Bring on the cute kids

March 8, 2011

Enough of this astronomical puzzle fest. Its time to get back to a spot of astro-political fretting. Tomorrow (today by the time most of you read this) is the first sitting of the latest STFC show trial, aka the enquiry into astronomy and particle physics by the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Some of you may have perused the transcript of the Jan 19th session, when the committee grilled various Research Council CEOs. I am sure you loved the bit where Keef says that there was an agreement that astro funding was temporarily artificially high after joining ESO, and was planned to come down again. Also the bit where  Keith says that STFC facilities like Diamond and ISIS would be running at full capacity. Maybe you liked even more Keef’s follow-on letter explaining that by full capacity, he meant absolutely fully the level of reduced capacity that Council had agreed. For all you Fawlty Towers fans, I thought this was the “oh, Harold Ro-BINS” moment of the show. I should just add that I am v.glad I am not doing that job.

Tomorrow is not yet the whingeing profs day. Its the how-do-we-inspire-the-kids day, with a succession of actual young persons having their say. There are a couple of Profs lined up (Roger Davies and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell) but I am sure they won’t be whingeing.

If you want to get in practice for a bit more heavyweight fretting, try reading the written submissions by all sorts of good folk. For the impatient, here is a quick summary :

Various nuclear physicists : Ahem. We notice you didn’t ask about nuclear physics. But we are going to tell you anyway.

George E : Keith-must-go ! And more scientists on Council !! (George has an amazing personal quote from Michael Sterling : senior academics in receipt of STFC grants have a conflict of interest and should not sit on Council…)

Various astronomers : We still need the North !

A few particle physicists : Hello ? Anybody there ? Is this thing on ?

Roger The Prezz : So. This planned overfunding thing. Not what we recall, I’m afraid. Got any evidence ?

Mike B : Too many astronomers ? Err, nope. Number per GDP unit pretty average for Europe ole bean.

Em R-squared : Well ok, you’ve followed some of my recommendations, but I was pretty clear about this Northern Hemisphere thing..

John P : do the sums right and you will see we have been cut in half. Some of it has gone to ESA, and some of it has been swallowed by RAL. Diamond and ISIS have suffered too, but they would have suffered even more without the merger.

Actually, if you want to read just one letter, read John’s. Here is my favourite quote :

In complaining about loss of funding, scientists risk radiating a sense of entitlement to public money, and this is an impression we must avoid. But what we can legitimately demand is stability: society needs to decide what it wishes to spend on relatively abstract activities like astronomy and particle physics, and then stick to its bargain. Young scientists of great talent will plan accordingly, and some will choose to dedicate their lives and careers to a given subject, and to pursuing it in the UK. But no-one can plan sensibly in the fact of a 50% cut; unless we start to reverse it, the damage will be felt for decades.