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.

Get your boots on

October 8, 2010

We interrupt Geek Week to wish good luck to those going on the Science is Vital Rally tomorrow. Fraid I have stuff to do, but I will be there in spirit.

That splendid chap Drevan Harris has written an open letter to George Osborne setting out the case. Its very clearly and forcefully written, so if you read nothing else on the subject, read that. The other thing definitely worth a butcher’s is the Scientific Century Report put together by the Royal Society. Chock full of useful facts and figures, and again putting a forceful case, not just for science, but specifically for public spending, especially through the Research Councils.

It contains a figure I copy below, showing public R&D expenditure in real terms from 1970 to 2008. See if you can, without reading the x-axis, locate the period of time occupied by the previous Conservative Government. Not hard.


Public R&D 1970-2008, Royal Society Report, The Scientific Century


Vital Problems

October 4, 2010

In case you hadn’t noticed there is a petition brewing – Science Is Vital. The arguments against cutting the science budget are well made, and there is a rally planned next Saturday. Volume of public protest does matter : sign up.

Amongst other things, the web site  stresses that science is not so much a fixed body of knowledge but an incomplete project. What don’t we know ? As a postgrad I was inspired by Ginzburg’s “Key Problems in Astrophysics”. I can’t promise to be that good, but here is my personal pick of Top Ten Big Problems. Probably on the obvious side. I’d love to hear your vote.

  1. Why is the Universe accelerating ?
  2. What is the dark matter ?
  3. Why did the Universe start in such a low entropy state ?
  4. Why are galaxy formation and quasar formation so closely linked ?
  5. Are Earth-like planets normal or weird ?
  6. Does the Oort cloud really exist  ?
  7. How is the solar corona heated ? (Time this one went…)
  8. Where did Life originate ?
  9. What causes gamma ray bursts ?
  10. How do relativistic jets form (Time this one went..)

Next up, some practical issues related to Astronomy

  1. Can we predict CMEs ?
  2. Can we find all the potentially dangerous NEOs ?

And some niggly worries

  1. Why are quasar metallicities the same at all redshifts ?
  2. Supernova models must surely be right, but don’t work (I hear).
  3. Quasar accretion disc models must surely be  right, but don’t work.
  4. How come the star formation radio-FIR relation is so constant ? Too good to be true.

I note that the niggling worries are closer to home for me. Probably there are lots of others I just don’t know about ….

Put your tin hat on …

September 13, 2010

… its going to get a bit rough. Everybody is getting twitchy as the spending review approaches. The trade unions are polishing their breastplates and preparing the battle plan. Special pleaders are lining up – not just us bossy science types, but for example our Arts colleagues – defend the arts ! On the radio this morning I think I heard the military getting their US chums to say that defence cuts would damage the special relationship. And so on and so forth. Meanwhile the banks claim they are protecting the future by agreeing a “radical” new limit on capital-to-lending despite the fact that most banks are already safely inside that limit, and bonus culture is still rampant.

I can’t be doing with all this worrying about spending cuts. I have eight million students to interview this week. Mind you it is a bit depressing, especially the recent Vince Cable “45% of UK science is rubbish” fiasco. (Follow the links at Peter Coles’ excellent article and comment stream)

If we understand what Cable really meant – take QR away from the weakest departments – its contentious but not staggering. Yes we have the usual “shock horror half results below average” rubbish, but we all knew three years ago that such a QR shift was threatened, and it implies a cut of only a few percent. What really got the science world up in arms however was the fact that he mistakenly referred to “grants”. Research grants demonstrably go ONLY to excellent research.  The impression Cable left was very badly wrong. I can’t believe he doesn’t know this. It may be almost however in the current climate for him to make anything approaching a correction or apology.

Where I part from Peter is over his insistence that government should fund what can’t be funded elsewhere, i.e. only proper science,  not commercially relevant research, leaving that to investors etc.  I get the point of course, but that way we end up in a few years with EPSRC+AHRC having the same budget as AHRC.

Pre-holiday miscellany

July 23, 2010

In a few hours I will be in an internetless Cornish cottage. Assorted thoughts are buzzing about the front of my head that might otherwise have turned into blog posts.

Astro2010: the Hour Approacheth. The US Decadal Survey of Astrophysics has had its final committee meeting (see picture ) and they are beavering away writing the report. I hear the report will emerge during early to mid August. I think somebody even told me the date, but I’ve forgotten. Who wins, LSST or GSMT ? Which version of GSMT gets favoured ? The one ELT can interbreed with or the other one ?

CSR : are we dead or what ? The results of the Comprehensive Spending Review won’t be know for some time, but STFC are gearing up for the bad news, and asking for input to spending review plans. Possibly this news item isn’t blunt enough. So much of STFC’s money is tied up in subscriptions, operating major facilities like Diamond, and committed big projects, that a fairly spread 25% cut is basically impossible. Please choose between astronomy and particle physics.

Women in Science. There ain’t enough women in science, especially in the upper reaches. Its been puzzling many of us for years.This article in the Huffington Post describes some interesting new ideas that smell right. Its not that they ain’t smart enough. Its not that they get squeezed out by sexism. Its that they get put off by science being too ego driven and aggressive. Smells right to me. If we can fix that, the science workplace will be better for all of us.

Buttons. Buttons puzzle me. Not the sort that do coats up. The sort you press to take action. They seem so natural, but there ain’t none in nature. How can we have evolved to instinctively know to press buttons ? We love buttons. Desmond pushes the button every two hours to save the earth . We can’t resist pushing buttons even if we are told not to. People push placebo buttons. I found an interesting discussion at an anarchist philosophy forum which I shall quote from :

If you put a bird in a cage with a button that he has to peck in order to be fed, he’s gonna try pecking it and he’s gonna be fed. Birds don’t stumble on such buttons in nature: this is not hard-coded. But make the correlation more vague and the bird will develop superstitions, just like human beings do. They were not taught to be superstitious. There is no bird parent out there going “well, sometimes when I swirl around to the left five times, food magically appears.

There’s another PhD thesis for somebody. Well anyhoo. Time to do nothing for a week or so.

Making an impact

June 17, 2010

As the nervousness about the cuts-that-are-yet-to-come slowly builds, an interesting debate has been developing during the last week. First there was a Nature News article that argued that scientists should engage more fully with the “impact agenda”, but was sceptical about our ability to accurately or meaningfully quantify our impact. Quantification is an important issue : politicians know we have value for the economy, but how many pound notes do you attach to that value ? Then a big surprise, at least to me : two letters to the Times from a an impressive array of captains of industry, saying “for goodness sake don’t cut science”. Not a bunch of whinging academics note – genuine industrial chieftains. This was followed up by more Times letters the next day, and another well argued piece in the Guardian blog.

Of course, as usual, it is important to stress that just because science and technology gets a thumb up, doesn’t mean the government will pay for astronomy. Our problem is that our economic impact, while large, is mostly indirect  – delivering scientifically literate graduates, attracting kids into science, and inspiring the public. Like the rest of physics we can have a huge impact from producing basic advances in physics, like how nuclear reactions work. Understanding gravity came from worrying about the Moon. But these huge advances are slow to have an effect, and are a benefit to the world, not an advantage to UK PLC. Astronomy can produce technological spin off. Andy Fabian’s recent article for A&G, which you can download from Paul Crowther’s website, has some impressive examples. But its never going to quite be like chemistry or engineering.

Right .. slight digression followed by loop back.

Yesterday we had an excellent talk here from Marek Kukula about how to build a career in public engagement. Marek used to be a quasar researcher, but now he is the Public Astronomer at the Royal Observatory Greenwich . Amongst other things he spoke a little of the history of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. Why should the State create such a thing ? It was because accurate positions of the stars mattered for navigation. We are talking trade, war, and sailors’ lives. Not just handy spin off gadgets. Right in the core of the business of the state. We’ve lost that.

The last time that card was played was 1945. A few months back I was at a meeting at Heidelberg. Not as usual at MPI, but another astronomical institute in the centre of Heidelberg, the Astronomisches Rechen-Institut (ARI). In modern times it has been a centre of astrometry, producing the FK5 catalogue for instance. Historically, it was the equivalent of the RGO, producing star maps for  the state. But it used to be in Berlin. In 1945 as the Russians approached, the Director made an argument to the government that the ARI was of strategic military importance and should not be allowed to fall into Russian hands. So they were moved to Heidelberg. (Markus Demleitner told me this story on the way to dinner one night – I hope I have it roughly right).

I don’t think that gambit will work in Cameron’s world. But is there a replacement ? Killer rocks in space ? Planetary Defense League anyone ?

ps some of those newspaper links are behind a paywall and some aren’t…

pps  as an old fashioned chap, I still think that “impact” is a noun by the way, and not a verb. Still, as our American friends say, there is no noun that cannot be verbed.

The axeman cometh

December 14, 2009

I just a letter from STFC warning that I may or may not have a Dear John letter coming. Council will meet to finalise the current science prioritisation process tomorrow (Tuesday 15th). Between 11am and 2pm on Wednesday I will get a phone call advising me of any implications for my project. (In my case this means Wide Field Astronomy, and our pitch for LSST, for which we made input to the science prioritisation exercise.)

Then at 14:00 pip emma the news goes live on the STFC website.

Gird your loins.

Paul Crowther has already produced an excellent summary of the situation to date : see here, and in particular note the amazing increase in ESA subscription..

John Peacock said I should run a poll on what will get chopped but I am too depressed to bother.