Guest Post : Life After STFC ?

December 18, 2009

Well, the ESA/Aurora/Bepi debate is getting too tense. Lets move on. As mentioned more than once by The Telescoping Coles, the really interesting thing to emerge after the STFC press release was the statement by the Lord High Drayson that HMG recognised that perhaps there are structural tensions in the whole STFC setup, and that Things Would Be Done. Seeing folks get overexcited by this, National Treasure Paul Crowther posted a comment in this organ aiming at dampening our ardour. I thought that starting a distinct stream would be a good thing. So, Paul has sharpened his thoughts, and lays out his position below :

Amid all the doom and gloom about the latest STFC cuts yesterday, there was a hint that our Science Minister, Lord Drayson, had been listening to the widespread criticism over the hybrid structure of STFC, currently revolving around higher major subscriptions (ESA, CERN, ESO) potentially squeezing out exploitation grants of these very facilities. Most recently he was confronted at the Blue Skies Ahead a few weeks ago, and before the newly reformed Commons S&T Select Ctte in October. Other more complex tensions exist, of course, between the science for which STFC is the custodian (PPAN) and facilities for which STFC is largely the provider for other Research Councils (PALS).

The statement from Lord Drayson included the following

However, it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

Within a few hours of this, the blogs and science news reports were buzzing with the possibility of an end in sight for STFC in its current form. About time too, was the verdict of most of the comments: Lord Drayson has finally got it! Shortly thereafter I received an email that included the following:

The suggestion that simply breaking up STFC is some magic bullet is daft and dangerous.

This got me thinking.. does STFC have major problems (yes!), but do we really want yet another change of Research Council for astro, particle physics etc. (hmmm). Do we trust the same civil servants who thought up STFC in the first place to do a better job this time around, and do we think Drayson’s agenda matches ours? (err, probably not). Another major upheaval so soon after the last one might not have our desired outcome, especially during the middle of a public sector squeeze. The arrival of a UK space agency also changes the landscape, in view of a large space science and space technology component at STFC.

Many of us would be glad to be rid of ESA subscriptions, for which the UK benefits greatly through `juste retour’ but mostly shouldn’t be part of the science budget. Innovation Campuses are also hard to marry with curiosity-driven research funding even though we’re promised that they fund themselves, while (application-driven) technology ought to seek funds through the Technology Strategy Board. Three options initially came to mind, but each have issues:

  • STFC without major subscriptions Tensions between grant and programme funding STFC science plus operation of labs for non-STFC science remain, plus if costs of major subscriptions were administered by RCUK (rather than Treasury bearing the risk) as in the past, other Research Councils would rightly complain that increases for ESA or CERN hurt them for no good reason. Also the much smaller budget for STFC without some of its F(acilities) and T(echnology) would mean that it lacks clout at the Research Council level – `size matters’ was one of the arguments put forward for the merger of PPARC and CCLRC, wasn’t it?
  • STFC without research grants. Research grants move across to EPSRC, while all facilities and subscriptions remain in STFC. But then how to link EPSRC peer review to STFC programmes, with experimental particle physics wanting to choose to stay put, and nuclear physics not sure what to do, having tried both EPSRC and STFC and found both wanting. The experience of Nuclear Physics suggests not all money to keep astro grants afloat would get transferred across, and what to do about rollers, especially those directly connected to instrumentation groups? Prof David `Champion of Impact’ Delpy (EPSRC CEO) may have an approach that would likely not match astronomy any better than the current STFC management.
  • Merger of STFC and EPSRC. Yes, back to SERC days, and potentially the least bad option of all three, in the sense that facilities of current STFC and EPSRC scientists are back together in the same Research Council. However, wasn’t PPARC created in the first place to stop particle physics and astronomy being too successful in SERC, so this is unlikely to fly with a ministry who prefer to be able to invest strategically (to ensure that MRC is flooded in cash, EPSRC struggling and STFC a basket case).

How STFC’s R&D development activities fit in with any of the above, I’m not so sure, but does anyone out there have better ideas that might be palatable both to astronomy, particle and nuclear physics and policy makers? Especially entrepreneurial Science Ministers. Answers on a postcard to Lord Drayson before February. Ideally plans should attempt to minimise the likelihood of our communities being left out to whither and die, as appears to be the current case at least for ground-based astronomy and perhaps nuclear physics. Shouldn’t we come up with a workable plan that we can put to new STFC Chairman Prof Michael Sterling at the Astronomy Forum on January 15th? The other option is to wait for a plan to be imposed, again (after consultation, naturally..), and wait for the next community outcry in a few years time when, too late, we discover that no-one benefitted from the change. STFC isn’t held in high esteem by heads of school and pro-VCs up and down the country (even in Cambridge), but STFC is a disaster (mostly) because its aspirations and expectations failed to be matched with the necessary funds. But just how to stop a repeat performance?

WISE is Go

December 15, 2009

Its the year of infra-red astronomy … UKIRT is still going strong (for now…), but now we have Herschel, VISTA, and … WISE.

WISE launched successfully yesterday from Vandenberg. The PV phase is expected to be very short – an amazing one month – followed by a seven month sky survey. My IPAC chums tell me they intend to get the data within a year, so you ain’t got to wait long.

Just thought I’d cheer you up before tomorrow’s doom and gloom.

The axeman cometh

December 14, 2009

I just a letter from STFC warning that I may or may not have a Dear John letter coming. Council will meet to finalise the current science prioritisation process tomorrow (Tuesday 15th). Between 11am and 2pm on Wednesday I will get a phone call advising me of any implications for my project. (In my case this means Wide Field Astronomy, and our pitch for LSST, for which we made input to the science prioritisation exercise.)

Then at 14:00 pip emma the news goes live on the STFC website.

Gird your loins.

Paul Crowther has already produced an excellent summary of the situation to date : see here, and in particular note the amazing increase in ESA subscription..

John Peacock said I should run a poll on what will get chopped but I am too depressed to bother.


December 11, 2009

VISTA, our shiny new IR survey telescope, is ready for rock and roll. Check out the ESO press release . There some lervely pictures, including a zoomable mosaic of the Galactic Centre.

I am excited (and relieved) both scientifically and in project terms. Data is being processed by a combined Cambridge-Edinburgh team. The data will be deposited in the ESO archive, but also of course will be available in a flexible queryable interface pretty similar to what we already do for UKIDSS at the WFCAM Science Archive (WSA). (The VSA is ready but I am not sure I am allowed to show it to you yet…) Enjoy.

Next up : WISE. This is a spacecraft that will survey the sky in the mid-IR, nicely complementing UKIDSS and VISTA. It is due for launch on Monday from Vandenberg. Gad, the IR is getting exciting.

Guest Post : Two Modest Proposals*

December 6, 2009

My UKIDSS co-conspirator Steve Warren has provided me with a nice wee guest post. In fact, as a special extra, its really two posts in one. Both parts are provocative proposals. So …. how about another poll ?

Steve on :

My first modest proposal is to introduce ‘ranked-normalised’ citations. Straight citations are good for people who typically work in large collaborations. Normalised citations take care of this to some extent, but don’t give credit to the first few authors who probably did most of the hard work. Ranked-normalised citations would work as follows. In a four author paper, the weights by author rank would be 4,3,2,1. These are then normalised by the sum of the weights, so the first author gets 0.4 of the citations, the second author 0.3 etc. In many cases this would be a fairer way of giving credit than either straight or normalised citations. Of course in some cases it won’t work, particularly when author lists are alphabetical – I’m afraid the Aarseths of this world will always do better than the Zytkows. I think ranked-normalised citations would be useful, and might even influence authorship lists.

My second modest proposal is to give away a small amount of telescope time by lottery. For example at the end of the meeeting the ESO OPC (or HST, Chandra, etc) would throw the names of all the successful PIs into a hat, and draw out one, who is then given 8 hours of grade A VLT time to do whatever they want. They wouldn’t have to justify the science in any way, and would be free to collaborate with anyone who they might think has a better idea. They wouldn’t have to justify how they used the time after the event. There would be no rules (well you can’t sell the time). I bet that those 8 hours would produce more science than average.

* A modest proposal is the title of a satirical essay by Jonathan Swift, in which he suggests that poor people in Ireland alleviate their suffering by selling their children to be eaten by the rich. Another of his works was The benefit of farting.

: Steve off

So : vote now ! Results will accumulate publicly this time.

Time Loop Chaos

December 1, 2009

New experience this morning. I talked at a conference by remote video link. Its the first time I’ve given a talk sitting on my bed. Appropriately the conference in question was .Astronomy-2009, held in Leiden. (Thats “dot-astronomy”.) I was sorry not to be there, as I have never been to Leiden, it looks like a fun meeting, and it claims to be an un-conference, which is a bit Lewis Carroll. You can follow the meeting on Ustream and on Twitter.

This turned out to be much harder than I expected. I had sent them a PDF of my talk, and called in by skype. So far so good. The organisers suggested I follow my own talk on Ustream so I could see when my slides changed. However… this turned out to have a three second delay. As a result my own voice was overlapping itself in the most gharssly manner and it was hellish hard to concentrate. I suspect I sounded like a complete buffoon. My kids tell me I was loud as well as stumbling, and apparently sounded like Ron Weasley’s Dad on the telephone.  Hopefully the written words made some sense.  If  you want to see the PDF, I have uploaded it to my ROE page.

Meanwhile, I have a link for all those people who over the years I have heard complaining that Swindon is the most mind-numbingly boring town in the world, with the possible exception of Newport Pagnell. In fact, I will have you realise, Swindon is at the very bleeding edge of the internet revolution.