, other academic staff, postdocs, students, you might be able to shut me up (surely motivation enough to try!).

  39. I am not aware that Mike Merrifield has been ‘stonewalled’ in his attempts to obtain RAS stats ( and I am puzzled about the reference to the RSC with which I have very regular contact – as I do with the IoP et al).As Rob implies, there is no particular mystery about them. He has no doubt examined the annual reports (open documents freely available on the RAS web site) which give detailed statements ( or links to them) of activities, plans and finances. As for the % of the UK based professional community in membership we estimate it at between 60-70%. While the RAS is a ‘broad church’, as stated in the most recent annual report, ‘ the over-riding aim of the Society will remain to provide leadership for its members who are career scientists’. That we are having some success in doing this can be judged by the attention paid to it by STFC, MPs, officials and ministers eg the current President was invited to meet the Minister for Science during his first week in office.

    BTW fellows of the RAS don’t need to ‘knock on the door’ to enter Burlington House – everyone has a swipe card.

  40. Michael Merrifield says:

    Well, 60-70% is a more concrete number than I have been provided with in previous questions on this figure, so thank you. Also glad to hear that Andy F is carrying on the good work and hopefully proving more adept at keeping his foot out of his mouth — it’s only a shame that the minister isn’t the minister any more!

    Presumably the RAS has broken down this number by different classes of scientist in order to ascertain its effectiveness at reaching all levels of the community. Indeed. I seem to remember being given the figure of 90% for professors at some point. So what are the figures for postgrads, postdocs, observatory staff, lecturers, readers and Professors?

  41. Paul Crowther says:

    Getting back – no doubt temporarily – to the subject of Andy’s original posting, there are a number of interesting comments on Drayson, Wakeham, STFC in today’s RF. Links at the usual site, at least for the moment.

    To summarise, an editorial welcomed the news that Lord Drayson will hold cabinet rank, plus a news item quoting Martin Barstow’s disappointment at RCUK’s response and from Ian Halliday that questions STFC’s viability without a more formal division between the ex-CCLRC and ex-PPARC components – this was also touched on in a fine piece from Ken Pounds.

    Notable that the two CEO predecessors of Keith Mason at PPARC take issue with STFC in its present form (devised by Keith Mason and rubber stamped by Keith O’Nions).

  42. Brad Gibson says:

    Just to echo David, 60-70% of the UK community are members of the RAS; 80-90% of the UK’s Professors are members; ~50% of the postgrads in the UK are members. As Chair of the Membership Committee, it would be nice to give you better numbers, but alas, we do not have a straightforward database from which to draw this information, any more than the AAS can tell you that, or SEA, or the NAC, or the EAS. No one keeps statistics at that level, because it is so fluid, and would take a full time person keeping the database ‘up to date’. There is no “postdoc” classification, per se. A significant fraction of members also do not use their affiliation in their application (particularly students), instead using their more stable ‘home address’, so again, tracking the statistics to X significant figures is a fruitless exercise. There is a reason why no organisations comparable to that of the RAS can provide those numbers too!

  43. Michael Merrifield says:

    STFC in its present form (devised by Keitrh Mason and rubber stamped by Keith O’Nions)

    And, let’s not forget, initially endorsed by, amongst others, Ken Pounds, the RAS, the IoP, and the popular vote of the astronomical and particle physics communities. We should accept at least some collective responsibility for where we find ourselves.

  44. An RAS sceptic says:

    The discussion about the membership spread of the RAS is interesting and relevant, but it remains notable that the failure of the RAS (or their spokesman) to give reliable and verifiable figures on membership demographics just makes the situation even more uncertain.
    My personal experience is that I know a very large number of Professorial and Senior Academic level people in the UK who have deliberately chosen not to join the RAS. I am very sceptical of the suggestion that 80 – 90% of employed Professors in the UK’s Astronomical community really are current members of the RAS (let’s ignore andyxl – he has not rejoined (perhaps yet!) )- it is simply not my experience from people I know.
    If the RAS is truly to have the credibility to make the case that they represent the Professional astronomical Community in the UK, then this sceptical position needs to be allayed. I directly challenge the RAS to publish accurate and definitive figures about their membership demographics. I’m afraid that I find Brad’s estimates in an earlier response to be unconvincing – and certainly his figures run counter to my own experience from those people that I know.
    So – here is a direct challenge to the RAS to resolve this problem once and for all – please publish to this blog site, within one calendar week of this posting, a verifiable and correct set of demographics of the fraction of professional astronomers in the UK (specifically this means currently employed Postdocs, Academics and PhD level Researchers) who are current members of the RAS.
    I simply don’t accept Brad’s assertion that ‘we (RAS) simply do not have a straightforward database’ – or that ‘it would take a full time person keeping the database ‘up to date’ ‘. There are not that many professional astronomers in the UK, that either from knowledge, RAS records, or simple searches on Google, that this information could not be easily garnered. The self professed credibility of the RAS to represent the Professional Astronomical constituency is hereby publicly challenged in my blog entry – it is time for the RAS to unambiguously and verifiably respond to this issue in an unambiguous, verifiable and appropriate manner. Specifically – please publish verifiable figures on the proportions of PhD level Professional Astronomers (and employed Postdoctoral and associated support staff) that are members of the RAS. No excuses – no hiding behind arguments that the data are simply not in your ‘database’ – just pretend that I am the incoming Science Minister (and for all you know I may well be exactly that shadowing this blog). Failing the RAS’s ability to provide these figures in a clear unambiguous way, I suggest that the assertions that the RAS really represents the Professional UK Astronomical community are debateable.
    I look forward to being proved wrong on this – it would please me no end to learn that the RAS really does represent the Professional community – but the ball is now firmly in the RAS’s court to allay the widely held conceptions that are prevalent amongst the Professional astronomical community in the UK. I hope that I do not hear a deafening silence on this from the RAS – this would be tantamount to an acceptance that your spin is just that!

    Apologies to andyxl if this is slightly off topic from the title original posting – although it does develop a theme related the discussion of the original topic, and I know that youdo like to promote serious and relevant debate!

    So – it’s over to Andy Fabian and Brad Gibson- the clock is ticking – one week

  45. Paul Crowther says:


    I was merely making the point that, 18 months into this new organisation, (urgent) structural changes at STFC are being call for by the very two people whose past experiences at PPARC suggest that they know what they are talking about.

    Government consultation about the merger itself was widely recognised as a done deal, in the sense that the new council would go ahead. The only genuine option related to where grants should do (STFC or EPSRC). Anyone involved in a large project (facility) naturally wanted their grant to be administered within the same council as the project itself, which was universally the case for pp, large parts of space science, with astro itself more of a mixed bag. Understandable, then, that a “majority” of respondents to the consultation wanted to keep grants and projects/facilities together.

    Additionally, extremely positive noises at the time from Keith Mason and Richard Wade suggested that “we” would be winners from the merger allayed the fears of many in the community, though notall.

  46. Old-timer says:

    Maybe An RAS sceptic can start the information exchange by telling everyone within one week what the size of the Professional Astronomical Community is at the present time. The most complete recent estimates are from the PPARC-RAS surveys, the last of which was conducted in 2003 (see, tables 3 & 4 on pages 15 & 16). A lot has changed since then, as evidenced by the argument at the Belfast NAM about STFC supported post doc and researcher numbers.

  47. Michael Merrifield says:

    Well, the President of the RAS seems to have access to the relevant recent figures, as evidenced by his letter to the Fellows back in April:

    I argued that the rise in astronomy postdocs from 210 in 2002 to 329 in 2007 was justified, partly on the basis of the growth of UK GDP, which has moved the UK from the 4th largest contributor to ESO to the 2nd largest, so exploitation support should also grow, and partly by the growth in the number of astronomy academics in UK Physics departments, from 450 in 2001 to 543 in 2007.

    So either the numbers are not so hard to come by, or he made them up!

  48. Paul Crowther says:

    (responsive) post-doc numbers are from PPARC/STFC, while academic numbers are from
    the SCAP survey (Mike Bode 2001) and the STFC studentship quota exercise (2007), which are not necessarily equivalent, since the latter will include long term fellows eligible for PhD supervision. There are approx 175 people on the SCAP email distribution list, although some of these are retired or currently in non-academic positions.

  49. Michael Merrifield says:

    Entertainingly, the Wakeham Review lists 443.15 academics in astronomy in 2008; now that’s what I call precision (if not accuracy)! These are the figures returned to RAE2008, which explains why the numbers are a little lower with some institutions playing games by not returning everyone, and also explains the decimal places since people can be divided between areas in the RAE return.

  50. Brad Gibson says:

    Paul is quite correct, of course… MRR did not have to gather the PDRA numbers. They are a matter of public record. If those using pseudonyms can provide me with the *Full Names* and the *Affiliations” of those 329 PDRAs – and I presume they can do this in the next 24 hours, since they seem to think this is trivial, I will endeavour to inform you as to the fraction who are RAS Fellows. So … if you cannot provide me with those 329 names and affiliations before the weekend, I and others will assume that you have acquiesced and apologise for your oversimplification.

    Finally, a random dipping of 20 names from the SCAP mailing list showed that 15 were current RAS members. Random, but slightly better than anecdotal.

  51. Brad Gibson says:

    One last word, since I don’t really wish to drag this out further … but as of today, there are 242 UK-based Professors who are FRAS.

  52. Old-timer says:

    You cant rely on research council figures to define the size of the community because, as Paul’s figures exemplify, the PPARC/STFC figures always refer to a community involved in RC supported work. ‘PhD students’ won’t include self- or departmental- supported students. ‘Post docs’ might or might not include e.g. Marie Curie fellows. ‘Academics’ probably won’t include non-researchers, e.g. technical people or teachers, or those who have not registered on some RC grant. It might or might not include research astronomers employed in observatories or laboratories, even though they are legitimate members of the community. Likewise there are uncertainties of categorisation in the membership of SCAP and RAS. As Brad points out the membership of SCAP includes some who are retired, and so does RAS. The membership list of the RAS might not include an honorific or an address defining whether the member is a professor &/or an academic, although in the case of professors the numbers are smallish and you can go through department by department, name by name, giving a categorisation, which is where MRR’s, David Elliott’s and Brad’s figures for professors mostly originate. Mike Merrifield rightly ridicules the spurious precision of the RAE figures, and An RAS Sceptic unrealistically calls for more precision than can be given as to the proportion of the community RAS represents. David Elliott’s and Brad Gibson’s figures are the best that can be given, and An RAS Sceptic will have to put up with it, whether he is Minister of Science or not.

    Anyway, we are all being distracted by our love of figures. The fact is that any member of the academic community who is interested in astronomy can join RAS, the membership can vote for Council members and the Council therefore represents the community, just as the UK Government represents the population in the UK, even though in both cases the electoral register is incomplete &/or includes people who it shouldn’t and the turnout is less than one would hope. Even if the process is flawed, there is more representative authority for astronomy in the RAS than in STFC, or even in the peer review panels/committees of STFC appointees that advise it. Not that democratic representative credentials are the be-all and end-all of being able to voice an opinion, as this blog exemplifies.

  53. Michael Merrifield says:

    An excellent point, but one that the astronomical community still seems to be struggling to come to terms with: STFC does *not* represent the interests if astronomy, and never has done, even when it was PPARC. It is precisely for that reason that we need an effective way of presenting the views of the astronomical community to Government and the public.

    It seems at least reasonable to ask whether the RAS is the best organization for delivering that agenda. Surely we should be prepared to discuss constructively the idea that we mght be better served by, say, the IoP, or even a completely new organization just for professional astronomers. One prerequisite to that discussion would be to identify how representative the current structure is by quantifying the degree of engagement from different parts of the community, and that means obtaining reliable statistics on membership.

    And if you want democratic credentials, well everything you say is equally applicable to the IoP, and presumably to any alternative. The IoP clearly has the advantages and disadvantages of a larger organization, and whether you think it would be to our net benefit probably correlates with your attitude to the EU: if you are a “federalist astronomer,” you will be won over by the economies of scale and extra clout; if you are a “little englander astronomer,” you will be busy worrying over the fate of the RAS’ royal charter…

  54. ian smail says:


    …on this at least i agree with you.

    the “community” has to realise that STFC management apparently no longer view themselves as our mouth piece to No11 (although if you read their charter its depressingly obvious that this isn’t the job they were given) – so we do need to decide how to make our views known: RAS, IOP or try to re-engage STFC? we’ve shown that we’re ok at using the press and parliament – but those are primarily reactive routes – for the next CSR we can’t rely on reactive.

    we have the RAS – so we should try to make the best use of it we can. although i’ve wondered if it couldn’t be ingested into the RS (or IOP) to give it a little more momentum – and perhaps also access to fund-raising talent, which might help our future campaigns.

    and to dig far back in AXL’s blog – in terms of the funding crisis – its been striking this year how few of the astro grant applicants have taken on-board the “25% cuts to grants”. its as though they didn’t read the news last year…

  55. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Ian — to be fair, acting as spokesman for the community has never been the research council’s job. The fact that many people have for so long believed that it was is in itself symptomatic of the feeble authority of the RAS: just contrast this situation with the US, whose community would always have laughed at the notion that NASA or the NSF were there to speak up for them, and relied instead on the effective voice of their professional body, the AAS. To my mind, one positive outcome of the current situation is that the community is finally keenly aware of where we have always stood, which may help to kick-start the RAS or some other body into serving the necessary role.

    As for why the applicants have not been mindful of the 25% cut to grants in their initial applications, presumably they think that you will cut 25% from wherever they start!

  56. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Ian — to be fair, acting as spokesman for the community has never been the research council’s job. The fact that many people have for so long believed that it was is in itself symptomatic of the feeble authority of the RAS: just contrast this situation with the US, whose community would always have laughed at the notion that NASA or the NSF were there to speak up for them, and relied instead on the effective voice of their professional body, the AAS. To my mind, one positive outcome of the current situation is that the community is finally keenly aware of where we have always stood, which may help to kick-start the RAS or some other body into serving the necessary role.

    As for why the applicants have not been mindful of the 25% cut to grants in their initial applications, presumably they think that you will cut 25% from wherever they start!

  57. 25% cuts to grants says:

    Michael (M) is (of course – it goes without saying) spot on in his comments as to why grant applicants have not applied an arbitrary 25% cut to their standard and rolling grant applications, as suggested by your correspondent three entries earlier. Indeed – why should they be expected to do so? The responsibility of applicants for STFC Standard and Rolling grant funding is to put forward their best science cases – the responsibility of the Grants Panel is simply to rank the quality of the science cases relative to each other – the responsibility of STFC is to facilitate the administration of, and to provide funding and oversight that is consistent with a level of affordability consistent with its CSR settlement.

  58. ian smail says:


    grant PIs ought to be experienced enough to realise that a 25% cut means on average, across the whole programme, 25% below level-funding (i.e. STFC’s current commitment).

    so asking for many times current commitment is generally not realistic and usually results in significant dilution of the quality, or a reduction in the breadth, of the science cases. from my limited experience – asking for a little more than what you currently have in the (usually vain) hope of receiving level funding appears to be a better policy.

    of course in the past, the level of support on individual RGs was also expected to only increase or decrease slowly with time. this stability (and the flexibility of deciding where the resources go) was supposed to be the compensation for the typically lower overall support provided to RG applicants. it is no longer so clear to me what the benefit of an RG is, as we are losing this stability in a falling market. so would RG applicants be better off unrolling and flooding the market with SG applications? (i’m sure there is a derivatives analogy here somewhere – but if i knew enough about financial products i wouldn’t be where i am today).

    “25% cuts to grants” (how quaint) – unfortunately the responsibility of the grants panel is not “simply to rank the quality of the science cases relative to each other”. the “thematic” nature of the rolling grants, while it has benefits, means they are no longer structured to allow such a simple comparison – and of course there are always “strategic” considerations to weigh in relation to the (non-existent) STFC roadmap.

    more importantly – whether the 25% cut to the grants line is “consistent with (STFC’s) CSR settlement” was of course how AXL started this entry. the cuts which STFC have *chosen* to apply to the grants line are of a size which threatens the UK’s exploitation of its investment in facilities – so we might be more competitive if we rebalanced these two lines.

  59. ian smail says:

    …and another thing.

    michael – i’m confused about your statements about NASA/NSF. the situation we have in the UK is an effective shortfall in STFC funding – this then has a knock-on effect on the astronomical community (who gain most of their funding from STFC). how does this situation differ from say NASA – which must also bid to its government for the missions/science it wants to do in the future and whose budget allocation then reflects the strength of that bid? if NASA’s funding for say JWST was cut significantly – then i’d expect that the AAS would react, just as the RAS did here.

    so what’s different? the funding bid which NASA makes is based in part on the scientific priorities and new facilities which its user community wants (guided by some downward strategy)… surely STFC’s must be the same – otherwise what is it asking for money for? the main avenue for influencing future astronomy funding in the UK is to strengthen the bid which STFC makes. our professional body should of course also make the wider benefits of what we do known – but if STFC’s bid is viewed as weak – then i can’t see the IOP/RAS or anyone else changing the final outcome: yet more cuts.

    maybe we have different ideas of what a spokesman (your term) is for. as i see it at the moment the single most important job is to raise resources. so that means STFC has to be our “spokesman”. the RAS or IOP can represent the community – but to what end? they don’t bid directly for resources…

  60. ian smail says:

    and i’ve just been catching up with the previous entries in the blog and realise i’m arguing the same cause that michael is – we’ve overcooked the balance between exploitation and facilities.

    and watcher – before you ask which facility i’d try to sell – it’s gemini. pity we fluffed the sale’s pitch by not asking the programme managers what the penalty clauses were before we said we were pulling out.

    andy – do i get a prize for a three-in-a-row posting – or have they all gone to michael m./martin e.?

  61. Michael Merrifield says:

    Ian — my point was the strange view that the UK community had until recently, whereby they believed that PPARC/STFC was in the first instance “on our side” in arguing the case against the Government for more support, with the RAS playing some kind of subsidiary role, throwing in the occasional “amen.” In reality, research council employees are civil servants, and civil servants’ primary role is to deliver Government policy, no matter how many warm words they say about the case for astronomy. If you want more astronomy, you need to convince Government that it is a good thing, and they tell STFC to do it. Research councils also have their own empires to build, and if the way to enhance STFC’s budget is, for example, to pursue manned spaceflight at the expense of astronomy, then that is what they will do.

    US astronomers have a much more realistic view of NASA in this regard, and their first port of call has always been the AAS, who are the primary lobbying voice for the field direct to Government.

  62. Michael Merrifield says:

    On the grants thing, I agree that there is little that irritated me more as a panel chair when applicants padded their applications with unsubtle loss leaders and unrealistic aspirations.

    However, on this occasion, I think there is significant benefit in applicants ignoring the 25% cut in their cases: it would send a very bad message to STFC and Government if AGP were to have to report tol them that the excellent science in the latest round of applications had fitted within the ludicrously slaughtered envelope. The message needs to be that 25% of excellent science is now not getting done, and that this is more than a little ridiculous when close to 100% of facilities are still being funded.

  63. Watcher says:


    I think STFC were well aware of the penalties,,,,and pulling out would still have saved money, selling half saves more (in the short-term). The best deal would have been to accept being kicked out.

  64. Watcher says:

    I agree with you. It would be crazy for good groups to hold back so that the reduced jam gets spread even more thinly. And it is vital to be able to demostrate excelent quality demand.

  65. Paul Crowther says:


    you seem to indicate that STFC wanted to get kicked out – well, this certainly matches the impression given to overseas Gemini partners (“arrogant”, “not serious”).

    You know this already, but other readers may not. Over the CSR07 period the UK would have spent a GBP7M penalty fee for the privilege of getting kicked out of Gemini, with the corresponding loss of credibility over future international project long-term agreements.

    The intention to remain a full partner but sell 50% of time from 2009 onwards would have cost STFC – wait for it – GBP7M over CSR07, plus any contributions to Aspen instrumentation. We were ahead of the other Gemini partners in our Aspen contributions, and any UK expenditure on development for e.g. WFMOS will likely return to the UK anyhow.

    Gemini is far from perfect, but a hasty exit from that would have immediately lost the UK leadership in northern hemisphere ground-based astro (UKIDSS, SCUBA2) not to mention exploitation of Herschel, Swift et al.

    Personally, I would have sought a sale of 50% of the UK’s allocation for Gemini-S some time ago (before GNIRS got fried!) and reconsidered the balance of cuts between facilities across ground-based optical/IR and other areas such as, say, space exploration and gravitational waves (advanced LIGO, GEO 600 and LISA all top rated??) focusing a little more on current and likely future UK leadership.

  66. Watcher says:

    I didn’t intend to imply that SFTC wanted to get kicked out. I was just making the point that while leaving would have cost the UK it would have been a cash saving over the CSR compared with staying in, that selling half of our time also saves money (while retaining access) but that STFC believed at the time that the action of the Gemini Board to kick out the UK would have been against the agreement and that penalties would, or may, not have been payable. This would clearly have been disasterous for Gemini and the UK. In the end the UK and the Gemini Board mutually pulled back from that position. Hence the plan remains to sell 50% of the UK share as you suggest.

  67. Paul Crowther says:

    I should add that a rational, considered debate about the medium term UK access to large ground-based telescopes is the sensible way forward (a review is planned by STFC although there are not public details so far). If withdrawal from Gemini in 2012 is the right choice, so be it.

    However, it was entirely reasonable to challenge “panicked” decisions over Gemini etc – given their long term implications without the necessary community input. Whatever the legal rights or wrongs over Gemini Board’s initial decision to eject the UK, “we” (= STFC) were perceived to be unreliable in “our” handling of the intended withdrawal.

  68. Michael Merrifield says:

    Incidentally, on the specific question of Gemini, until recently I would have agreed with those who thought it was one of STFC’s weaker investments, so would make a good place to make savings. However, having just served on its visiting committee, I have to say I came away very impressed by an organization that is undergoing a step-change revolution in what it delivers to its users. Unfortunately, given the current climate and the historical perceptions of Gemini, I fear this may well end up being yet another case of the UK putting a lot of money into something then bailing just before the investment pays off.

  69. Martin E. says:

    Golly, 68 comments already and, to this outsider at least (who keeps up his RAS membership out of sentimentality), it is still not clear what the RAS is dong wrong, or what any one of you would like to do differently. Perhaps to you UK-based astronomers it’s all obvious. From over here though, this whole posting steers dangerously close to the content-free.
    Would someone (M. Merrifield, perhaps) like to give us a few specific Things-To-Do for the RAS (or an IoP replacement)? Thanks.

  70. Michael Merrifield says:

    Just contrast it to the AAS, Martin:

    When the AAS organizes an AAS meeting, it actually organizes an AAS meeting. It has staff who sort things out, book hotels, deal with admin, etc. When the RAS “organizes” its equivalent, a NAM, its responsibility basically ends when it decides which lucky institution gets to host it. After that, everything is left up to the unlucky staff at the institution in question.

    When the AAS lobbies Congress, it does so proactively and effectively. It has staff it pays to do the research. It awards a fellowship to promote activity in this area. It has a public policy committee that discusses policy, which it writes up coherently, publishes for discussion, and then enacts. It has an effective mechanism for getting the community behind lobbying activities theough its “alerts” system. It keeps them up to-date through a detailed public policy blog. The RAS, on the other hand, has finally taken on a part-time public policy person, who seems to have had essentially zero impact. It has presidents who blunder around the parliamentary system playing at politics with no serious mandate from the community. It is essentially amateur hour, and has a commensurate level of effectiveness.

    Simply contrast the coherent meaningful up-to-date information on public policy on the AAS website ( with the random collection of documents on the RAS equivalent ( — even the URL says something!).

    And so on.

  71. Desperate Dan says:

    There can be no doubt that Gemini will do more for UKIDSS, SCUBA2, Herschel and Swift than it did for SCUBA and Spitzer.

    Credibility? We lose it every semester when we have to go cap in hand to California to do our science.

    Historical perceptions of Gemini are unlikely to fade, as MM said. Even with the “step-change revolution” MM anticipates, Gemini is unlikely to be a facility the Californians, Europeans or Japanese will envy. Do we need another review to tell us that we need to get out before Aspen empties STFC’s coffers? Let’s cook up some cutting edge kit for GTC for the shortsighted northern sky brigade, and concentrate on E-ELT.

    We talk of overegged optical facilities – but look at LOFAR-UK, EMERLIN and PrepSKA. Does the UK add a radio facility for every postgrad to emerge from Oxford and Manchester?

  72. Watcher says:

    Cap in hand to California? Why aren’t we going, cap very much on head, to ESO?

  73. Tony says:

    “Just contrast it to the AAS”

    Intriguing post. I guess RAS would like to do all the things the AAS does but simply does not have the same amount of money. Are UK fees much less or is it simply number of members? Would UK astronomers pay three times the fees to get full-time lobbyists, conference organisers etc?

  74. Dave says:

    Watcher: Because ESO facilities are in the south and UKIDSS and SCUBA2 are primarily in the north.

    When we can go to ESO we do, and do so very effectively (I could point at programmes I’m involved with on SWIRE and SHADES followup as examples, but there are many more). But ESO doesn’t cover the whole sky by any means.

  75. Michael Merrifield says:

    Cap in hand to California? Why aren’t we going, cap very much on head, to ESO?

    Perhaps something to do with hemisphere in many cases, Watcher. Mind you, if your cap is on your head to observe in the South, maybe not a good idea to pursue the metaphor and ask where you would have to stick it to observe in the North…

  76. Michael Merrifield says:

    Are UK fees much less or is it simply number of members?

    I believe that the RAS makes little of its income from membership fees, most coming from journal subscriptions (as with the AAS and IoP). As to what they can afford, they have the luxury of not paying a full market rent on their “gentleman’s club” in Burlington House, so that must free up a lot of cash relative to, say, the AAS or IoP who do pay full rent. Indeed, when the RAS feared that the Government might start charging them full whack for their palatial accommodation, they built up a pretty big rainy-day fund, so should still have some cash in the bank (assuming it wasn’t an Icelandic one).

    But your point is a very valid one, Tony, and rather central to this discussion: if the RAS really doesn’t have the “critical mass” to provide the services that are vital for a modern professional body, then we should definitely consider joining forces with the physicists at the IoP.

  77. Watcher says:

    Hemisphere may be important in many cases as you say. But for what percentage of cases? How important is it for UK astonomers to have access to both hemispheres? I know all the qualitative arguments but could this be quantified in some way.

  78. Michael Merrifield says:

    It’s a good question, Watcher: certainly I am not fussed since the larger-scale Universe looks much the same in both hemispheres (or so one would hope!). I guess the issue is for people who want to study specific phenomena such as the Galactic Centre, and for those who hace committed themselves to one hemisphere or the other for big surveys, and are subsequently “locked in.” But it would certainly be worth asking the question of how disasterous it would be if we lost one hemisphere entirely.

  79. D.Squat says:

    Well one obvious point is that many ground based astronomical instruments are scientifically unique in their own way and so their capability is limited to one hemisphere (where they are located) only. Often only the more routine second generation instrumentation can be found in both. Looked at another way, if you can only do cutting edge science X with instrument Y then potentially 50% potential cutting edge science is cut off from a community which only has access to one hemisphere…so MM should be fussed depending on which instruments he needs at any one time and which also presumably may change with time?

  80. Watcher says:

    Well yes qualitatively one can argue about the need to be in both hemispheres but then the Galactic Centre and Magellanic Clouds are in the south and Orion almost is. If you need to follow-up with SCUBA2 (eventually) then you can even see the Galactic Centre from Hawaii if you can take the airmass hit. And so I think it is important to quantify the importance of access to other facilities in the north. For example it would be good to know how many people need to observe VLA or VLBI objects.

  81. Dave S says:

    I proclaim Michael Merrifield the winner, with in excess of 30 posts in this thread over a period of less than 10 days – quite extraordinary. A personal crusade to massacre the RAS and demolish some facilities. Mountains of intellect and energy poured into a blog with a readership barely out of double figures. The priorities and funding of academics are a constant source of wonder. Long live FECs.

  82. andyxl says:

    Don’t fancy Christmas at your house Dave.

    p.s. todays view-number : 501.

  83. Michael Merrifield says:

    Quite appalling. Must have taken the best part of twenty minutes a day. Next these academics will be demanding lunch breaks. Think of all the things that could have been done in that time if only academics had “proper” jobs like Dave: I mean, in twenty minutes, a complete banker like him could lose billions…

  84. andyxl says:

    Not sure about Christmas at Mike’s either

  85. Tony says:

    You’re welcome here, Andy. Though, come to think of it, we’ll be in Aus for xmas.

  86. Michael Merrifield says:

    Oh, Dave and I have a great joint Christmas party planned, Andy. You are to be the guest of honour: after all, if it hadn’t been for your matchmaking website, we would never have met!

  87. Dave S says:

    Ten billion? A small price to pay to rob us of independence. Culloden was a picnic next to this, mark my words. Ah, wrong blog.

    Christmas is for the lazy and infirm 😉

    You might well be cheerful, andyxl – you are still lounging around on a year-long holiday, are you not? Your reward for having arrived at work before lunchtime for a few years (although those hours must have been terribly lonely I suppose).

  88. STFC Crisis Grants says:

    A previous contributor (October 11th 7:51 am) noted that “Grant PI’s ought to be experienced enough to realise that on average a 25% cut means, on average, across the whole programme, 25% below level funding (i.e. STFC’s current commitment)”.

    In the light of the announcement on ResearchResearch that “The Science and Technology Facilities council is to put £9 million back into its grants funding for the coming two years, easing the pressure placed on university physics departments, who were previously told that they would lose 25 per cent of their grant funding during this comprehensive spending review period”, is your contributor’s comment as well informed as might be expected from someone in their privileged position?

    Your correspondent (also on October 11th 7:51 am) states, in relation to Grant applicants, ‘there are always “strategic” considerations to weigh in relation to the (non-existent – their quotes) STFC Roadmap’

    One might question whether members of the Astronomy Grants Panel should be required to apply considerations in respect of the (non-existent – their quotes) STFC Roadmap. Just what does this mean – is it really the policy statement of a group of people without an agreed Community mandate developing policy on the fly that exceeds their real positions within the system as guardians of the best interests of the community? How can people in positions that should garner respect be required to apply considerations in respect of non-existent Roadmaps?

    This provides worrying echoes of a situation two years ago when it ‘rumoured’ that “strategic” considerations were applied to alter the recommendations of the Grant Panel, favouring certain institutions (andyxl: Gemini Roller Coaster January 29, 2008 10:07)

    Surely we have moved on from those black days? Thank goodness that I have not had to apply for any STFC grant funding in the current cycle!

  89. An RAS sceptic says:

    An RAS sceptic asked on 8th October whether the RAS (represented at that time on this blog by Brad Gibson, and by implication Andy Fabian (as President)) could provide quantitative figures about the demographics of the RAS membership within one week This question was posed to confirm unsubstantiated RAS claims about the fractions of Professors and Postgraduate students who were RAS members, but was widened to question the fraction of active Professional Astronomers whom the RAS truly could confirm that they represent. Not wishing to be controversial or provocative alone, the question followed Mike Merrifield’s own report about his own unsuccessful attempts to secure similar statistics from the RAS.
    The lack of a clear and unambiguous reply from the RAS, or their representatives in tis one week time frame is both disappointing and deafening, questioning the RAS’s self-professed assertion to represent the UK’s professional astronomical community. Maybe Mike Merrifield’s suggestion to look to the IoP to represent the UK’s astronomical community is not so outrageous.
    Since the RAS Board now contains at least one blunt speaking Northerner (a well respected astronomer), who has publicly stated on this blog that he was elected on a platform of “Ousting fuddy duddies”, an RAS sceptic wonders whether it is now time for the said Board Member to show his leadership qualities by not only ‘talking the talk’, but also by ‘walking the walk’ in moving the RAS into the modern era. Specifically in this case by arranging that RAS’s membership demographics are made available into the public domain (and this blogsite) within a reasonable time period – shall we say seven days from this posting?

  90. Rob Ivison says:

    You require more detailed statistics, yet you are unwilling to provide your name. I won’t sully Andy’s blog with what a blunt-speaking northerner thinks of that, or the way in which you phrase your question, which is deeply disrespectful of the replies Brad Gibson has provided.

    The statistics you requested a week ago have been provided here to a level that just about satisfied my own curiosity: a large majority of professional astronomers (outside of Nottingham!) are members. I am surprised by the lack of a more detailed database. I accept Brad’s point that updating such a system would require significant effort, yet I think the RAS should want to know more about its membership. In summary, I suppose this won’t be the last we hear of this thread, but I do think there are better trees to bark up and I won’t be wasting my time on Council chasing detailed demographics, certainly not at the whim of an anonymous poster.

    It’s worth re-iterating a point I made eons ago. Nomination papers will be doing the rounds shortly. Who do you want on Council? Persuade them to stand. Nominate them. Vote for them.

  91. Paul Crowther says:

    For those (Nottingham-based) non-RAS fellows out there in astro-land, the RAS President has responded to a request for a written submission to the STFC organisational review, which is apparently due to report in Sep/Oct(!) according to the STFC website. The RAS submission was blind copied to all fellows, following a request to fellows last week for input to the review.

    In case anyone feels motivated towards joining the RAS – to allow the most effective community input to such submissions – here’s a PDF version of the membership application form 😉

  92. Michael Merrifield says:

    I can’t speak for the rest of the Nottingham contingent, but for my part I am not entirely convinced. Wouldn’t it be better to formulate a more concrete policy proposal with clearly identified recommendations that STFC has to consider and either accept or justify rejecting, rather than mostly sticking to generalities that can be interpreted sufficiently widely that STFC can claim to have met them without really doing anything.

    Contrast, for example, with the recent AAS Action Alert,

  93. Paul Crowther says:

    ah, but you would have been able to feed in your suggestions to the Organisational Review panel of STFC through the RAS, had you been a member, making for an even stronger input. The independent assessors of the review didn’t solicit policy proposals from the RAS, only responses to specific questions.

    The IoP had their input to the Organisational Review too, of course, based in part on evidence provided from HoDs. Both approaches have merits, but aren’t two inputs from different `stakeholders’ (RAS, IoP) better than one? You were highly critical of RAS input to the Wakeham review panel, but from my perspective the current RAS President has provided an excellent summary of astronomy concerns about STFC’s handling of the CSR settlement.

    The AAS are indeed a league apart, but such lobbying is part and parcel of US politics, but is not common either to IoP or RAS current practice.

  94. Michael Merrifield says:

    No argument that Andy has summed up where we stand quite nicely, but that isn’t the way to make effective input to a political consultation, since none of that is really news to anyone, least of all STFC. The whole point of this consultation is not to summarize where we are, but to establish the way forward, and the RAS has effectively just blown its chance to have a say in that future by not advancing any concrete proposals, instead simply throwing up gently-pitched truisms for STFC to hit back over the fence by essentially agreeing with them and advancing whatever model they already had in mind, which they can quite reasonably claim will address these generic concerns. And the fact that the consultation was posed in the form of specific questions was no hindrance to such a clear response: indeed the form of the questions cried out for definite proposals by way of answer.

    I could indeed join the RAS, but I doubt that my comments would actually have gone any significant way to improving the RAS’ input, since it seemingly systemically lacks the political nouse to be effective in this kind of process like the AAS or even the IoP (contrast the RAS and IoP responses to the Wakeham consultation, also expressed in the form of specific questions, to see a very similar difference). So what would be the point other than the slightly negative one of adding marginally to the legitimacy of the Society’s claim to represent the profession?

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