Good Times, Bad Times

December 10, 2007

The title is of course inspired by tonights historic Led Zeppelin re-union concert.. but really I am thinking of the fascinatingly diverse press releases we will see tomorrow (i.e. Tuesday .. I am posting late Monday). On the one hand, DIUS (Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills) is holding an event in Westminster to launch the new science budget – good news ! Even more money than ever for Science ! On the other, the Royal Astronomical Society and a collection of eminent Particle Physicists are issuing press releases that basically say “Panic ! Scandal ! British Physics in crisis !”. What I can tell you is that in the middle of last week most Universities in the land were informally asked by STFC “How would you cope if grants were cut by 25% ? OK, how about 40% ?”.

ooooooohhhhhh dearrrr….

Particle Physicists Panic

December 3, 2007

Although astronomers have taken the early public hit with the announced intention to withdraw from Gemini, UK particle physicists have not been slow to notice that STFC’s budget problems could hit them too. They recently had a “town meeting” to discuss the issues, and my PP chums forwarded me an email about this labelled “STFC cuts (PANIC !)”. Since then, I guess the panic has deepened, as the previously public web page with copies of the talks given and notes taken has now become password protected. They are obviously afraid that this is all a sign that pure science is going down in status, like the bad old Thatcher days, and are gearing up to feed Joe Public and Gerry Minister with information about how useful and important fundamental physics (and astrophysics) is. My guess is that this is off beam. There is a slow pressure to prove yourself useful, but I really don’t detect a sudden change, or an intention to run down big science. Its just that STFC got a raw deal and Diamond costs more than expected.

Particle Physicists could be a bit fed up for another reason. It looks like the next big machine – the International Linear Collider – may be a bit slower in coming than hoped, following a US DOE report ranking it rather lower than hope in the queue for US funding. Its bound to happen, but will take a looooooooong time. I learned this when I discovered a new Physics blog, called “Corycia“. Must be one of the most obscure classical references in the blargosfear, but a nice wee blog. Today Owen is calling is teddy bear Jesus.

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.