NSF starts slicing

August 17, 2012

Scary times for our US chums. The dreaded NSF Portfolio Review finally did its thing. The news is pretty bad in places, but to be honest I think its less to do with our austere times than it is to do with historic overheating and the “funding wall” problem.

You can find the full report at this web page here . Stein Siggywatsit at Dynamics of Cats has already digested the report and written a nice commentary . Under the harsher but probably realistic “Scenario B”, here are the headlines :

  • ALMA, Gemini, EVLA, Blanco, and grants protected
  • LSST and ATST get a go ahead;
  • GSMT, CCAT will maybe get some peanuts
  • Mayall, KP 21.m, WIYN, GBT, VLBA out

I skimmed the report and found two figures illuminating. The first figure shows the evolution of the NSF Astronomy budget.

Budget scenariosIgnore the impressive temporary spike due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The story is not one of massive decline; the real budget will be pretty much the same as 2001, and about 7% less than most of this decade. The Decadal Survey (NWNH) wish list required a large expansion. Well, it was worth trying. So how can there be a problem ? Well, look at this next figure.

Budget squueze

This shows what it costs to just keep all the current commitments running. The boxes labelled LSST, CCAT, GSMT are the likely operating cost contributions, not the construction costs.

So basically what you see is that the US has done such wonderful things in the past, that if we keep them all going – especially the very newest things like ALMA – that uses up all the money forever. You want LSST, ATST, CCAT ? OK. What are you chopping ? Thats it.

The trouble with Big Science is that it is only ever worth doing things that are much better than before. The squeeze is ineluctable.

Greek Astronomy Trouble

October 17, 2011

Here is another astro-funding crisis… The National Observatory of Athens is apparently threatened with a 30% cut in state funding, and convert it into a private institution. There is a petition you can sign here. (I was alerted to this via a tweet from Astronomy Blogger Stu.) I don’t have any more detail.

NOA is five institutes in one, doing much more than regular astrophysics, including the rather groovy NESTOR underwater neutrino detector.

I suppose given the dire problems Greece is in, this is not an entirely surpising development. But it is very depressing and extremely short sighted. Science and technology is investment for the future, not luxury expenditure.

I signed the petition.

Class War / Entropy

July 22, 2010

My Carbon Manifestation has been a tad occupied of late – work, visitors, domestic stuff – and hence my Silicon Being has been sadly neglected. A shame, because there has been plenty of astro-pol related stuff to blog about – the future of X-ray astronomy, panics about private Universities, speeches by Willetts with tantalising clues about what may happen to  science funding priorities, Martin Rees being attacked in the Guardian. I am even on Strudel’s amusing new Astronomer HR diagram .

That austerity stuff is starting to bite. Here in the Athens of the North, we got a letter from the Principal announcing that this year’s Professorial Pay Review is cancelled. The Universities all got letters from the Government saying “We’d like you to think hard about senior pay. Looks bad to pay top chaps too much when we are asking a lot of The Nation. Purely your choice of course. But we do know where you live.” I had assumed that this “top people pay” thingy was all about Jonathan Ross and his six million, or maybe fat cat Vice Chancellors etc. But no. Seems to mean all profs – anybody earning £53,918 and up, whose salaries are determined year by year based on performance review. But this year it seems we needn’t bother publishing any high impact papers or leading international projects cos it won’t make any difference.

Profs are in an interesting place in the coming class war. We ain’t exactly poor, and we ain’t exactly rich.  Class War did you say ? Well, I feel that Osborne’s cover is being blown by an increasing number of right wing commentators who are turning up on Radio Four etc with comments along the lines of how rolling back the state is overdue, and people are too reliant on handouts, etc. At the same time, Union reps are starting to roll up their sleeves, and left wing commentators are saying err, excuse me, seems we have been screwed by greedy bankers, and now the poor have to pay ?? Found myself thinking of that very rude song. I shan’t remind you of the rude bits, just the chorus that goes “Its the rich what gets the pleasure, its the poor what gets the blame. Its the same the whole world over, ain’t it all a fucking shame”.

This could get nasty. Did they really think 25% cuts to the state would go down quietly ?

Meanwhile Cameron is over in the USA. He is getting beaten up over BP and Megrahi and all that, but austerity-vs-stimulus is left as an “agree to differ” kind of thing. The word “stimulus” doesn’t quite catch the issue I think.  There are really three things the State can do. One is State Activity – the police, the army, the NHS etc. We all know that stuff tends to slowly bloat and become inefficient, so good luck to the Government there. Two is stoking the economic fire – play with interest rates, pump money in to the economy to get things going etc. This is what folks usually mean by stimulus. We build pyramids. We know its pointless really, but it gives people jobs, then they spend their dollars in MacDonalds, etc. Or we cut public spending and taxes so people have more dollars in their wallets. And then spend them in MacDonalds etc.

The third thing is investment in infrastructure.  Sometimes this is what people mean by stimulus but its really very different. When the Government builds roads and railways and information superhighways etc new economic activity becomes possible. The effect of building infrastructure is not a bubble or illusion or about accelerating the circulation of money. There must be something quantifiable here. I think its entropy. What distinguishes a rich society from a poor one ? Partly its energy. The more oil or coal etc you burn, the more real wealth you have. But there is more than this. Society is an intricate machine – gas pipes, power generation, railway connections, delivery of food to the shops. The other day I needed insurance. A few web clicks and I was done. Then I needed a sink plunger. A walk down the road and there was one waiting for me in a hardware store. Somebody had already made one because they knew I’d want it. We live in a very high information content, low entropy world, and are steadily moving further in this direction. Some of this happens naturally, because humans are entropy changing machines. But we are still fighting the laws of thermodynamics, so the market doesn’t always work. Conscious restructuring effort by the state can have a huge effect.

Anyway. Some reader can I am sure tell me whether this entropy stuff is all standard economic theory, but it may be crucial to the argument for funding science and technology by the state. The only snag is the transparency of science. When you build a road, it decreases entropy right here in the Yookay. When you build knowledge, you’ve done it for the world…