Joint post : UK space liftoff

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…

29 Responses to Joint post : UK space liftoff

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    Lets hope that preparations for the spending round submission are already underway by STFC’s executive and scientific advisory committees.

    Let’s not forget that the Executive’s view is still that expenditure on exploitation remains too *high* relative to that on capital and running costs. If we want the spending review to look favourably on scientific exploitation, we shouldn’t be expecting STFC to make that case for us.

  2. Terry O'Connor says:

    Another well-considered post from Paul. However, he says: “the removal of this element might allow STFC to renew its emphasis upon science?” But STFC emphasis on space is “emphasis on space science”. Obviously we recognise the industrial applications of space, but primarily in relation to the applications arising from the science. A key issue has been ensuring the Agency maintains a peer review process for allocation of space science funding, and there should be positive news there.
    Yes, we’re looking forward to the S&T Committee report, and Tuesday’s Commons debate – wider awareness of issues facing UK science, especially physics and astronomy, can only be a good thing. We’re not pretending everything’s rosy (see Mike Sterling’s comments on Drayson Review outcome and numerous blogs, Tweets etc) and any additional suggestions or comments from the Committee (which includes Dr Evan Harris) can only be welcomed.
    Paul also says: “The threat to some departments has not been publicly acknowledged by STFC senior management.” We explicitly recognised it in the announcement on 16 December, and have been working with EPSRC to try to minimise the impact as far as possible. And, yes, preparations for the next Spending Review (or whatever the next government calls it) are definitely underway by STFC and all other RCs. But the election is complicating the process because, obviously, BIS needs guidance from Treasury on the parameters and that won’t occur until the next government. All RCs are making the case to HM Treasury about the importance of investment in science for its own sake and for the wider benefits to the nation, and we’re making sure it is in language and addressing issues that Treasury recognises as important — and the interactions the RCs have had with Treasury’s spending team have started with HMT recognising the importance of science and technology.
    I don’t recognise Mike’s claim that “exploitation remains too high”. Our argument is fairly simple – yes, we have access to big science facilities internationally (CERN, ESO etc) and operate important large science facilities (ISIS, Diamond, CLF) but if the UK decides to become a member of ESO for example we need to ensure sufficient funding to exploit that membership. As the Minister recognised in his review, the funding pressures from the subs and facilities faced by STFC at its creation meant the only area of flexibility was grants – and the “fix” he announced is designed to remove those pressures. The only discussions I’ve heard is how we make the case for additional exploitation funding.

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    I suggest you refer back to the latest Astronomy Forum, Terry, when the mood of the meeting was absolutely solidly that the prioritization between exploitation and other areas of expenditure was significantly out of balance, and STFC’s chief executive once again made it clear that this was not his perception.

    Nice though it would be to redress this balance by obtaining additional exploitation funding (which seems to implicitly recognize that there is an imbalance), the more realistic scenario is that we will have to work within our existing budget or less. As the wider scientific community, we have to understand that STFC, quite rightly, may have a different set of priorities to us, and that it is therefore in our interests to make our own case to direct funding to support our highest priorities.

    Please understand that this is not in any way a criticism of STFC, but just an attempt to deal with the issues with a larger dose of real politique than we have mustered in the past.

  4. Terry O'Connor says:

    Mike, realpolitik? Hmm, something about Bismarck’s comment about making sausages comes to mind.
    The issue for STFC has been to “work within the existing budget”. As many have now recognised, that existing budget, once the international subs and the facilities have been accounted for (and don’t forget ISIS, Diamond and CLF all took cuts in 2009-10) there hasn’t been enough to maintain the exploitation funds. These pressures were created by the government when it established STFC, and now that there appears a solution for the future, we have to argue to restore the exploitation funding. Given the entrenched perceptions of what the CEO’s views are or might be or were, all I can say is that I do not understand why there exists a view that STFC is the “plaything” of any one individual. Our Council and Executive Board members would argue the toss on that one, for example. But, time to watch Brian Cox help promote the wonders of astronomy! Excellent series, and he got a capacity crowd at his science lecture at the STFC County Ground last Tuesday (the “other” STFC, of course!)

  5. telescoper says:

    The greatest possible advantage to the science community of having a UK Space Agency would be if the current Chief Executive of STFC can be tempted to take on the job of directing it. That just might allow someone with a real understanding of how science works, and a proper appreciation of its value to wider society, to take over at STFC.

  6. andyxl says:

    Well … KOM is chair of BNSC’s UK Space Board, which is overseeing the transition to the new Executive Space Agency. That might make your proposal difficult, as he needs to chair the recruitment process impartially. Anyway… whether you think thats Keith or not, don’t you want someone keen on science running the new agency ?

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    I think the perception of your CEO’s views has arisen because he has kept reiterating them! While it is clear that the structural problems inherent in STFC’s creation have been responsible for a lot of the pain, you cannot credibly argue that they are entirely responsible for the current shortfall in exploitation funding, which have arisen from strategic decisions taken by STFC that have little directly to do with currency fluctuations, etc.

    But I don’t actually question those decisions, since I think they were probably the right choices for STFC to make. What I do ask is that all parties, particularly my own community, recognizes that we are just one stakeholder in STFC, and that it therefore behoves us to make our own case rather than assuming that you will make it for us.

  8. telescoper says:


    That depends on whether the Space Agency will be about science. I have no idea what the point of the new agency is, other than providing the Science Minister with something to tweet about. Have you noticed that the more politicians reorganize things the worse the situation becomes for science?


  9. George Efstathiou says:


    Either you are naive or you are spinning! I doubt
    whether you are naive. If you really don’t know
    why there is so much dissatisfaction with the CEO
    (come now!) give me a call.

    George Efstathiou

  10. Mr Physicist says:

    There is of course widespread dissatisfaction with the CEO. Outside of Swindon Office, I think you would find few supporters for him amongst the science communities. Trying to paint this as some false “perception”, is not a good way to go about improving matters!

  11. Terry O'Connor says:

    George, not naive (at least hope not) nor spinning. I’m just deliberately not commenting on the views about Keith – they are obviously widely but not uniformly held amonst the science communities.
    But I will repeat that I do not understand why there exists a view that STFC is the “plaything” of any one individual.

  12. andyxl says:

    If we obsess about Keith we will get nowhere.

  13. Albert Zijlstra says:

    None of the national space agencies are about science, and it seems unrealistic to expect anything else from the new british space agency. The goal of a space agency is to generate industrial contracts.

    When STFC signed up for ESA’s Aurora program, a big chunk of STFC’s budget was handed it to ESA (incidentally about equal to its current financial hole, if I understand the numbers correctly). ESA gives industrial contracts to all member states according to their contributions – governments want a return on their money. Everyone happy – the ‘science’ budget has ‘grown’ while science expenditure is cut.

    After the space budget is taken out, what will be left of STFC? And will it be required to use its remaining budget to underwrite the space missions? How will it deal with the conflict of interest inherent in giving the science budget to a facility council?

    It has been noticed that the announcement of of the BSNC is scheduled for the day of the Physics debate and the report of the Science and Technology Committee. Not accidentally, I expect.

    Albert Zijlstra

  14. Paul Crowther says:

    I have to agree with Andy here.. I was hoping to provoke some discussion about positive and negative effects that the space agency might have on STFC. Fine for the ESA subscription to get shifted across since it is in the interests of industry for UK membership, but what about R&D for cosmic visions, post-launch support for astronomy space-based missions, Aurora?

    NASA funds are divided into various components, including science, exploration, manned programmes, technology development etc. Terry hinted that the new agency will include peer-reviewed space science funds, so perhaps Lord Drayson genuinely intends it to be a mini-NASA (rather than maxi-BNSC). In the future, UK astronomers might be able to bid to the agency as well as STFC for financial support, along the lines of NSF/NASA in the US. Of course many of us use a mixture of ground- and space- based datasets to interpret the same object(s) so in practice it might simply mean twice as much form-filling, yet half the (low) success rate.

    My assertion that STFC’s CSR07 bid was focused too heavily on space (technology), rather than science, originates from a ppt sideshop acquired through FoI by Ken Peach.

  15. Andy – think you need to update the link from eastronomer to e_astronomer.

  16. John Womersley says:

    I am sure things will become clearer after the official announcement tomorrow, but my understanding right now is that the Space Agency will be an executive agency within the government, not a research council, and that its budget will not be part of the science vote. It will be on “the other side” of the Haldane Principle, in other words.

  17. telescoper says:

    I wonder if it will continue to exist “the other side of” the election…

  18. Paul Crowther says:

    Thanks John, this setup makes sense from the perspective of HM government’s desire to grow the UK space industry.

    Apparently, anyone who’s anyone will be attending tomorrow’s Space launch. Thats why i’ll be heading across Parliament square instead to queue up for the physics debate in Westminster Hall (i’m anticipating a small queue).

    Of course `sideshop’ above ought to read `slideshow’

  19. Richard Wade says:

    John is right that things will become clearer after tomorrow. In particular it will be clear which bits transfer and which bits stay. I do not believe that it is clear that the transferred bits will be outside the ring fence. It is clear that the whole of the Agency will not be inside the fence however.

    Just a comment to Albert. When STFC signed up to Aurora we were given additional funding to cover the subscription. There is a smaller domestic element to Aurora but the subscription was new money.

  20. Monica Grady says:

    Sometimes I think I’m the only person who reads this blog who is ‘pro’ space science, certainly ‘pro’ Aurora. It is time that people stopped regarding Aurora as a drain on STFC’s precious resources, and started looking at the money as part of STFC’s research investment in spaceflight instrumentation. Developments coming through the Aurora programme in terms of autonomous robotics will have applications in all sorts of fields, possibly even astrophysics.

    The juste retour that Albert describes is a good thing for our industry (and therefore for the govt). It can also work to advantage for instrument groups in universities who are working on space instruments. But it doesn’t work for those of us interested in exploiting data from space missions. Maybe it should – and maybe (probably a faint hope, but you never know) having Her Majesty’s Space Agency in charge of the ESA subscription be a way of dribbling some of the juste retour back into science.

    Paul – sorry to say – anyone who is anyone will not be at the launch tomorrow. I have declined – my Mum is coming to visit, and that has higher priority…

  21. andyxl says:

    Monica – depends whether we are wearing our “UK citizen” hats or our “academic astronomer” hats. Space Matters for UK PLC. I am sure this spot on and we should support it as citizens. Whether it is good for astronomy is harder to calculate. We may do well if we play it carefully, or we may get squeezed out like a lemon pip. But hey we got to try.

    • Monica Grady says:

      Planetary sciences is a branch of astronomy. As is space sciences. Ergo increased funding on space is good for astronomy.

  22. John Peacock says:

    I’m sure Paul is right that we should want to be rid of the ESA subscription. Given its striking upwards trend in recent years (which he deserves credit for being the first to publicise, as far as I am aware), one can only regard it as a tragegy that the Space Agency didn’t get formed a couple of years back.

    People will claim that this rise reflects exchange rates, but no such climb is seen in what we pay for CERN – rather, this is a decision at the ministerial level to see real growth in the ESA budget, but not matched by a decision to see more money going to STFC in order to deliver on this commitment (modulo the fact that there was some extra money for Aurora, but not for all of it: I recall anguished debate at the time as to whether we should take the government’s bribe to join Aurora, knowing that it would cost us in the long run).

    Monica: and I’m not anti-space, nor anti Aurora. I see the argument why UK PLC benefits, and I would love to see more and better pictures from Mars. I’m also in favour of a cure for Cancer (more so, probably) – but I wouldn’t expect STFC to pay for it. Or, rather, I can accept that physical sciences will always get a smaller share of the cake than the biomedical side of things: I just want government to decide once and for all how much cake we are worth and leave us to do our best with it. If we were part of MRC we would always end up getting squeezed. Similarly, this is why a clean separation from the ESA subscription is something that should have happened long ago.

    • Monica Grady says:

      I agree that the ESA sub should have been removed from STFC/PPARC, as should CERN, ESO and anything that has to be paid in currency other than GBP. But do we have to keep raking over the coals? Part of the rise in ESA subs was the re-allocation of responsibility for the General Budget to STFC (instead of being partitioned between RC), accompanied by a suitable chunk of extra cash to cover the increasing cost to STFC.

      Please can we move on? Let’s celebrate the joyful announcement of the Space Agency, and look forward to a new era in UK space exploration, and a vision of the union flag flying on the Moon……….

  23. Paul Crowther says:

    Following on from Andy’s blog on the glitzy UKSA launch event, let me provide a brief report on today’s debate in Westminster Hall. Far less glitzy, but more likely to directly affect jobbing astronomers any time soon. You probably can’t face watching the entire 90 min debate on, so heres a brief summary.

    Speeches were from Evan Harris (Lib), Andrew Smith (Lab), Annette Brooke (Lib), Adam Afriyie (Con), David Lammy (Lab), plus Lembit ‘cheeky’ Opik (Lib) made a brief appearance. I wish I could report a larger turnout of MPs but that was about the lot.

    Dr Evan Harris argued for a return to the pre-merger funding level for the former PPARC community, noting that (financial) responsibility ultimately lay with Gov’t rather than Research Council management, and that Lord Drayson’s fix look set to reduce, but not necessarily eliminate, currency fluctuation issues.

    Adam Afriyie claimed Labour’s debt crisis was the biggest factor in the threat to physics/STFC but was unable to offer any Conservative assurances about maintaining the science ring-fence.

    David Lammy emphasised the record investment in science since Labour came to power, and argued Lord Drayson’s new STFC arrangements will permit greater predictability that would address historical problems.

    As expected, queueing for the visitor gallery was not necessary, but I’m happy to report that two of the six watching the debate unfold were astronomers.

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