Masonic Rituals

At periodic intervals Keef appears before the assembled might of the Royal Astronomical Society for grilling – in April at the National Astronomy Meeting, and every so often at the Astronomy Forum, an RAS organised gathering of Astronomy Department Honchos.There is a meeting of the Forum today. I ain’t there, cos I amn’t as important as I’m yoosed to be, and anyway I am squirting astronomical knowledge into the brains of eighteen year olds this afternoon. Informal de-briefs welcome. Sorry I haven’t got a Twitter thingy, but look, I am fifty five, do you want me to do a demonstration of Disco Dad Dancing while I am at it ?

Minutes from previous Fora can be found here, and responses of the RAS so far to the recent prioritisation exercise can be found here and here.

His Keithness will I am certain stonewall impressively. Please keep comments to facts and policy. Rude remarks about individuals should be kept for the pub.

Likely interesting issues ? Who wants Aurora ? Is it really true the cash losses to PPAN were about the same as the cash gains to PALS ? Are there any warm bodies in the shiny new ESA centre yet ? What about this Drayson review of tension between exploitation, facilities, and subscriptions ? Anything happening ? Need any help ? Should we be lining up our VCs to submit stuff ? Should we just give up because Somebody Up There don’t like us ?

And of course, why hasn’t Peter Coles come up with a looky-likey for Andy Fabian yet ?

54 Responses to Masonic Rituals

  1. andyxl says:

    Well spotted that man. I was wondering who’d notice. Well done. At ease chaps.

  2. Stuart says:

    Are you putting the example of Disco Dad Dancing on YouTube? I think you should.

  3. Sarah says:

    we young ‘uns will tweet about it.

  4. MikeW says:

    More stuff we’d like to know. What will the new space agency actually do? Will this be good or bad? And who will be the first boss?

  5. Michael Merrifield says:

    An interesting meeting.

    STFC are clearly exercised by Lord Drayson’s very short-deadline review, with the threat that grants will just be bunged into EPSRC as a quick apparently-simple solution requiring no new legislation.

    Keith described STFC’s preferred alternative option to mitigate the current pressures on exploitation funding, namely moving the risk associated with currency fluctuations on subscriptions to BIS or Treasury level, and sharing the running costs of facilities around the research councils in proportion to their useage.

    It seemed a fairly reasonable solution to me — if such mitigating steps had been put in place when STFC was being created, I would have done far less ineffectual jumping up and down.

    But I think it misses the fundamental issue at this point: any mechanism for protecting exploitation funding should work if it is set up right; the more pressing question is how much money is protected. It was clear that while almost all of those present at the meeting echoed the views of the advisory panels that grant funding should be protected as it is already too low, Keith still holds to the STFC view that it is relatively generously funded, which is presumably why the final outcome to the recent programme review went against the advisory panels’ advice on this issue.

    If we cannot win the argument that we need more exploitation funding to get good value from the capital investment in facilities, we may end up doing yet more damage by constructing an excellent ring fence that does a fine job of keeping money out of the exploitation budget.

  6. Jim Wild says:

    Andy – a quick point of order.

    Rather than appearing before the “assembled might of the Royal Astronomical Society for grilling”, it’s worth noting that Keith et al were being grilled by the astronomy forum and not the RAS.

    The AF is chaired by the RAS president and the RAS offer administrative and logistical support (e.g. minute taking and a venue) but it is an “authoritative group drawn from the community at professorial level”. This is distinct from the RAS Council, which is a group of Astronomers and Geophysicists nominated and elected by the RAS Fellowship to serve as trustees of the society and steer its course.

    The RAS sometimes attracts criticism for being a “gentlemen’s club” hosting meetings in “smoke-filled” rooms etc etc. Via the AF, I hope folks would see that it also serves as a useful framework for other community activities and fora, for fellows and non-fellows alike.

    Point of order ends.

  7. Paul Crowther says:

    Thanks Jim. Astro Forum is a trimmed down version of SCAP which was too large for effective policy making, and represents astro/space science equivalent to SCPP (heads of physics groups).

    Yesterday’s Forum was a game of two halves. Programme posted on my pages. Some presentations may be made public, but minutes to follow shortly.

    First half included a look back at STFC prioritisation exercise, how advisory panel input fed into decisions and balance between exploitation and facilities in zero-sum game. As things stand, Andy will have a very tough job as AGP chair from next round.. Mike Cruise made powerful arguments over exploitation vs facilities imbalance. PDRA numbers look set to fall well below the previously advertised 25% (over CSR07) + 10% subsequent cut, putting many rollers at risk.
    Consequently, first half ended pessimistically.

    Second half considered STFC future in context of Drayson structural review. Very interesting input from Prof Sterling on what is realistic and what is not. Forum members have next few days to feed views to myself or Andy Fabian, following which we will feed joint RAS Council and Astro Forum input to Drayson review, which he wants wrapped up before end of February. IoP also submitting input to review shortly.
    Second half ended more optimistically.

  8. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Stephen Serjeant, Mandy Bailey. Mandy Bailey said: RT @StephenSerjeant: Eh? Keith Mason said #STFC grants relatively generously funded […]

  9. John Peacock says:

    I’m trying to imagine if it was theoretically possible for the 2nd half to be more pessimistic than the first…

  10. andyxl says:

    Oh. My. God. Captain Jack Xerxes.

  11. Mr Physicist says:

    Does no one find it amazing that after 2 years – yes 2 years! – we are still discussing the SAME shortcomings of STFC? In fact, looking back, almost all of the suggestions for improvement have come from outside of STFC:

    1) The “consultations” that have taken place have only happened because of the furore from the various scientific communities. Back in 2007/2008, STFC would have slashed and burned at their whim. It is only because of the backlash that they reverse engineered the whole peer review process and ended up with their current set of cuts.

    2) The problem with international subscriptions is only being discussed now because Lord Drayson has taken upon himself (credit where credit is due) to finally acknowledge that there a problem.

    3) According to the above blog, the squeeze on grants is *still* not a problem in the eyes of Keith Mason. Yet almost every other scientist in the STFC supported communities thinks otherwise! Moreover, everyone – except the STFC executive – is amazed at the way the National Labs are run in the UK (e.g. without any Director).

    So, we are left with the only conclusion that STFC (which is supposed to support, fund and represent its various communities) is NOT fit for purpose. The only solution has to be to start again and to clear out the current executive and replace with: (a) a research council which truly cares for its communities (astron omy, particle physics, nculear physics, etc) and will FIGHT for the science (e.g. research projects and grants), and (b) an organisation which controls and steers the National Labs (RAL, DL, etc) – appoint a true director/leader who will fight for both national and international resources.

  12. Kav says:

    Mr Physicist,
    I don’t disagree with you, I’d even add that the recent consutlation process was flawed given the outcome compared with the input.

    However, as much as your solutions make sense and could be the best option they are simply not possible.

    Even though Lord Drayson has acknowledged there are problems I doubt that the government would ever perform such a massive U-turn in science funding policy, let alone within an election year. Whereas to you or I it would signal a realisation that their experiment failed and they are taking steps to correct it (which is laudable), it would be seen as political weakness – a real downside of our political system.

    Sadly I suspect that no heads will roll for the mess we are in, as deserved as that might be. I agree that without that we risk a bungled fix to the problem but again it would be viewed as political weakness now (after the election, depending on who wins…). I could be wrong of course if the whole community demonstrates a lack of confidence to Lord Drayon, but I suspect we missed the opportunity to solve that particular problem two years ago.

    Anyway, my point after all that rambling, is that we need solutions that would be palatable to government and that will still allow us to solve some of the issues we face.

  13. andyxl says:

    Mr Physicist – the consultation process was an enormous improvement over 2007. Lets not snipe at that : we want to encourage more. I like your point about structural tensions. Public statements are about the tension between subscriptions and exploitation, but actually the conflicts between strategy, funding, and delivery are probably even more important. Liberating the labs sounds good.

    But as Kav says, in suggesting solutions, we need to recognise the realities of political life. No Department likes losing scalps. Some private noises suggest Sterling and Mason did listen.

  14. MatthewH says:

    I would list liberated labs under “Be careful what you wish for…”, it wouldn’t be the first time a serious attempt has been made to privatize them.

    For those who didn’t see it already, the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee is having an inquiry into science spending in general, and the current STFC situation in particular. Deadline for submissions, 27 January.

  15. Not wishing to rival this forum but I put some thoughts here which didn’t really fit in a comment but which are hopefully relevant & of interest. Somewhat echoing Andy’s comment above that “conflicts between strategy, funding, and delivery are probably even more important”.

  16. Monica Grady says:

    This isn’t a reply to any of the previous discussion, but a question. Or rather, a set of questions.

    What was it like in the olden days when the Research Council was called SERC? Did rolling grants exist? Was this a golden era of funds for all? If we go back further, to SRC, was it difficult to get money for astronomy in competition with chemists, etc?

    I ask because the dreaded possibility of exploitation grants being hived off to EPSRC seems to be being discussed again, and I wondered how this might differ from the reign of SERC? I, of course, am far too young to remember….

    • John Womersley says:

      Monica, let’s recall that was the period when the Nuclear Structure Facility at Daresbury was closed, and a SERC committee was set up to study UK withdrawal from CERN.

      • Guenther Rosner says:

        John, what’s the difference between closing NSF at Daresbury and not becoming a member of FAIR?

    • Paul Crowther says:

      Monica, I’m way too young too, but astro & space functioned within its own division of SERC. I’ve heard rumours that astro did fairly well (perhaps too well) before it was split into PPARC/EPSRC/BBSRC. PPARC served astro and pp pretty well (perhaps too well), which may have precipitated the creation of STFC out of nowhere. If so, is someone telling us that wherever astro lands next time, we’ll always be stuffed?

      PP are uniformly dead set against shifting to EPSRC whereas astro being more individualistic have a more mixed bag of views. Non-impact disciplines such as pure maths function (happily?) within EPSRC, but their only facilities are a piece of chalk and large blackboard, right? 😉 whereas non-theory astro types tend to wish for big shiny pieces of kit.

      Perhaps EPSRC wouldn’t be so bad, but then Guenther, could you tell us astro-types why NP shifted from EPSRC to STFC last time around? (even though your experience at STFC has been as dismal as the rest of us)

      • Guenther Rosner says:

        I have no idea, Paul. We weren’t asked.

      • John Womersley says:

        In fact there was a public consultation about the creation of STFC that explicitly mentioned Nuclear Physics, and the results of that consultation are summarised in a document that’s still available at

      • Guenther Rosner says:

        I see, John. Do you think STFC have developed a viable plan for a sustainable future of NP in the UK by cutting its funding so severely? Surely, you cannot be satified with the marginal role the UK will now play at FAIR. Best wishes, Guenther

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      Hi Monica. If you put “SERC rolling grant” into Google, you will find that they certainly did exist, and in fact were available across a wide range of disciplines. Even within EPSRC today, rolling grants exist: “platform grants” provide long-term baseline funding that allows groups to retain key technical and research staff, and carry out longer-term research than is possible under standard grants. They provide up to 5 years of funding, and are intended to allow holding groups to “renew their award in a seamless manner, subject to competitive peer review.” As currently constituted, they can’t be used to buy equipment, and the overlap between funding periods is rather shorter than we might want, but the principle is at least in place.

      Please note, though, I am not advocating a move of the grant line to EPSRC. I think such a move is probably unnecessary, in that STFC’s preferred solution should work equally well, given the right motivation and funding level. In fact, I would reiterate my concern that if we get hung up on just this issue, we will miss the far more fundamental point relating to the appropriate balance in funding between hardware, running costs, and research. If we don’t get that right, it doesn’t matter what the structure is around it. The current review affords a rare upportunity to influence what is surely the basic issue, and if we end up arguing endlessly over where the pot of money should lie, it will be too late when we start arguing that it is far too small.

  17. Watcher says:

    Let me give you the obvious answer to you question to John. SERC had invested heavily in the construction of the NSF at Daresbury. No investment in, or commitment to FAIR was ever made.

    By the way, isn’t it true that STFC are spending about the same on NP now as EPSRC were at the time of the transfer.

    • Ken Rice says:

      Not according to Paddy Regan’s article in Research Fortnight that claims NP funding was £10M in EPSRC, £8M after the transfer to STFC, and now stands at £6M.

    • Guenther Rosner says:

      The obvious answer is that it would be one order of magnitude cheaper for STFC to participate in FAIR at the 1% share holder level, as anticipated in the FAIR MoU signed by the UK many years ago, than it was for SERC to build and run the NSF.

      Funding levels for NP were:

      a) in SERC, until middle of the 90’s: ca. £24M pa
      b) in EPSRC, until 2006: ca. £12M pa
      c) in STFC, in a bright future for NP: £6M

  18. […] Crowther has done his usual excellent job of keeping track of these things and Andy Lawrence’s blog also covers the event. I wasn’t there, as I’m not a Head Honcho of the necessary […]

  19. Watcher says:

    I’m told by a very reliable source that the actual numbers including studentships are:

    Spend in 7/8 transferred from EPSRC £8m
    Spend in 9/10 £8.7m
    Planned spend in 10/11 £7.5m

    after that it falls to about £6m in 11/12.

    So STFC would appear to be spending more now than when NP transferred from EPSRC and will see a 25% cut in the future. Looks like the spend in EPSRC fell by a factor of 3 between the mid 90’s and the transfer to STFC.

    • Guenther Rosner says:

      No, spend for NP fell by a factor of ca. 2, when NSF was closed in 1993 and stayed about constant at around £12M pa until the move from EPSRC to STFC was announced. Hence, NP did about a factor of 2 better in EPSRC than it will do in STFC.

  20. Watcher says:

    Sorry but sources who know tell me that is just not the case. I suggest you ask EPSRC how much they transferred to STFC.

    • Guenther Rosner says:

      Dear Mr. Watcher

      Please read my contribution to this discussion more carefully. As soon as DIUS announced the transfer of NP from EPSRC to the still to be established research council STFC in ~2005, all new NP grant requests were put on halt by EPSRC. Subsequently, NP had a planning blight of ca. 2 years.

      The amount of money that was finally transferred from EPSRC to STFC in 2007 might well have been lower than the average over the one and a half decades before. I don’t know the details of the negotations between EPSRC and STFC, because I did not take part in them.

      STFC of course realised the discrepancy and was willing to ramp up support for NP to its previous average level in the course of a couple of years. Just the opposite has happened now.

      Best wishes, Guenther

  21. Mr Physicist says:

    Sensible proposals for reform of STFC now submitted by IOP – will they be acted upon?

    Will the future STFC funding procedures pass the Nick Clegg test. Talking to the R.Soc, he said about econ/socio impact “Any application procedure that would have refused funding to Alexander Fleming cannot be sound.”

  22. Paul Crowther says:


    since you’ve returned from the abyss here’s a few questions for you:

    (a) As well as IoP/astro/PP having their say about STFC, do STFC get a chance to make their own suggestions for structural reforms? (or has Drayson already been briefed by those on the inside).

    (b) Are you allowed to say anything about internal document about HM Space Agency? Mini-NASA or maxi-BNSC.

    (c) Will BIS really pick up the bill of £60m for extra STFC subscriptions in 2010/11 arising from xchange rate/NNI issues?

    (d) Just how much of the £30+m that STFC has to contribute to the SSC will have been top-sliced during the CSR07 period?

    (e) The Regulatory Impact Assessment carried out for the CCLRC/PPARC merger which I referred to in my Astro Forum presentation had this to say under risks for the `don’t merge’ option:

    To continue with the current arrangements would run the risk that the UK does not fully exploit its investment in large scientific facilities as currently decisions on investment are taken by several different Research Councils without an overall priority-setting process in place.

    Do you think STFC has improved on this so far?


  23. Guenther Rosner says:

    SSC = Scotland Supporters’ Club ?

  24. Mr Physicist says:

    Talking of acronym overload. You couldnt make it up… STFC (Research Council) is holding science lectures at STFC (Swindon Town Football Club)!

    The football club is in League 1 (what used to be called the third division). What league is the research council in?

    • Nick Cross says:

      I think STFC is like one of the Premier League teams in the news recently. Lots of great players, but they have been saddled with huge debt from their new owners and have had poor managers thrust upon them. Soon they will go bankrupt and end up in Division 4.

  25. Has anyone suggested a merger of the two STFCs?

  26. Dave says:

    The Impact assessment suggests someone was worried ‘that the UK does not fully exploit its investment in large scientific facilities’. But we now have Keith saying that we over-exploit! This just does not wash.

    Seems like we get inadequate exploitation whether we’re in STFC or not!

    What was that about NewLab and joined up government…..?

  27. Paul Crowther says:


    Does this qualify as `facts and policy’ or `rude remarks about individuals for the pub’ or perhaps both?

    More importantly where has Watcher got to and why hasn’t he answered my queries?


  28. Watcher says:

    The Watcher is still watching. There is a real opportunity for reasoned debate on the problems facing SFTC but even these pages too often descend into `rude remarks about individuals for the pub’. Anyway let me risk some honest answers to your questions.

    a) The STFC Executive will be briefing Mike Stirling. I believe the tone of this briefing was reported to the Astronomy Forum.
    b) A proposal is being worked up by the UK Space Board. That’s all I know.
    c) The exact figure won’t be known until later in the year. As you know STFC will be liable for the first £3m. The rest will need to be found from within the science vote.
    d) Where else would it come from?
    e) Well yes I do. I am not denying the problems and pressures but you can see from the STFC’s prioritization that it has been able to look across the major subscriptions ESO, ESA, CERN as well as ILL and ESRF, to tension the latter two against domestic facilities and to conclude that if they are to support the current facilities across the STFC remit, they cannot sign up to new facilities such as XFEL and FAIR.

  29. Paul Crowther says:

    Thank you.

    a) This didn’t come across at the Forum, but we did get some useful pointers from Prof Sterling what the likely outcome would be. Lets see what Lord Drayson has to say to the three amigos* in due course;

    b) UK space board? ..ah Keith again of course.

    c) The initial near-cash award was £433m but STFC has loans from 08/09 and 09/10 of £46m to repay. Thanks to the other RCs there is one-off £14m donation for 10/11 so my calculator suggests a difference of £60m between the sum left over (£401m) and the figure of £461m announced in Dec 09. Mind you, i’m not a precision cosmologist so my figures may only be correct to within a factor of a few.

    d) So we’ve replaced a perfectly fine (new) £1m finance system at PPARC with a £30m contribution by STFC to something that still doesn’t work. To make cost savings. Brilliant.

    e) Looking in from the outside, balancing national facilities of interest to other RCs against PPAN facilities and grants has been a complete disaster. We (PPAN community) blame the shiny bits of kit at Harwell for stealing our money, while they (other RC users of Diamond/ISIS) blame us for stealing theirs. Labs aren’t Research Councils in the normal sense, since when push comes to shove university groups have to sack PDRAs rather than the Gov’t making people redundant at RAL/DL.

    *I better not say who 4 now

  30. Watcher says:

    d) not sure the finance system at PPARC was either fine or new. STFC has yet to migrate to the new system so it’s too early to claim it doesn’t work. Most HR and Finance staff have transferred and procurement has also moved over.

    e) you asked if STFC had “improved” the situation. On this particular issue the answer is yes. I forgot to mention that the across the board tensioning also resulted in NLS going on the back burner. That tensioning wouldn’t have happened before and all those new commitments would have hit the science budget at some point.

  31. telescoper says:

    Chief Executive some think a disaster? (5,5)

  32. Steve W says:

    Blogger outed closet peer (5,5)

  33. andyxl says:

    OK I got both those. Won’t spoil for others though.

  34. MikeW says:

    Too cryptic for some?

    • rare new vest says:

      Bearded Wonder on TMS – I wake, startled (4,6)

      [For our US readers, the Bearded Wonder was the late Bill Frindall, the scorer on Test Match Special]

  35. andyxl says:

    I think my minority of US readers will be bemused. Personally I have always hated the New York Times crossword. Dull but difficult. As opposed to good ole Bristish quirky but difficult.

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