Joint post : UK space liftoff

March 21, 2010

Three v.v.exciting things happened in the last few days. (i) I signed up for Twitter. You can find me here. Pretty quickly lots of old chums and blog readers sent “welcome aboard !” messages, including some that said “does he know what he has let himself in for ?” Gulp. (ii) I got an email from Lord Mandelson. This invited me to the launch of the new space agency on Tuesday coming. As Googleman John Taylor said, “Andy meet Mandy” ? (iii) Paul Crowther, National Treasure, sent me another guest post. He was worried that I haven’t fretted enough about the whole STFC restructuring / space agency thing, so he would just have to do it for me. Okey dokey Paul. Here we go :

Crowther on :

Following Lord Drayson’s structural `fix’ of STFC, I thought it timely to reassess whether STFC is finally on a road to recovery or still languishing in intensive care? This coming Tuesday, March 23rd, looks set to be significant for STFC’s future health in three ways:

a) Lord Drayson’s new UK space agency is launched. Currently STFC contributes a major fraction of the UK civil space spend, via ESA subscriptions (including Aurora) and domestic R&D. Should we welcome or fear the transfer of funds from STFC? Personally, the sooner ESA’s subscription shifts across the better, since this heavily distorts STFC’s spending on astronomy/space science. Space was a major focus of STFC’s submission for the last spending round, so perhaps the removal of this element might allow STFC to renew its emphasis upon science?

b) The S&T select ctte are to publish their Impact of Spending Cuts on Science report, whose terms of reference explicitly included STFC’s difficulties. Some interesting submissions from organizations and individuals have already been made public. Non-STFC users of Diamond and ISIS should be very pleased with the fix, but STFC will still shoulder the burden of fixed staff costs of Rutherford/Daresbury labs, and treasury-imposed non-cash `allocations’ which which continued to distort STFC’s allocation in future spending rounds. Will the retiring committee chair Phil Willis MP be as critical of STFC (and HM government) as he was two years ago in his Science Budget Allocation report?

c) Although some of the external issues affecting STFC look set to be put right, the fear remains that the UK will quickly slip down the league tables in astronomy and space science as a result of too little support, for too few facilities. University vice-chancellors, mindful of STFC’s recent problems, will be reluctant to recruit staff to fundamental physics anytime soon. This brings us to the third of Tuesday’s events, namely a Commons debate on the Future of Physics Research secured by the Liberal Democrat science spokesman, Dr Evan Harris MP. The threat to some departments has not been publicly acknowledged by STFC senior management, but they must recognise the major financial problems now affecting physics around the country.

Beyond this week’s events, much still depends upon internal structural changes within STFC. Concerns remain that scientific peer review, despite appearances (read Prof John Womersley’s view in this week’s RF), is unable to compete on a level playing field with STFC’s stategic priorities. Still, ring-fencing operating costs for Diamond/ISIS might lead to the dissolution of Science Board, potentially bringing advisory panel recommendations one level closer to decision making. The volume of university grants remains volatile in the medium-term, and depends critically upon a successful bid by STFC for the next spending round, which is anticipated to commence within the next 12 months. Lets hope that preparations for the spending round submission are already underway by STFC’s executive and scientific advisory committees.

Crowther off

I do intend to go to this launch, and try to understand better what the relation is between this, the ESA Centre, and the Gateway Centres. Watch this space. I expect I might even Twitter while I am there…