Guest post : Over for Clover

April 1, 2009

You may have heard rumours that the Clover experiment has been cancelled, and indeed Peter C has just written about it. My colleague Alan Heavens had some observations on this turn of events, so I invited him to write about it. Here is his piece :

A few days ago STFC cancelled the Clover project – a casualty of the financial crisis in the council, and perhaps not the last.  What should we make of this?

First, some background. Clover was a project to detect B-mode polarisation in the Cosmic Microwave Background, would have detected the gravitational lensing effect of intervening structure on the CMB E-mode polarisation, but much more excitingly it was designed to seek evidence for inflation, which in the standard cosmological model is assumed to have driven the expansion soon after the Big Bang.  This is noble and potentially Nobel science.

Clover’s cancellation raises questions about which projects the UK should be funding, especially in lean times.  STFC’s stance on this at the beginning of the crisis was set out very persuasively by John Womersley in a talk in Edinburgh and elsewhere – the UK should be pursuing projects of high scientific importance, with big international impact, and with UK leadership.   The message was clear – we should do fewer, more important things, and lead them.  Absolutely right, I thought – this is what our research councils should be saying.

Clover ticks all these boxes – it was purely a UK project; a positive finding would have been of colossal scientific importance, and the impact would have been enormous.   So what went wrong?  The bare answer is that the costs went up, and STFC Council reconsidered it, and cut it.  The project certainly faced challenges, in detector technology, and in the team moving from two institutes to four, but the project was well advanced.  Unlike the VSA, where an opportunity to fund a seminal experiment well in advance of competition was missed, Clover had been funded early and boldly.  The delays meant that it might not have been the first to an accurate detection, as other experiments were catching up, but it still might have won the race. The fear of competition can be damaging; other projects are not immune to delays and difficulties and one might miss an opportunity.  A salutary lesson comes from 2dF and SDSS: had PPARC taken the same view of 2dF in the face of the published schedule of SDSS, the important scientific results made by 2dF in large-scale structure would have been lost to the USA.

As always the case when finance is the issue, the decision is a matter of scientific judgement and strategic priority.  On finance, it would be interesting to know if a minority partner was sought.   On scientific priority, then the advisory panels must be allowed to advise and the Science Council allowed to decide, but it would be interesting to know what advice informed the decision.

The Clover shortfall is, incidentally, the same figure as is rumoured on this blog to have been allocated to MoonLITE.

Alan Heavens