Three scary stories

Comments are still dribbling along on my previous post, but drifting somewhat. Folks are determined to talk about ESO. Meanwhile I have been writing lecture notes and going to a workshop on sky survey data management. So here is a brief restart.

Just as we thought the groves of academe had gotten off lightly, we start to learn the awful truth. Following the Twitter trail yesterday (where would I be without Paul Crowther ?) led to three scary stories.

Scary story number one : teaching budget timing. A few days back that nice Mr Clegg told us he still had some principles and wouldn’t allow infinite fees, just much bigger fees. We should probably should have guessed something because the announced cut was 40% not 80%. But now it seems the cuts will come in before universities are allowed to raise their fees, leading to a temporary but huge shortfall. Only places with big reserves will survive. Of course this makes the “err… what will happen in Scotland ?” question even more complicated than ever.

Scary story number two. Spiralling JWST costs. Nature News call JWST “the telescope that ate astronomy”. Don’t hold your breath for that exciting new WFIRST. Maybe 2022 if you are lucky. One of the odd things is that the graph in that article seems to show the US astrophysics budget rising to a massive peak during the Bush years. Shome mishtake shurely ? I showed this to some Arizona colleagues last night and they were mystified.

Scary story number three. Capital problems. So “we” only get cut 10%. But…. MRC seem to be promised flat funding in real terms, and thats a big slice. And…. capital budgets will fall by 44%. But…. the new medical centre thingy and Diamond upgrade will go ahead, so even less left. And…. subscriptions come partly out of capital budgets. Its worth quoting Nature here :

That money pays for everything from radio telescopes to Antarctic research stations. In particular, the cuts will hit the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds particle physics and astronomy. The council, which has struggled financially for years, has been told to prepare for its capital funding to fall by a third, according to documents seen by Nature. That could jeopardize Britain’s participation in organizations such as the European Southern Observatory.


23 Responses to Three scary stories

  1. Dave Carter says:

    One thing which worries me a bit is whether we have an assurance that the increased fees, should students should be prepared to pay them, will flow through to universities when they are incurred rather than when they are repaid. At the moment the SLC pays the universities when students register, and then recoups the money over time. In the short term, this money has to come from somewhere, with fees doubling can the SLC still do this?

  2. […] this is only part of the story. The other part, as the e-astronomer has already pointed out, is rather scary. As well as “near-cash” funding, the Research Councils also receive […]

  3. An endowment of 100 million would perpetually fund quite a large scientific institute. There are several individuals with that kind of money to spare. This might sound unrealistic as a hope for science funding, but then again who had ever heard of that Kavli chap before? Richard Branson is at the cutting edge of manned space flight. (I still like the “Virgin goes public” headline when he started selling stock.) There are rich folks who actually know something about astronomy (Dr Brian May comes to mind). How long will it be before such funding becomes a large part of science funding, and would it be a good thing? (Personally, I think blue-skies research should be state funded, but if you don’t have the appropriate majority in parliament, another source is probably better than wasted idealism. Kavli and co are certainly a better alternative than, say, enormous student fees or questionable industry sponsoring (such as tobacco money at Duke).)

  4. jz says:

    Phillip – I like your thinking. Philanthropy is much more common in the US (e.g. Sloan) and I think we need to borrow that just as universities have borrowed alumni funding.

    Who would organize a whip-round? Probably the RAS, or groups individually? I used to wonder about privatising a group. Cambridge is thinking of privatising anyway.

    You could add Gates and many others.

  5. kw says:

    I think the tax system has a lot to do with this – in the US it is much more advantageous to donate money to universities/research institutes than it is here. So until this situation changes dramatically, i don’t think private donations wil ever play a major role in science finance here in the uk. But perhaps I’m too pessimistic.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      I don’t think this is true, kw: the “gift aid” system in the UK is extremely simple for basic rate tax payers, with the Government paying the charity the deducted tax back directly. It’s only a little more complex for higher-rate payers and those funding donations from capital gains, who can claim the difference in marginal rate back themselves. All of this essentially means that donations covered by gift aid are out of gross income, and universities are eligible for this scheme.

      The issue is, I think, a much more complicated one related to culture, as there is a much greater tradition of philanthropy in the US, where in the UK there is an expectation of social provision, whether it be for health, public television, the arts, or education.

  6. andyxl says:

    People do give money in the UK, but there is no tradition in astronomy. I used to wonder whether we should shorten JCMT to the “Maxwell Telescope” and then convince the folk at Maxwell House that we named it for them.

  7. […] of the other scary bits of news to emerge last week concerns proposed changes to the arrangements for tuition fees in English […]

  8. Mark McCaughrean says:

    For what it’s worth, that Nature article on JWST is chock full of mistakes and exaggerations.

    The whole business about “capability creep” driven by greedy astronomers “piling on complexity” is simply nonsense. The only new astronomical capability added to JWST since 2000 has been possibility of tracking and observing moving (i.e. solar system) targets.

    This was formally added in 2007, but had been in the original formulation documents back in 2000, before being dropped during the days of the Interim SWG, a short-lived body that was convened some months after the Ad Hoc SWG had been disbanded and before the formally AO-selected SWG came in.

    The main job of the ISWG was to accept (with reluctance) the decision made unilaterally by NASA (while there was no kind of SWG at at all) to cut the primary from 8m to 6.5m.

    The science community had always wanted moving target capability and it was designed in from the start; we just had to fight to get it formally back in the programme. And besides, it’s almost exclusively a software thing: very few, if any, changes were required in the hardware.

    Indeed, if anything, the SWG has been pushed into accepting science descopes in the years since 2002 (performance below 2 microns in particular), so this idea that it has been the scientists who have been responsible for the very substantial cost growth in JWST is just plain wrong.

    I think an important, if equally scary, question is what would become of US (and inter alia European, since we’re a major partner on the mission) astrophysics if JWST were to be cancelled. Anyone who thinks that the notional savings would somehow stay in astrophysics and enable wonderful new things needs their head examined.

    And as for “the exciting WFIRST”, well, that’s for a whole separate post 🙂

  9. andyxl says:

    Mark. Coo. Many thanks. Are you volunteering to write a guest post on WFIRST ?

    • Mark McCaughrean says:

      Hmmm, and commit professional suicide in public, Andy? 🙂

      Well, perhaps it wouldn’t be quite that bad, but there is an extremely febrile atmosphere in the US at the moment surrounding WFIRST and its relationship (or not) to Euclid, something that I probably shouldn’t be seen to be stoking.

      At ESA, the position is that if Euclid is finally selected for M1/M2, it would be very good to have NASA on-board as partners at the previously suggested ~20% level, providing the IR focal plane assembly. NASA has stated that it does intend to do this and has recently issued an AO soliciting applications for US members of a future Euclid science team.

      However, if NASA were to pull out of Euclid, we’re confident we can do it in Europe alone and several years before a WFIRST would fly, since the latter can’t start until JWST is launched. How that later WFIRST would fit in after Euclid DE-wise, as well as with respect to microlensing for exoplanets and a broader GO programme, is for NASA and its community to consider, not for ESA.

      Sorry if that sounds a little too “corporate”, but those Dark Energy chaps can move through walls without being seen, although I don’t know if they can carry horses’ heads at the same time 🙂

      • MikeW says:


        Interesting stuff. For the whole NASA program the key issue is whether JWST is likely to be delayed by up to 2 years (at a rumoured cost of $0.5B per annum). Do you have any insight into this?

      • Mark McCaughrean says:


        Indeed; I’m a member of the JWST SWG, so know a bit about this 🙂

        There have been two key activities running over the summer and autumn in the US, looking in to the status of JWST in order to inform the best way forward. The top line that everyone is agreed on, however, is the lowest cost JWST is the one that launches earliest, while taking appropriate account of the remaining risks involved.

        The first was the Test Advisory Task (TAT) set up by NASA HQ, chaired by John Casani from JPL and including external astronomers, engineers, and so on, to look at the integration and test planning at integrated science instrument module and observatory level. Obviously, cryogenic testing of JWST is a major challenge and everyone is trying to avoid huge gaffes like spherical aberration on HST, but the TAT was asked to look at whether the testing plan is too conservative, and thus if time and money can be saved by trimming the plan without increasing risk substantially.

        The TAT reported a few weeks ago and while they did find some areas where savings could be made, they were not huge. In a sense, it was relief to see that the plans as identified were pretty much spot on already, although I don’t imagine for a moment that anyone is feeling complacent about it.

        The second external review is the Independent Comprehensive Review Panel (ICRP), requested of the NASA Administrator by Barbara Mikulski, senator for Maryland, a senior member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, and chair of the sub-committee on Commerce, Justice, and Science which decides on NASA’s budget, among other things (NSF, NOAA, FBI, FTC). That is, she’s important. Very important.

        The ICRP, also chaired by John Casani, was tasked with looking at the technical, management, and budgetary root causes of the cost growth and schedule delay for JWST, to look at the current plans to getting the project launched, changes that could reduce cost and schedule without unduly increasing risk and without compromising performance, and to establish the minimum cost to launch JWST, along with the launch date and budget profile, including adequate reserves.

        The ICRP report has been or is on the verge of being delivered to the Senator and to NASA HQ, although as of yesterday, the Program Scientist for JWST at NASA HQ, Eric Smith, had not seen it. The report and its recommendations will inform a near-future NASA Agency Program Management Council, which would then decide on the best way to proceed.

        A very long-winded way of saying “we should know soon, but don’t know yet”. However, independent of that, it’s no mystery that there are a variety of scenarios one could come up with under which JWST could get funded from the NASA Astrophysics budget. You could put in more money now in order to get it launched a.s.a.p. (noting that this does not necessarily mean spending all that money, as part of what JWST needs is adequate reserves), or lower the year-on-year budget profile and thus delay the launch, but obviously then increasing the overall cost.

        Yes, JWST is running at roughly $450M per year, so each year of delay comes at roughly that price. Nevertheless, let me say two things here: first, a substantial fraction of the JWST flight hardware already exists (we have two finally coated, in spec primary segments already, with all 18 due to be done by next year, flight backplane made, instruments almost done, etc.), so we are already a long way to the goal. Second, at $450M/yr, JWST is “only” consuming about 40% of the annual NASA Astrophysics budget, which actually compares pretty favourably to the historical fraction of the budget spent on the Great Observatories (HST, Chandra, Spitzer, CGRO) during development: JWST is not out of the box in that sense. For reference, the total amount of money spent on HST to date, in current year dollars and including the servicing missions, has been $18 billion.

        Finally, a personal note: some people think that cancelling JWST would be the answer to all budgetary problems and to all their dreams of their own mission. I think that’s crazy: JWST is a highly ambitious and scientifically capable observatory that will yield fabulous science across a wide range of important topics; it was that _scientific rationale_ that made it top of the previous Decadal’s wish-list. It’s also the reason that the current Decadal report constantly re-affirms the need for JWST as a vital part of their strategy for the next decade.

        We need to get JWST finished and up there doing science, and we in Europe (who’re providing the great majority of two of the four science instruments as well as the launcher), should be fully behind NASA in doing so.

  10. andyxl says:

    Mark – don’t worry, I won’t trap you into a suicidal move.

    For other readers, I recommend this article at Space News, which seems to suggest that (a) WFIRST couldn’t be done until at least 2022, (b) 20% NASA buy-in to Euclid still seems on the cards, and (c) NASA might like for a corresponding ESA buy-in to a later WFIRST.

    • Mark McCaughrean says:

      While your summary remains pretty much correct, Andy, keep in mind that that linked Space News article was written 6 weeks ago, an absolute age in this particular arena.

      In addition, yes, NASA have indeed mooted a possible quid pro quo European buy in to WFIRST, but any such collaboration would have to come via the community in the form of a proposal to a future Cosmic Vision call. ESA simply can’t decide on its own to participate at such a substantial level in this kind of a mission: it would have to be competitively selected.

  11. Phil Uttley says:

    Hmmm, from the discussion above, if anything is ‘eating astronomy’ it sounds like it is dark energy! EUCLID *and* WFIRST?!?

    • Mark McCaughrean says:


      You have exposed the raw nerve which has caused much of the current kerfuffle, namely that some on the western side of the Atlantic believe that if Euclid were to fly, there’d be little point (or perhaps financial sense) in flying WFIRST thereafter.

      The thinking is that the additional capability of WFIRST DE-wise w.r.t. Euclid is relatively limited (if nothing else, think 1.5m diameter primary vs 1.2m), and certainly not in the ISO->Spitzer (better detectors), Spitzer->Herschel (bigger primary), WMAP->Planck (cryogenic) etc. “later but better” league. As a consequence, some are now touting the exoplanet microlensing and general observer science as the true raisons d’etre of WFIRST, which borders on the disingenuous, in my personal opinion. That said, it’s hard to know yet, since WFIRST is just a concept from the Decadal, with proper engineering studies yet to be done.

      But again, this is really US business and for NASA to sort out with its community. At the same time, we’re actively working with NASA to try and secure the ~20% collaboration on Euclid that’d make best sense for European scientists (and, we believe, US ones too, who’d have access to space DE data 3-5 years earlier than with WFIRST).

      However, the ultimate decisions with regards ESA’s programme lie with our advisory structure and Science Programme Committee, and in that regard, keep in mind that Euclid has not yet been selected for implementation. As of today (and until next summer), it remains in competition with Solar Orbiter and PLATO for two M-class mission slots.

      Interesting times.

  12. Martin E. says:

    A worry is that NASA will take WFIRST as #1 priority and do it come what may, ie even if costs grow till it takes over the rest of the ‘balanced program’ proposed by the Decadal. There are clear reasons not to do so, based on the Decadal report: 1. No mission should go over $2N cost to NASA, 2. WFIRST *must* do all 3 DE tests, or it’s not worth doing. [One can speculate on why this long, and very adamant, section was included, for example to avoid a marriage with EUCLID, but it is surely there. It seems quite likely that these 2 statements will come into conflict, at which point the Decadal seems to ask that NASA consult the community again. What will actually happen, who can say?

  13. Mrs Trellis says:

    Dear Professor Lorentz,

    If they make JWST go faster then it would have a smaller mirror and therefore be cheaper to build.

    Just a thought.

    Yours sincerely,

    Mrs Trellis

  14. Mr Physicist says:

    These three stories are so scary they have frightened this blog into silence. Even Mrs Trellis is worried.

  15. andyxl says:

    Busy writing two lecture courses and an EU proposal simultaneously. Normal service resumed shortly…

  16. […] Times. JWST is one third over budget and at least a year behind schedule. In my previous “scary stories“post, our ESA correspondent Mark MacGuttural-noise stressed that this was not requirements […]

  17. a says:


    […]Three scary stories « The e-Astronomer[…]…

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