Medium Sized is Beautiful but Too Expensive

April 6, 2010

The election starting gun has been fired, and of course the most important issue is who will be least Nasty to Science, as Adam Rutherford explains in the Grauniad. I will listen carefully because Adam is nearly as good looking  as Brian Cox, and The Cell was possibly even better than the Wonders of the etc etc. Anyhoo. Perhaps more later.

The real news of the day of course was that Astronet has released its review of what Europe should do with its 2-4m telescopes in the 8m age. I have only skimmed this long report so far, but it seems well thought out and realistic.  Scientifically it goes for wide field spectroscopy, echelle spectroscopy, NIR imaging, and the time domain, but also emphasises the need for keeping flexible general purpose facilities – for innovation, for high risk proposals, and for training.

UK readers will nod despairingly, because we are in the process of trying to shut everything down except ESO and a dim vision of ELT and SKA. This feels inevitable  but somehow not quite right – many of the most impressive results of recent years have been made by small telescopes and MIDEX missions. But of course we can’t just stubbornly refuse to shut old things down. The Astronet panel realise this, and know well that countries across Europe are looking to reduce the money spent on smaller facilities, not re-invest in them.

So they do a careful cross match of current capabilities with their scientific goals, and the conclusion is pretty obvious. We need several facilities, but not all of them. Its crying out for a Europe-wide rationalisation. They also do a pretty hard nosed analysis of what saves money and what doesn’t. They conclude that you only save money if (a) you reduce the quality of service, and (b) put things under a single management. Other things – conversion to survey mode, time swapping – don’t save money. Some things – sharing base facilities, sharing support staff – can save money in principle, but if only if you establish a single management and get ruthless. Meanwhile they also recommend a single European Time Allocation Committee.

Sounds great but politically difficult. They do not suggest that ESO should just take it all over. They don’t have a political solution except to recommend that a small technical team is appointed to start an implementation study. I wonder what STFC will make of this.

Where there’s a will there’s a way. Is there a will ?

Euroscope vote : last chance

August 27, 2009

Finished that input to the Large Facilities Review ? OK. Next. Insert your penny’s worth into the European Telescope Strategy Review. This is part of the whole Astronet Roadmap for European Astronomy thing. This particular exercise is about the future of our 2-4m class telescopes.  In the era of 8m telescopes, with ELT on the horizon, and money getting tighter, what should we do with these older telescopes ? Keep ’em going ? Bin them ? Re-purpose them ? Or a bit of all three ? (As PI of UKIDSS, you can probably guess my answer… keep UKIRT going !!)

This is one that every academic and postdoc can make a difference to I think. The panel really want to know what the community thinks, and the input requested is free-form comment rather than another one of those “do you think a, b, or c ?” type questionnaires.

But time is nearly up ! Deadline 31st August. Thats Monday ….

ps UKIDSS just passed the 100 papers mark…

Shank’s Pony versus Decadal Supertanker

March 30, 2009

It looks like Tom Shanks is gearing up for the rumoured review of UK ground-based facilities. This is is what some of his cryptic allegories refer to. Meanwhile the US Decadal Survey of Astronomy and Astrophysics in full swing. The community involvement is intense. Considerable numbers of people are involved in the various panels and sub-panels of course, but there are also multiple open submission requests – for white papers on science, on the state of the profession, on theory and computation, and for information on “activities” i.e. telescopes, missions, laboratories etc. As with the European Astronet Roadmap process, the idea was to debate the science first, and concrete facilities later.  The science white paper deadline already passed, and resulted in 334 submissions. These make fascinating reading, or at least the tiny fraction I have dipped into do so. The “State of the Profession” call was also intriguing, producing 69 submissions. Some of these are pleading for special areas of expenditure, like the ballooning program, or “Strategic Theory” but others cover a strange variety of topics, including the loss of physical contact with telescopes, open source software in astronomy (see Sarah’s post), and the energy consumption of astronomers. This last one, led by Brit ex-pat Phil Marshall, also has an associated wiki site, where you can sign up to be a supporter. The general conclusion is that we travel too much so we should have more virtual meetings. I am thinking of re-creating Aspen in Second Life and charging you all for coming to my Institute. What d’you think ? Bicycles free of course.

There are two calls open now – one for white papers on Technology Development, Computation, Theory, and Laboratory Astrophysics, and another for information on “activities”. The latter is a two stage process. At first anybody can submit anything; but then the panel will request more detail on some activities… This is where the blood will start to flow, as the tension rises on the big ticket items – TMT, SKA, LSST etc. So at the end of the day the process will be intensely political, but people have really tried to focus on the science questions first; and absolutely nobody has an excuse to say they weren’t asked, or its all a stitch up etc.

Its a very expensive process; directly in terms of panel members time and associated administration, and even more in terms of how many community brain-hours are used up, that could have been spent writing papers for the Astrophysical Journal.  Could the right answers be concluded much more efficiently with a few wise heads in a room ? This is the problem that STFC will face again….

How to do a programmatic review

November 21, 2008

Today I had a query from a journalist asking what I thought of Astronet, the grand roadmap review for European astronomy. (Not to be confused with the real Astronet of course…). Its hard not to make comparisons with the US Decadal Review of Astronomy and Astrophysics, and of course the STFC Programmatic Review. I am not going to dig up and debate the results of these reviews, but comment on the process. (Maybe this will cheer up “blogs forever”).

European astronomers have long been jealous of the US decadal review. It has been very important in setting a genuine strategic and practical vision for US astronomy, and has been hard nosed about setting priorities. However its success has gradually made it a scarier process; behind the scenes it can get pretty tough. Since Roger Blandford agreed to chair the latest review, you can see both the excitement and the terror lurking behind his eyes.

Astronet tried to defuse some of that tension by tackling the problem in two stages – first produce the science roadmap, banning any mention of concrete items; only then follow on to make the shopping list. However this has possibly been a factor in Astronet being a tad gentlemanly. Its hard to divert the inertia of the steamrollers if everybody is being carefully polite. So possibly Astronet has been a little anodyne. However, thats second order; mostly I think Astronet has been a great success – in providing a forum for long range scientific debate, an opportunity for issues to be aired, a place where funding agency officials and scientists mingle freely, and a method for a large number of scientists to keep abreast of whats going on and whether it makes sense. The danger that various national funding agencies and treaty organisations like ESO and ESA could duplicate lots of work or do inconsistent things or waste potential opportunities is always very real. So I think Astronet has been a valuable planning exercise.

STFC attempted something similar with a committee of a handful of people supplied with existing paperwork plus questionnaires from a subset of the items under consideration; before the post-xmas fuss they did not take evidence or opinions from projects under consideration or the community at large, whereas Astronet has involved widespread consultation, many sub panels, public meetings, published reports and so on (before the conclusions.. not after).

The advantage of the “handful of people” method is that it is cheap and rapid, and it is possible to take radical decisions, whereas the “involve everybody” method is slow, expensive, exposes you to lobbying, and tends to inertia. This is exactly why STFC did it the focused way.  But … if you go for the quick-radical method, then (a) you can make serious mistakes, and (b) when the community find out whats going on there is an explosion of discontent. This is exactly what we saw between November and June this year, with STFC in lots of hot water. There were other problems of course, but I think this is fundamentally why there was an explosion. It is likewise not a coincidence I think that things have been a lot calmer since the post-hoc “consultation panels”.

Frustratingly, one of STFC’s two predecessor organisations, PPARC, did undertake a decadal-review like process, around 2000-2001, and it was very successful. It involved setting up a number of advisory sub-panels in various areas, and allowing free form opinion submission, to help inform PPARC’s science committee. STFC disbanded these committees, wanting to simplify the review process. Biiiiiig mistake.

Liverpool Heroes

June 18, 2008

Six Thirty, Albert Dock, Liverpool. Woken up early, staring at the rain. Coldplay on the earphones. Somewhere within a few hundred metres of here there are several hundred more astronomers, scattered through space in other beds. In three hours those bodies will converge on one room. We are assembled together to produce a Roadmap for European Astronomy. It might seem interesting to crossmatch the STFC plan and the Astronet plan, especially because Mike Bode seems to be in charge of both. Hmm. Another time.

I lie still and try to visualise all those other organisms in three dimensional space. We are all clumps in the same matter field; moving knots in a process. Tat Tvam Asi. I am you and you are me and we are all together. They are the eggmen, I am the the walrus.

When I was a lad, you were a John person or a Paul person. Well, Paul may be a national treasure, but hey, you land at the John Lennon airport. Our conference packs have photographs of other Liverpool heroes, the heroes of science – Horrocks, Rotblat, Chadwick, Lassell, Barkla, and Lodge.

I have a link to Barkla. His desk is in my office.

C.G.Barkla's desk, 1917

Early in the twentieth century Barkla was the guy who proved that X-rays are transverse, because you can polarise them; and discovered the K and L series of X-ray lines, the key to the shell structure of the atom. For this he got the Nobel prize in 1917, and with the money he had himself made a rather splendid desk with his name carved on. This is now in the Head of School’s office in Edinburgh. My tea bags are behind a door at the front. I think of this as the C.G.Barkla Memorial Tea Cupboard.

Now … his famous work was done in Cambridge and Liverpool (not sure which bits where). He was then hired in Edinburgh as the Big Star. After this he spent the next twenty five years chasing a will-o-the-wisp. He was convinced there was another series of lines, which he called the J-series. I believe he talked various students intto working on this problem, but it all came to nothing.

There’s a lesson there. Maybe several.