Keith 1 Profs 1

Just read a tweet from Rob Ivison :

some people won’t like it, certainly won’t acknowledge it, but it was a very good performance from Keith Mason in select committee hearing

Watch the show for yourself, but I find myself in agreement. More or less. The Profs were fine too, but Keith put the ball in the net. (Unlike Chelsea. Oh crikey, what am I doing, pretending I know about football ?) I noticed Ian Corbett sitting at the back. He used to be the spider at the centre of the web. I wonder what he was thinking ?

Here are a few bullet points. From the assembled profs :

  • Things are better, but starting from a low base
  • We need a stable environment
  • If any money becomes spare, put it in grants
  • The real problem is we spend only 1.7% of GDP on R&D. What happened to that target of 2.5% ? Oh, yeah, that was the last government
  • This overinvestment thing : yes there was a pulse but that was the joining fee. Nobody said we had to close stuff. And anyway we have closed stuff.
  • Instrumentation re-balance to labs : bad idea… it works now, don’t change it
  • Those Northern Telescopes : fairly cheap, although we reserve the right to disagree with each other’s numbers

Next, edited highlights from His Keefness and The Smith :

  • Should STFC fund all of outreach ? Don’t be silly
  • Northern Telescopes : yes we agree that would be good and can confirm we are trying to do this; but times are tight; lets be realistic
  • Ahem. Permit to read from 2001 Council Minutes. Says to pay for ESO we will need to withdraw from AAT, JCMT, UKIRT, and ING by the end of the decade. Hope thats a bit clearer.
  • Do all the tech work in the labs ? I would definitely disagree with that. Its not what we said. Permit me to read from the Delivery Plan.
  • Astronomy is important to the Nation. Do we have too many astronomers ? Absolutely not. That spending feeds back in to the economy. We are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns.
  • Grants ? Err, mumble, mutter. (Almost let a goal in there.)
  • Scientist balance on Council ? Same as BBSRC actually.
  • Would I do anything different if I started again ? I sleep easy at night, knowing we did the best we possibly could. (Oops. Candide-ian own goal at the very last minute).

So. It was a draw, but Keef scored both goals.

However. This Council minute thing. As it happens, I have a copy of the Council papers from Dec 2001. (I was on Council at the time). I can’t find this statement in the actual minutes, but it is referred to obliquely. However, amongst the papers was a copy of the “Strategic Plan for Astronomy” given to Science Committee on Nov 27/8 2001. It does indeed propose saving £5M/year by withdrawing from those telescopes, on the assumption of a flat budget.  But But But we have pulled out of Gemini, saving more than that… and after 2001, the Labour government increased science spending by a lot. So all that history is pretty irrelevant. Where are we now and what can we afford ?

Whats that spluttering noise ? Peter ?

25 Responses to Keith 1 Profs 1

  1. kav says:

    I think that’s a fair assessment, including Rob’s tweet.

    It was the best performance I have seen from Keith in front of the HoC committee and though one might think that is damning with faint praise, given past displays, I think he came across relatively well (I wonder what ex-committee members thought if it).

    Of course he has had a lot of practice now.

    I think the kicker was that he was actually able to refute a point based on documentation that he had brought with him. I don’t recall him managing to do that before.

    However, I feel it is telling that it was a document from PPARC in 2001, whereas other past issues would have been related to STFC documentation (or PPARC under his tenure) that seemingly didn’t exist (according to FoI requests) or else those that did exist did not back up his argument (e.g. ‘retain a capacity…’).

    It will be interesting to see what the committee makes of said document and whether they have any interest in later documents on the same topic. I honestly don’t know but I have heard murmurings that the passages he read out were superseded in later discussion in which case, that goal may eventually be disallowed.

    I missed his own goal at the end. Probably for the best I might have thrown something at the computer.

  2. telescoper says:

    I’ve just spent most of my lunchtime watching the video. Keith Mason appears to have prepared this time, which probably accounts for the improvement in his performance. I’m not sure what the minutes of PPARC’s Science Committee have to do with anything, however, even if the alleged comment is there.

    On the other hand, the feeling I always had was that withdrawal from AAT, JCMT, UKIRT, and ING (and Gemini South) was inevitable sooner or later after we joined ESO. If anything I’m surprised it didn’t happen sooner. So even if the documentary evidence turns out to be a bit flaky, I think Keith Mason held a reasonable line on that point.

    I still feel that the key issue is grants and Keith Mason’s responses on this point were very weak. His attempt to say nice things about the value of UK astronomers came across (to me) as palpably insincere, given what he has said in the past and the way PDRA numbers have been slashed.

    And for his closing remarks I would have shown him a red card, even if the final whistle is about to blow on his tenure anyway.

    Overall, I’d agree it was probably a draw. But the game was there to be won, so it’s a missed opportunity by “the profs”. Perhaps they selected the wrong team?

  3. Sarah says:

    Andy – what is the “instrumentation re-balance to labs” thing all about?

  4. andyxl says:

    Sarah – a few lines in the delivery plan, and statements in various committees, suggested that STFC wanted to concentrate development of instrumentation in its own labs (i.e. RAL, Daresbury, ATC) rather than at Universities. You can imagine this frightened some groups. But it looks a bit different on space and ground sides. On the space side, places like Leicester, MSSL and Imperial try to keep a complete infrastructure afloat – i.e. not just scientists and RAs designing things and doing lab R&D, but engineers, electronics people, clean rooms, milling machines, metrology kit, etc. There just aint enough money to keep several such groups going. On the ground side, there is more of a tradition of doing things in collaboration with the ATC, which in principle is a more sustainable system. However, its always tempting for groups like Durham, Oxford, and Cardiff to grow their infrastructure to compete with the ATC, so the same problem might arise.

    In support of condensed matter, chemistry and biology via light sources and neutron sources, RAL does have a tradition of delivering kit in house, with university scientists just involved as members of user panels etc. If things went that way in astronomy it would be terrible – this is what Roger Davies and others are frightened of. On the other hand, “every University can have its own ATC” is clearly daft. If however we end up with a collaborative model, that seems workable.

    All in the details, as ever.

    • Sarah says:

      Thanks – that makes sense. It’s the identity crisis of the instrumentation community (also seen in the Ntherlands btw): are we academic or industrial? The business model for being “somewhere in between” seems to leave everyone unhappy, but it’s hard to find the right balance.

  5. George Fraser says:

    Dear Andy
    The STFC delivery plan (from memory, Section 4.3.1) did cause alarm because of its apparent policy of concentrating instrumentation in the national centres. Reassurances were given that this was not the intention for space instrumentation, but it remains unclear (at least to me) what this element of the STFC delivery plan did mean.
    The picture you go on to paint of Leicester and MSSL and the rest of the University space groups attempting to duplicate facilities at RAL in a way that the UK cannot afford is simply not true. We at Leicester are regular users of the thermal and vibration facilities at Harwell. We collaborate with our RAL colleagues directly on JWST-MIRI and, in the NERC domain, in the Centre for Earth Observation. Instrumentation. We have x-ray optics test facilities which have no counterpart elsewhere in the UK.

    Now that you’ve been to the OU, it might be time to visit the Space Research Centre at your alma mater

  6. andyxl says:

    George – I would of course love to visit the SRC to see how its doing.

    I didn’t say the space groups are attempting to duplicate facilities at RAL. I am well aware the space groups work well with RAL (and ATC of course) but they have always tried to keep a viable technical infrastructure afloat. For them, the worries are about being able to keep what they have always had in difficult times. I was really talking about the primarily ground-based groups, who have been trying to grow over the last decade.

    I think we are heading into violent agreement land as it were. Telling technical groups to sit back while RAL or ATC do it for you would be a very bad idea for all sorts of reasons. On the other hand, university groups trying to do it alone is probably daft. So obviously there has a sensible collaboration approach. I think perhaps you are saying “but thats what we do !” and I agree; basically we have to damp down this debate and not let the current system be destroyed.

    Here is a little more insight. I suspect the words in the DP were a signal upward to RCUK, because there is a pressure to show savings by sharing. In biology and medicine this is absolutely terrible. Every decent lab (one prof, two lecturers, four RAs, six students) has its own set of toys, and according to my contacts, most of them get used twice a year. As is often the case, we actually have a good story to tell if we do it right

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Look at it from STFC’s perspective: even given their relatively generous budget settlement, they are still facing significant cuts and have to find places to save money. They have a large number of staff on their books who work at the various labs like RAL and UKATC. Making such staff redundant is expensive, and they do not have extra funding to cover such costs.

    So if they are going to issue a contract to build a piece of equipment, do they place it with the staff on their own books to keep them gainfully employed, or do they place it with an external organization like a university, thereby potentially saddling themselves with large unfunded redundancy costs?

    In some cases there is a clear complementarity between what the universities offer and what the labs can provide, but where they go head to head surely the result is likely to be dictated by the unavoidable financial considerations.

  8. andyxl says:

    Mike – there is something to what you say, although, as I know from previous experience, when times are tight, a Department can get capital for redundancy even when though there is no money for recurrent resource … the Government ain’t stupid. So it is often not driven by money, but by power and turf wars. So actually its an excellent example of the structural conflict for STFC.

    Back in 2007 when you were Cassandra, my input to the “shall we create STFC ?” consultation was to propose that it should be a funding and policy agency at arms length from the labs – in other words like NSF rather than like DOE. That may be a tad too idealistic however.

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    I believe that the CSR settlement did not include any additional restructuring money, so any redundancy costs would have to be met within the organization’s allocated budget envelope, but I would be interested to hear a more authoritative answer from STFC.

    I agree, though, that it is more complicated than simply the money, in that no-one in the management of any organization would want to be responsible for it contracting under their watch, so there will always be a significant pressure to “look after your own.”

    Some kind of Chinese wall between the labs and the funding body would certainly help. Perhaps we could propose setting up two organizations, one called CCLRC and the other called PPARC…

    • ian smail says:

      i thought the restructuring costs were in the budget from BIS… i’m sure John W. mentioned this in one of his presentations. so i agree with AXL that it shouldn’t be a driver in making these decisions.

    • Mike

      The STFC settlement declines over SR10 in real terms, so the protection to grants and major subscriptions means that savings have to be found elsewhere (presumably in Swindon and national labs). There was a specific “restructuring” line in its allocation, of relevance to redundancy costs.

  10. richard wade says:

    When you say “In some cases there is a clear complementarity between what the universities offer and what the labs can provide, but where they go head to head surely the result is likely to be dictated by the unavoidable financial considerations.” you hit the nail on the head.
    We want the efforts in the National Labs and the Universities to be complimentary and not competitive. This does not mean that they should perform exclusive roles with all one kind of activity in one and a different activity in the other, but that the emphasis should be different. That was the intention of the statement in the Delivery Plan. In-house research activity is vital for the Labs to perform their role and instrumentation is a key (and in some cases a major) part of the University role. It’s a matter of balance.
    Clarifying the respective roles of the National Labs and the Universities is a step towards ensuring that we avoid the head to head competition you refer to and ensuring that the balance is correct.
    Paul (as always) is correct about the provision in the STFC Settlement.

    • andyxl says:

      Richard – I hope the University and Labs efforts are both complementary and complimentary. If you do something the other guys don’t do, you might as well still be nice about it, I say.

      • richard wade says:

        Indeed. I can see that there is a role for you in proof reading future Delivery Plans.

  11. Michael Merrifield says:

    I should emphasize that there was no implicit criticism of STFC in the point I made: if one of our university departments found itself in the happy position of having funding to carry out a project, and had the choice between performing the work in its own workshops and helping to make ends meet in paying its own staff, or placing the work with an equally competent external agency, I am pretty sure I know what we would all opt to do.

    The trouble is that even if we can define clear roles for national labs and university groups, there will always be those grey areas in between of new challenges that either could rise to equally well, and the reasonable expectation is that universities are likely to lose out in those cases unless very great care is taken.

  12. richard wade says:

    In fact it seldom if ever happens that way. Clearly STFC has a responsibility to its own staff but it also has a responsibility to maintain the health of the University research community. Although the playing field is sometimes tilted one way or the other I cannot remember an occasion in my time at PPARC or STFC when a funding decision was taken on the basis of wanting to favour the in-house effort.
    STFC Departments are required to put together business plans and the have to work to ensure that their income is sufficient to support the staff on their books. Internal funding , which generally comes from the Science Programme Office is just one ( though in some cases the major) source of income and Departments have to supplement their income from other sources (ESA, NASA, other Research Councils, the EU etc). If they fail to attract sufficient funding they do not receive special favours from SPO.
    Of course what does happen (and this is the real issue) is that if Departments are left with unfunded staff, those staff still need to be paid. Departments who find themselves in this position have to either make savings (travel, consumables, maintenance etc) or reduce staff numbers. Over the past four years we have done this by strict control over recruitment with only a fraction of leavers being replaced.This has worked well in terms of controlling overall numbers but you would be right to point out that in the end any unfunded staff that can’t be covered by Department represent a charge on the overall STFC budget.
    The clear partitioning of our budget in CSR10, which we argued for, and the commitment to further clarify our role as commissioner of research (through the SPO) and deliverer (via the National Labs) are intended to ensure that we deal with this issue in an open and transparent way.

  13. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Richard —

    I am sure that what you say at an operational level is true: since I have heard equally outraged complaints from both university and lab staff on the inequality of their lot, the balance is probably about right!

    What is harder to address, though, is the decision-making process at the top strategic level. As I said before, quite rightly at that level STFC management has an obligation to its staff, a financial motivation for keeping them gainfully employed, and a strong professional imperative not to be seen to be failing in its role of maintaining the vitality of its own organization. From an organizational perspective, it is therefore entirely correct that STFC should take the continued strength of its own research facilities into consideration when setting priorities. Although there will be many cases where there is a clear complementarity so both labs and universities gain from such strategic decisions, there will also surely always be cases where their interests are at odds, and there these organizational considerations must (quite properly) factor in, potentially to the detriment of those outside STFC.

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      Mike, this becomes a problem when the need to keep existing facilities and people in place begins to drive strategy. For instance, were we to sign up to the ELT in order to prevent irreversible loss of capability at the ATC, would that be a good decision? When funding diminishes, can a facility council afford to be science-driven? Or a university lab? Who wants to be the winner in the battle between science and infrastructure?

      • richard wade says:

        We would no more sign up to ELT to keep the ATC busy than we would sign up to SKA to keep Manchester busy. Neither of these project needs that kind of argument. If they did we wouldn’t be doing them.

  14. Michael Merrifield says:

    Have to agree with Richard on that (did I really just say that?). It perhaps underlines the point that the UK-led programme for one of the two first-light instrument on E-ELT is led from a university, not a UK lab.

  15. ian smail says:

    …now the ESO deadline has passed:

    it should also be noted that ATC is a partner in this first-light instrument and it could be argued that their expertise gave the bid considerable credibility.

    • Michael Merrifield says:

      Absolutely — a fine example of a case where there is a very positive synergy between universities and labs.

  16. For completeness, I’ve just come across the 22 Mar 2011 STFC Council minutes that I thought I should share. The current BIS civil servant to attend Council meetings gave his perspective on the evidence session in Section 4.2 of the minutes:

    “John Neilson commented that his perception of the hearing was that it was non-confrontational and that the six professors that provided evidence were broadly supportive of STFC.”

  17. Inspector Knacker says:

    Dear Mr Lawrence

    In the course of our inquiries into the actions of certain employees of News International plc we have received information that an individual by the name of “R. Wade” may have attempted to contact you via the medium of this website.

    Under no circumstances should you divulge personal information to this person. That’s our job. And we haven’t been paid yet.


    Detective Chief Inspector Knacker
    Scotland Yard

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