Place your bets

October 18, 2010

Hundreds of people just read my post on plotter script packages, but there has only been one comment. I conclude that even software fans are too busy fretting over the coming cuts. The newspapers, Twitter, and departmental coffee rooms are are swimming in gossip, angst, and bitterness. Peter Coles has captured the mood in his latest post, including a long embedded analysis from the ever reliable Paul Crowther.

To be honest, the guts of what Peter and Paul (where’s Mary ?) have said in that post is what we have known for some time. Because STFC has 80% fixed costs, and even more hard-to-back-off projects, a cut of 25% is physically impossible without something drastic being done. This either means STFC will be let off, or something drastic has to be done. Even the rumoured 15% cut leaves more or less the same conclusion. We will be left with a statue of Keith Mason and nowt else. All around the lone and level sands stretch far away. Nothing beside remains.

Yesterday in the Twittersphere there was some brief optimism – people took Osborne’s statement on Diamond  as a sign of support for Science. My immediate reaction was the opposite. He was setting up a rebuttal – “but look, I am investing extra in Science”. The £69M concerned is what was almost certainly earmarked in the Large Facilities Capital Fund anwyay, and will of course have to be paid back to the Treasury later, for which in the next round, some non-cash will again be announced as “more investment in science”.

Now actually of course we probably still won’t know the answer by the end of the week, as the implications will take a while to cascade through BIS and RCUK….

I am so depressed, all I can think is to make a game  of it. Place your bets.

STFC crisis : taking stock

October 4, 2008

I just got back to Palo Alto. It feels like a turning point. The rain finally came (first rain since March !), and my daughter just left home – off to China to teach English in her gap year. We have a new Science Minister (see Kav’s analysis) and the famous Wakeham review is finally out. People are still simmering and fizzing, but the sense of alarm and fury that dominated November to April has subsided. It seems a good time to attempt a summary of what really happened over the last year. Lots of public money is spent on astronomy, and the Government has been increasingly generous to science overall. Where does the alarm come from ?

(Note : to my condensed matter and PP chums … this is just an astro viewpoint …)

  • Diamond and ISIS-2 were over budget ? Nope.
  • Diamond and ISIS-2 ops costs were not in the pre-merger budget ? Kind of. But this problem is still to come …. its not the famous 80M. But watch this space. It will hit us later.
  • STFC is stuck with covering Diamond depreciation ? Yup. Once you realise this, you see that actually STFC had a very poor allocation. Thats it. (Thanks for pushing through that logic John..)
  • STFC did not have a CSR winning bid, which is why we have a crap allocation ? Yup. In other words, there was no equivalent to the ESO bid, or the e-science bid, from previous CSRs. I guess the whole Aurora-Moon etc thing was the attempt at this.
  • It was politically impossible to close Daresbury ? Yup. OK, I am putting my tin hat on now … But before my Daresbury correspondents kill me, what I mean is you could see it making sense to fund healthy scientific activity at Daresbury .. or to gulp and close the site … but being fobbed off with a glorified Business Development Park was a cunning but failed idea ..
  • STFC demonstrated arrogance and incompetence in its relationship with the Astro community ? Yup. Does this matter ? Yup. We aren’t children; we like solving problems; we have a long tradition of being a responsible and organised community; we had established an excellent relationship and understanding with PPARC programme managers. I think it is not a coincidence that public outcry reduced enormously after the consultation panels were established. They just should have been there first.

Diamond Geezers

May 13, 2008

For many weeks, I have had interesting and difficult conversations with fellow Physicists in Edinburgh who have a somewhat different perspective on the STFC situation – condensed matter physicists who are long term users of ISIS, SRS, ESRF, and now ISIS-2 and Diamond. These guys are fed up with us astro-pp folk acting as if we were all of Physics; and fear that our whingeing is going to damage us all. A comment on this earlier post gave a link to a Research Fortnight piece. Not everybody has access, so here is a PDF.

Now these guys do some really good stuff. I would say that, because I am Head of the School of Physics, but its true. Even as an astronomer, I am fascinated by some of what they do. They are measuring material properties at pressures close to that in the centre of Jupiter, and within shouting distance of the outer parts of Brown Dwarfs. They want to understand the formation of planetary ices, and we are talking about simulated planetary atmosphere experiments.

As the STFC problems broke, they too were nervous, but for different reasons. It seemed obvious to them that the underlying problem was that astro-pp spending was out of control, as it periodically is (they say). This is mostly because subscriptions dominate the budget, are set in Europe not the UK, grow with GDP, and are subject to exchange rate fluctuations. But also there were vast aspirations such as ILC and Aurora, and looming problems such as the VISTA penalties. As far as they were concerned, the idea that problems were “due to Diamond and ISIS” were just a myth. There is no Diamond over-run they said – the costs have not changed since 2003. Diamond has been delivered on time and on budget. So they felt this was nothing to do with them.. but then ..woahh !! Hundreds of redundancies at Daresbury and RAL ! And rumours of closing down Diamond and ISIS for part of the year.

So.. since then the National Audit Office report has become well known, making it clear that the problem was indeed NOT with Diamond and ISIS. The problem was simply with CCLRC not putting enough money aside for all its commitments. But, my colleagues say, this is only one of several problems, along with the others above. Furthermore, if you know enough tensor calculus to understand near cash, non cash, DEL and all that mumbo jumbo (see John Peacock’s recent comment), it looks like Government has fixed the ~Diamond-ISIS ops costs problem, which means that what remains is that other astro-pp stuff.

So all this was coffee room grumbling until the IUS select committee report came out; now the “ex-CCLRC community” have gone public, because they fear our childish behaviour will bring us all down.

Some of the IUS report wording certainly did not help. “One community has been saddled with the debt of another” was an attempt at blunt truth, but its not fair – the debt had nothing to do with the community that used CCLRC facilities. Now STFC Council have fought back on this issue – news issued by Council states that pain has been equally shared – £38M cuts on the PPAN side, £45M cuts on the PALS side. My guess is some of you will be sceptical about that, so I will let you at it…

Actually the bit that made me larf in the RF piece was the suggestion that astronomers are organised … If Particle Physics is a Stalinist Economy, and EPSRC and their clients represent a perfect Free Market, then of course Astronomy is a bit of a good ole British muddle. You can do what you like, but we don’t do things like that here old chap.

Our day in Court

January 23, 2008

So the Select Committee hearing on the Science Budget Allocations finally came and went. You can listen to the proceedings
at the Parliament web site. There are postings at the Astronomy Blog and at Chris Lintott’s Universe . There are already all sorts of angry comments on earlier posts of mine here and here . STFC have put out a positive news spin on the BBC , but Ken Peach has produced a Panglossian parody of this . I didn’t know Ken was quite so erudite. (My daughter once asked what “erudite” meant. I told her it described the kind of person who knew what “erudite” meant).

So what have we learned ? Here’s my take.

It was all a mistake.

Oh no it wasn’t.

“Unintended consequences” was the line taken by Michael Rowan-Robinson and Peter Main, who were utterly cogent overall – but wrong on this point. This was a conscious act by DIUS. To be fair to Keith Mason, he says this consistently and firmly. The priority was medicine. Who is going to argue ? And they had to fund FEC, and the subscriptions; and meeting the costs of Diamond and ISIS. Fine. Tick, as MRR said. STFC and DIUS knew that this left the rest of the programme in a hole. They could then have added just a wee bit more. They chose not to. They chose not to because astronomy and particle physics did not make a strong enough case; and some people believe genuinely that University departments are too reliant on particle physics and astronomy.

Whatever short term help we may or may not get, this is the big message. We aint getting the message across, and unless we do, at the next CSR we are utterly sunk. Mason et al have screwed up in all sorts of ways, but on this basic issue they have told the truth repeatedly.

But the hearing was depressing because it sounded like Keith agreed with this government view of astronomy.

FEC : watch the lady

Paying for Full Economic Costing really is a problem. And it is going to be worse for EPSRC, as they are grants dominated. If you are doing condensed matter physics, don’t be smug … EPSRC will probably start announcing cuts a few months from now. But how can this be ? Surely the whole FEC thing should be cost neutral ? It looks like the Government has not passed enough money to the Research Councils to pay for FEC .. so this is really a hidden cut that we hadn’t understood.

But there is some extra money here … and its flowing to our Universities. Where will it go ? Its meant for infrastructure, not PDRAs, but we should asking our admins for that lab refurbishment and extra server and so on that we might have put on grants … Don’t wait until that new Management School Building appears and you wonder where it came from …

Diamond is not the problem .. or is it ?

Diamond is not the problem. CCLRC underprovisioning is. The Diamond and ISIS guys are professionals. By 2003-4 they had accurate operating cost estimates, and have stuck to them since. But CCLRC never had enough money in their budget to cover this : they were £25M/year short, as explained in the National Audit Office report. They were crossing their fingers. It seems they were right to trust in God. Eventually, God agreed that exploiting Diamond and ISIS was top priority and just had to be paid for. At the hearing, it was pointed out that the consequences of this were stated clearly in the Delivery Plan. I quote from page 7 :

Our ability to fully exploit the facility will depend on the success in making the savings elsewhere in this plan.

Remember, this what they had to write after their bid for that wee bit extra had failed.

Was PPARC Science damaged by the merger ?

Of course it was. At the hearings, Keith denied this, pointing out that their initial budget was equal to the sum of the two old Research Councils. But as explained above, the CCLRC budget had a £25M/yr hole in it. Derrrh.

Should we go for a vote of no confidence ?

I am not going to go for personal criticisms in my blog, although I won’t stop other’s comments unless they are really over the top. I don’t think its the right place.

What do we do ?

Either back room deals are happening or they’re not. Most of us can’t do much about that. Hopefully they are, and it will produce enough money to smooth over the chaos.

But get ready for the future. Make the case for fundamental science. Brain Cox can’t do it all.

STFC : The Long Grass Beckons

December 14, 2007

Apologies to Martin Ward, from whom I nicked this title.

Act I

Keef : Oh what a lovely new toy I got !

Jim : Might have a slight problem here. This Diamond thingy seems to be costing a touch more than we expected…

Keef : Ooerr. Better get on to our paymasters.

Keef to Dius : Need more money for this Diamond thingy. Big Problem.

Dius to Keef : Nope. There’s plenty of fat in STFC land. You work it out. Its needed doing for yonks anyway.

Keef : Didn’t work Jim.

Jim : Time to frighten the horses, Keef. Richard ?

Richard : wooo !! Cut Gemini ! waagghh ! 25% off grants ! worrrr !!!

Horses obediently panic and start running round in circles

Keef : Think that’ll sort us Jim.

Act II

Trendy Young Physicist : Good Morning World. Terrible Mistake somewhere. Disaster Looms.

That Nice Sarah : You nasty Government people ! Look what you’ve done to these horses !!

Minister : err ahhh sorry, terribly puzzled, lots more money already, err err a review will be undertaken.


Keef to Dius : Now you wouldn’t want us to be damaging Britain’s Universities. That would be a big mistake. How about that extra eighty million.

Dius to Keef : There’s lots of fat in STFC land. You work it out.

Keef to Dius : What are we supposed to do, kill all those horses ?

Dius to to Keef : There’s lots of fat in STFC land. You work it out.

Keef to Dius : Oh. Ah. Oh dear.

Dius to Scientists : And There Shall be a Grand Review. And all will Be Well.

Scientists : Where’s our ball gone ?

Dius : Awfully sorry. Grass is a bit long round here.

Gemini and STFC’s problems : triple squeeze

November 25, 2007

Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, has written a piece for Research Fortnight about the Gemini-withdrawal issue. The RAS has put out the text of Michael’s article as a newsfeed. Its worth a read. I think Michael has the issues spot on (he usually does..)

STFC has a triple squeeze. Because of “Full Economic Costing” they have to give the Universities more money; the subscriptions they have to pay to CERN, ESA, and ESO are tied to GDP which is going up in real terms; and the operations costs of Diamond and ISIS are alarmingly larger than forecast.

UK astronomers understood that moving in with the big boys was going to be scary. When Diamond sneezes, we catch cold. But if something folds, we could be in the gravy. Hmm. Sorry about the gharrssly mixed metaphors.

Key point buried in Michael’s article : watch the spreadsheets at your University and make sure you are getting the FEC flowthrough. The biologists will be getting nervous as Charities, their main grant sources, don’t pay FEC, so their income generation now looks much weaker…

Details for political geeks only :

I was aware of the ops costs issue in general terms, but Michael refers to a report of the Public Accounts Committee which spells this out. You can find the report (HC 521, Nov 13) here. Dull reading but important … Big projects like Diamond, ISIS, MICE, and HECToR have all been very impressive in capital terms, mostly coming in on time and on budget, but they are nearly all coming in 50-80% higher in operations costs terms than originally approved. This particularly hits STFC, and looks like costing them £27M/year, even before paying all that FEC and growing subscription costs.

EPSRC will be hit too, as the new national supercomputer, HECToR has, like Diamond, ISIS-2, and MICE, come in on budget in capital terms, but has turned out to be more expensive to operate than originally expected. This is where I breathe nervously. HECToR is operated by EPCC within my own School. Its in an anonymous building out near where Dolly the Sheep was born. The costs of HECToR are dominated by the huge electricity bills, needed for cooling the darn thing. We are currently trying to work out if we can vent some of the heat into greenhouses and grow tomatoes. I jest not. Anyway, with the oil age about to end, electricity ain’t going to get any cheaper.

However … the contract we have signed makes it clear that EPSRC bears the operating costs, not the University of Edinburgh.

Or if thats not true, Richard Kenway and Arthur Trew are dead men.