The Lab

Browsing the STFC website the other day, the way you do, I came across the section labelled “Our History“. The most striking thing is that it looks much more like a history of CLRC and its antecedents than a history of PPARC and its antecedents. Observatory Wars and the creation of the ATC ain’t even mentioned. History starts in 1920, not 1675.

When you look back over the postwar history of British Science, the most striking thing is the steady growth of the Harwell campus. Harwell started as an RAF airfield in 1937, and was chosen as the site of the Atomic Energy Authority in 1946. Culham was started a few miles down the road at the same time. The Rutherford High Energy Lab grew out of the Harwell accelerator division in 1957.

Here is what happened to the rest of Britain’s non-military physical science labs :

Royal Greenwich Observatory
founded 1675;  closed 1999
Royal Observatory Edinburgh
founded 1820; merged with RAL 2007; site still open
Appleton Lab (Slough)
founded 1920; merged with RAL 1979, site closed
Atlas Lab (on Harwell site)
founded 1964; merged with RAL 1975
founded 1962; merged with RAL 1994; site still open … just
founded 1967;  taken over by RAL ?? (can’t find date)

I think you get the point. Don’t get confused by all the name changes. The massive thing at Harwell is always there, and has gradually taken responsibility for everything, usually closing the separate site after a polite pause. The merger with PPARC meant taking over observatories in Hawaii and La Palma of course, as well as the power to issue a large fraction of University research grants, and the responsibility for our international subscriptions.

Now, I may be paranoid but I ain’t stupid. Maybe the growth of The Lab is a good thing. RAL is a presence on the world stage. If the USA can afford a handful of world class labs then we can probably afford one. And many of my condensed matter and particle physics chums are all in favour. RAL either provides the facilities they need to do their research (Diamond, ISIS, CLF) or provides the technical resources they can work with to make their contributions to CERN.  This is the same logic as the ATC but twenty times bigger.

So whats the problem ? Lets just be more straightforward. RAL has taken over astronomy, and why not ? Its a top class lab.

[Cue RAL staff to grumble about being run from Swindon ….]

17 Responses to The Lab

  1. Just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean that they aren’t out to get you!

  2. Ken Rice says:

    I guess one could accuse the “Our History” section on the STFC page as having a CCLRC bias, but in truth it is so delightfully vague that it doesn’t really do justice to the history of either CCLRC or PPARC. It also makes it appear like STFC has been around for about a decade, rather than simply a couple of years. In the recent past it seems like no research/funding council has survived for more than about 10 years, so maybe this is a hint from someone at STFC that it’s time for another change :-).

  3. Cesy says:

    Is there a reason your RSS feed gets truncated very early on in your posts? Would you be willing to change it to include the whole post, please?

  4. Andy Mc says:

    The former PPARC website didn’t have a “Our History” section, whereas the former CCLRC website DID. When we created the STFC website (having been given a total of 3 weeks to do so, which incorporated design, information architecture, content and everything else), we simply transferred over content that people wanted.

    Part of the content that was wanted was the “Our History” section from the CCLRC site.

    It hasn’t been updated because STFC staff have (quite rightly) got better things to do than update a “Our History” page.

    And though I’m Swindon-based and still “Proud to be PPARC”, this blog is bordering on the point of ridiculous paranoia.

    • Keith says:

      “And though I’m Swindon-based and still “Proud to be PPARC”, this blog is bordering on the point of ridiculous paranoia.”

      …said the man with a job. Tell that to the people now looking for work as a result of grant cuts…

  5. andyxl says:

    Andy – you are over-reacting I think, but I can see why. Let me say publicly that putting aside what it should have been a history of, I think you did an excellent job !! Its clear and informative and even somewhat attractive. If you did that in three weeks I am pretty impressed. (Actually and honestly I think the whole STFC website is pretty good.)

    I’m not paranoid .. just hoping to provoke some splutters from thos who are 🙂

  6. ian smail says:

    so – andy mck – any chance we can have andyxl’s potted history of the other STFC precursors added to the STFC history section?

    this would show that the community has ownership of the site 😉

  7. Richard Stamper says:

    I don’t think you’ve made a coherent case for a RAL takeover of astronomy:
    – The closure list: RGO is unconnected with RAL; ROE has not been merged with RAL – the ATC and RAL are both run by STFC but that is rather different; Appleton was merged with Rutherford, to make RAL, and its work continues at RAL; ATLAS had nothing to do with astronomy; Daresbury has nothing to do with astronomy; Chilbolton has nothing to do with astronomy, and continues to operate.
    – “The merger with PPARC meant taking over observatories in Hawaii and La Palma”: Swindon office continues to manage these as in PPARC days, no one at RAL has any involvement.
    – “the power to issue a large fraction of University research grants, and the responsibility for our international subscriptions”: no RAL staff are on any of the Astronomy Grants Panels, PPAN or Science Board. I can’t even spot any ex-RAL people.

    Because STFC runs RAL, it does not follow that RAL runs STFC. There has been hardly any movement of staff between RAL and Swindon (apart from support staff joining the RCUK Shared Services Centre), so the people running astronomy in the UK continue to be essentially the old PPARC staff and university academics on the various advisory and grant panels.

    RAL takeover of condensed matter and particle physics? Maybe. RAL takeover of astronomy? Not a chance.

    [Oh, I forgot. I’m at RAL so this counts as grumbling about being run from Swindon. Just ignore me.]

  8. The Watcher says:

    Interesting link for all you boys and girls

    • andyxl says:

      When I try this link (from a motel in Lovelock Nevada) the audio clip keeps restarting and never gets to the interesting bit. Anybody made an MP3 file ?

    • Dave Carter says:

      I must admit that having listened to this interview, I did not see why it was interesting. Nothing any different from the previous chairman and the CEO in front of the same committee. Pretty much summed up by the last line of a famous Who song.

  9. Won’t get fooled again?

    They’re all wasted?

    Hope I die before I get old?

    You will see the end?

    Sad about us?

    And it’s much too much to bear?

    Sorry, baby?

    How many friends have I really got?
    That love me, that want me, that’ll take me as I am?

    And we don’t know what to do?

  10. The Watcher says:

    I just said the link was interesting not what was on it……. 😉

  11. andyxl says:

    I thought it was mildly interesting in that he started off 110% motherhood and apple pie, and slowly got tougher sounding, while still being suitably cautious and non-committal. The committee asked all the right things – the merger legacy, treasury rules on foreign subscriptions, handling of the community, regional policy. His answers were cautiously general, but on the treasury rules thing he sounded like he wanted to do something.

  12. Paul Crowther says:

    A transcript of the session (including the bits later on following various interuptions) is now available here. Prof Sterling is certainly familiar with taking hard choices, such as closing both the physics and chemistry departments when he was V-C at Brunel.

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