NAM and the Knife Edge

July 5, 2013

pointer NAMcupwin Had a jolly few days at NAM2013, the annual UK astronomy jamboree. I gave two talks, a contributed talk and a plenary. This was hard work. Stress City. But I got through it and even enjoyed myself with a giant broom-pointer gag. Later the same day, the Edinburgh team won the NAM footie, beating St Andrews 6-1 in the final, so smiles all round this side of the Firth of Forth. Thanks to Duncan Forgan for the piccie.

Wednesday afternoon was the STFC community session. John Womersley gave an upbeat talks on the state of STFC but the community was left rather nervous. Here are a few key points :

  • Because of the upcoming election, the spending review is for 2015-16 only. The long term funding is all still to play for.
  • The science budget has its allocation (flat cash plus a teensy bit of extra capital) but the Research Council carve-up is still to come. My giant mop may be needed to clean up the blood.
  • The STFC budget result will come in September, same time as the STFC programmatic review outcome is announced. I guess this means that we still won’t know whats in and whats out…
  • Three years ago flat cash seemed like a victory. This time it could look more like disaster. The longer it continues, the more inflation erodes. As erosion continues, at first you just lose some soil – but there comes a day when the cliff collapses. Womersley uses a different metaphor. He said he is telling government that we are on a knife edge. There are rumours that ISIS may have to be mothballed. Wouldn’t make my high-pressure chums very happy…
  • JCMT is now up for sale. (See also SEN article). Meanwhile STFC are negotiating with two serious potential new owners for UKIRT. It seems unlikely this will conclude before the axe is due to fall in September, so there may be a temporary stay of execution.
  • We need to make the case to Government for our economic relevance. Well ok, we have all heard this again and again, but Wommers had a potentially important new idea. We need quantifiable metrics – somewhat along the lines that a road building project might use, quoting the number of commuter-hours saved and attaching a pound-note figure. This won’t be easy, but it really is necessary. You see, I think most politicians are already convinced that science is important, but this warm feeling doesn’t tell them whether they need to spend N pounds or 2N pounds or 0.5N pounds.

Well that will do. For those with a Research Fortnight subscription, there is an excellent article just out by James Wilsdon from Sussex with some interesting insight.

Meanwhile, just to show that it is technically possible to balance permanently on a knife edge, here is Emerson Lake and Palmer forty years on. A treat for prog rock fans. Janacek fans still divided.


Turning donuts into PhDs

February 26, 2009

Yesterday at KIPAC tea, a graduate student wished everybody “a happy Mardi Gras”. This lost me, but later it made sense; when I got home to Little Britain there were pancakes for tea, for lo, it was Pancake Day, a.k.a. Shrove Tuesday. The pancakes were scrumptious but not enough for my hungry kids. Grad students are possibly even more voracious than teenagers, but luckily at KIPAC tea there is a goodly supply of donuts. This is an essential part of a PhD education of course; supply stodge and the students will turn up to the talks, absorbing some knowledge along with the sugar.

Is this investment worth while ? Over at the PeterBlog, Professor C worries that we are over producing students, because only one in ten can become an academic. Actually, without this overproduction, Peter and I would be out of a job. Why does the Government pay for astronomers ? Because we do have an economic impact. Our product is people.

We all accept this where undergraduates are concerned. Half of our job is teaching; we do our bit for the academic sausage machine, churning out the scientically literate workforce our society needs. That makes it economically feasible to pay us for the other half of our job, scientific research. We tend to think of PhD students as part of this second world; our apprentices, each producing their magnum opus after three years. But that world has long gone. The PhD is an advanced training degree. A decade ago, while I was on PPARC Council, studentships were doubled. Why ? Because we were not getting enough astronomy done ? Nope. Because the captains of industry said “we can use more of these” and yea verily the Treasury purse strings were opened.

So the donuts make sense.

Mostly this is good. The Government is happy to continue paying for pure science, because they can see that every pound spent puts three back into the economy. But they must be thinking “hmmm.. wonder if we can squeeze six out of them ?” They already did this to us on undergraduate numbers. Postgrads could be next.