More Phil Charles madness

June 28, 2010

I am sure most of you will remember the recent strange episode in South African astronomy, with SAAO Phil Charles being suspended for … err… well, it was never really clear exactly what he was suspended for. He endured a several day hearing behind closed doors and was publicly cleared. Except that the layer above SAAO, the NRF, said “well, anyway, we still reckon there’s issues, see”. But then the layer above them, the Ministry, said “I think you’ll find we all agree Professor Charles was cleared of all charges”. See my last update.

Now it seems madness is breaking out again. On January 26th SABC reported a partial eclipse, with nice warm quotes from Phil and the Science Minister about how important astronomy is for inspiring youth. However the day before, SABC reported NRF officials as stating darkly that financial irregularities in the running of SALT were being investigated at the request of the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee. Apparently the committee has “received a detailed report” from the NRF.

Now it gets really weird. Yesterday morning (June 29th) a member of that committee (the shadow minister for science) was reported as saying “eh wot pardon ? No such investigation, no such report”.

A little birdie tells me that today there will be a press release from NRF explaining all.

Italian science crisis update

June 25, 2010

A few weeks there was serious worry over the possible closure of the Italian National Institute for Astrophysics, INAF, which I blogged about here.  It seems the immediate panic was over, as the Government pulled back from closure, although they are still planning to cut positions drastically.

However, it seems there is still very serious worry in the scientific community in Italy overall about the government’s plans and intentions. I got an email alerting me to a website where you can sign a petition. I just did that, but I reckon they need a lot more.

You youngsters might also want to know that there is a Facebook Page for friends of Italian Astrophysics.

Meanwhile, here is another interesting contribution to the related UK debate – a BBC blog post by Susan Watts called “Can Science be an engine of growth in an age of austerity ?”

Earning a crust : paying for web content

June 23, 2010

Seems we have to wait a bit longer before finding out whether STFC gets screwed over. So. Hows about something different.

Some of you will have noticed that the web version of the Guardian is still free whereas The Times is not. Past the front page, its behind a paywall. Of course, all right thinking people recognise this for the evil it is, dirty capitalism eroding the freedom of the internet. Ain’t that right ? Maybe not. On Monday a wonderful article by Caitlin Moran appeared with the most insightful – and funny – left wing defense of charging for web content. Her basic argument is that in the historical past creative work was only possible if you were either rich and leisured, or sucked up to a rich patron. That changed in the twentieth century; ordinary working class folk with talent could earn a living wage, for example by working for a newspaper. Now, she says, the Bohemian insistence on everything being free means that people like her won’t get paid, and only rich folk will be able to afford to express themselves.

Its actually a very funny piece of writing, also covering travel agents, pornography, and Lily Allen. You can find it here. If you have a subscription to the Times… Possibly this PDF file may bear some resemblance.

She also made the same argument for music and the current debate over copyright and digital rights management. Here I part company. It aint the same. Musicians have been exploited by record companies for decades, and digital rights management is all about protecting their interests, not the musicians. Here is Courtney Love explaining it perfectly. That article is ten years old but its still spot on.

I still find the idea of newspapers like The Times or The Guardian very useful. They organise material in a structured way, they employ the best writers, they are guarantors of quality, they have their own style, and their own traditions; you may feel youself to be a Guardian person, or a Times person. This seems worth paying for. Can you imagine having the same feelings about Columbia records ? You don’t want to buy something from a particular corporation – you just want Lily Allen, or Claudio Abbado, or Radiohead.

In the web age, why do musicians need a massive army of suits to spot them, contract them, record them, distribute recordings, publicise them, and take most of the profits ? They don’t. Traditional record companies are dead, or should be. The future is with companies like Earbuzz and CDBaby and, if you are into jazz and classical, Magnatune.You make your own recordings; you pay them to take your stuff; they flog it for you, and pass back to you most of the proceeds. Thats most. Not one percent. Right now these “labels” don’t have the big names. But they should. I think they will.

Don’t start me on scientific journal publishers.

Making an impact

June 17, 2010

As the nervousness about the cuts-that-are-yet-to-come slowly builds, an interesting debate has been developing during the last week. First there was a Nature News article that argued that scientists should engage more fully with the “impact agenda”, but was sceptical about our ability to accurately or meaningfully quantify our impact. Quantification is an important issue : politicians know we have value for the economy, but how many pound notes do you attach to that value ? Then a big surprise, at least to me : two letters to the Times from a an impressive array of captains of industry, saying “for goodness sake don’t cut science”. Not a bunch of whinging academics note – genuine industrial chieftains. This was followed up by more Times letters the next day, and another well argued piece in the Guardian blog.

Of course, as usual, it is important to stress that just because science and technology gets a thumb up, doesn’t mean the government will pay for astronomy. Our problem is that our economic impact, while large, is mostly indirect  – delivering scientifically literate graduates, attracting kids into science, and inspiring the public. Like the rest of physics we can have a huge impact from producing basic advances in physics, like how nuclear reactions work. Understanding gravity came from worrying about the Moon. But these huge advances are slow to have an effect, and are a benefit to the world, not an advantage to UK PLC. Astronomy can produce technological spin off. Andy Fabian’s recent article for A&G, which you can download from Paul Crowther’s website, has some impressive examples. But its never going to quite be like chemistry or engineering.

Right .. slight digression followed by loop back.

Yesterday we had an excellent talk here from Marek Kukula about how to build a career in public engagement. Marek used to be a quasar researcher, but now he is the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich . Amongst other things he spoke a little of the history of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Why should the State create such a thing ? It was because accurate positions of the stars mattered for navigation. We are talking trade, war, and sailors’ lives. Not just handy spin off gadgets. Right in the core of the business of the state. We’ve lost that.

The last time that card was played was 1945. A few months back I was at a meeting at Heidelberg. Not as usual at MPI, but another astronomical institute in the centre of Heidelberg, the Astronomisches Rechen-Institut (ARI). In modern times it has been a centre of astrometry, producing the FK5 catalogue for instance. Historically, it was the equivalent of the RGO, producing star maps for  the state. But it used to be in Berlin. In 1945 as the Russians approached, the Director made an argument to the government that the ARI was of strategic military importance and should not be allowed to fall into Russian hands. So they were moved to Heidelberg. (Markus Demleitner told me this story on the way to dinner one night – I hope I have it roughly right).

I don’t think that gambit will work in Cameron’s world. But is there a replacement ? Killer rocks in space ? Planetary Defense League anyone ?

ps some of those newspaper links are behind a paywall and some aren’t…

pps  as an old fashioned chap, I still think that “impact” is a noun by the way, and not a verb. Still, as our American friends say, there is no noun that cannot be verbed.

Vanity Publishing

June 14, 2010

Non-bloggers may suspect that blogging is a kind of modern vanity press. Of course the good thing is that those nice people at WordPress don’t charge me any money. And you even get flattering extras, that readers don’t normally see. Every day I get comments posted that say “Hi, fantastic post, you are so perceptive writing. Is amazing blog and I am linkings to my own blog. Keep up good work !” For some bizarre reason these pleasant messages consistently get stuck in my spam filter. Weird though, if you click on the links you end up at some very strange web sites. Probably this is a mistake which is why WordPress remove them.

Anhyoo, this morning my “Stay of Execution” post got a comment which simply had a terribly relevant link to a story about 250 Geese not being euthanized after all. I love these small town stories. Some old chums of mine used to have a press clipping from the Melton Gazette stuck on their fridge, with the wonderful headline “Nine hurt in pudding fracas”.

So. Sorry for the drivel this morning, but its my blog, so there. Where’s my vuvuzela ?

Here we go again

June 8, 2010

The news this morning was unsettlingly familiar. Thatcherism returns with a smooth Cameron spin. Thatcher relished the fight, publicly squaring up to her enemies. The New Tories approach like an old friend, with arms wide open, the stiletto concealed within the sleeve.

Apparently the public will be consulted about the spending cuts choices. How jolly. And indeed you can go now to the Programme for Government website and insert your suggestions. There are already  82 comments about the plans for deficit reduction… The reality is clear in that BBC news item :

A “star chamber” of senior figures will be created, before which ministers will have to justify their spending. Ministers could be asked to consider whether services currently provided by their departments could be better supplied by the private or voluntary sectors.

Is this what the Committee of Public Safety, sorry, I mean the Office for Budget Responsibility is all about ?

Hmm. Hands up who remembers Prior Options Reviews ? Maybe this time the process really will be open minded, but thats not what it felt like last time round. There was a story of a civil servant handing in a report to senior minister X, which concluded that in this particular case there were sound arguments for particular bodies remaining in the public sector. Minister X tosses the report over his shoulder, and says “Try again”.

Now, lets see. Where did I put that phone number for the Serco guys ?

Update Thursday : Mike Watson sent me this apposite picture, snapped with his iPhone while he was in a traffic jam somewhere in Leicester ….

Sign of the times ?

Cameron's Cutz

Stay of Execution Part II

June 7, 2010

These days we have to be grateful for partial victories. You will all remember the pre-Xmas pain of finally hearing the results of the STFC prioritisation review. This included the half-expected but grim news that there would be a “managed withdrawal” from UKIRT. Over the following weeks this got worse, as we discovered that this meant shutting down UKIRT by the end of this year, 2010.  The announcement hit my own scientific ambitions, as it would mean UKIDSS would not get finished as originally intended. It was also grim timing, so soon after the workshop celebrating 30 years of UKIRT. And, as I wrote during my last UKIRT run, UKIRT has gradually evolved into the most efficient telescope I know.

However, the UKIRT leadership evolved a cunning plan. UKIRT is run by the Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC), sharing much support with the JCMT, which is guaranteed to stay open to mid-2012. If UKIRT closes, the operating cost of JCMT would actually go up somewhat. So a new “bare bones” model was developed in which the cost of running both telescopes would be pretty much the same as running JCMT by itself. I have been aware of this behind the scenes for a while, but I am very pleased to see that it has been officially approved by STFC and by the UKIRT Board, and was announced yesterday on the UKIRT website.

The general idea is that the TSS runs UKIRT from sea level, there are no visiting observers, and there is heavily reduced tech support. UKIRT Head Andy Adamson has already moved to Gemini, but luckily the equally trusty Tom Kerr is taking over. You can read more about minimalist mode at Tom’s blog, A Pacific View, which regularly has the most stunning pictures.

The good news is that UKIDSS will finish, and UKIRT stays open, and presumably continues to welcome possible partners. The bad news is that this means real cuts, and there will be real redundancies, over and above the voluntary ship jumping and person shuffling – something lke thirteen posts I believe.