Gemini Roller Coaster

January 28, 2008

Things have been happening fast over the weekend… On Friday STFC announced that the UK had been summarily evicted from Gemini. They consider us not just to be giving notice of withdrawal, but to have left the partnership immediately, and not even the next semester’s observing allocations will be honoured. The same day the relevant Gemini Board resolutions appeared on the Gemini website. (Committees are so efficient these days !). By late Friday evening and Saturday morning emails with words like “stunned and appalled” and “spectacular failure of diplomacy” and “call for resignation” were flying round the community. Part of the upset was the suddeness of the announcement without going through the UK Gemini team first.

By teatime on Saturday, Stuart had written things up nicely on the Astronomy Blog. Saturday night I went to a Burns Supper at Andy Taylor’s house. John Peacock and I chinked our glasses of Talisker and toasted the death of Gemini. This all feels particularly depressing in Edinburgh. Gemini withdrawal knocked out key parts of the ATC work programme, and now US astronomers will find it easier to follow up UKIDSS than we will in the UK. The timing is horrible. On Thursday, Dan Mortlock, Steve Warren et al announced the discovery of our first z>6 quasar – using Gemini of course…

Next morning however, a kind of community PR fightback started. Paul Crowther circulated a message from Richard Wade setting out what he believed to have been the real sequence of events. Given that this emailed to a huge list of people, I see no harm in attaching it here, as it is interesting reading. Even more fun is the attached exchange between Keith Mason, Steve Miller and Hugh Jones, in which amongst other things the whole sorry episode is compared to a Marx Brothers film. (Don’t forget, there ain’t no such a thing as Sanity Clause). Finally for your edification, you might be interested to see the message that has been circulating to US astronomers, sent on to me by Martin Elvis. (Hope thats ok Martin). Hey, at least there is some good news for US astronomers !

One thing that is interesting and encouraging about all this is just that Keith and Richard have been actively engaging with UK astronomers. After last week’s select committee hearings, everybody was very depressed because it didn’t sound like Keith was sticking up for us. (The comments on my blog posts were getting mildly unpleasant but understandable.. and even the normally mild mannered Omar Almaini sent me an email wondering if Keith was really Chas from Chas and Dave)

I wasn’t surprised; Keith Mason’s job is to run the whole of STFC, not astronomy; and he has a horrible tightrope to walk between the community, his Council, DIUS, the Minister, the press…He couldn’t possibly be seen to be knocking DIUS at the select committee. He had to do the opposite. Still, he could have handled us with more tact at the same time …and the lack of community engagement (as opposed to bigwig consultation) has been the poorest thing about STFC performance. So I wonder, is it a coincidence that suddenly the Gemini fiasco has been handled in a very different way, with mass emailing and “lets all pull together chaps” ??

Sunday evening Andrew Jaffe covered the issue in his blog and included the nice phrase “you attract more flies with honey than vinegar”. Putting aside the issue of whether you want to attract more flies, this is certainly what concerns me about the whole STFC funding gap crisis pallaver brouhaha thingy. When to shout and when to help…


More Gemini news

November 20, 2007

Today the UK arm of the Gemini Project, based in Oxford, swung into action, sending an updating email to most professional UK astronomers, and stressing that the decision to pull out of Gemini is not yet final. Tomorrow (Nov 21st) there is a meeting of STFC Council and they are carefully declining comment until after that meeting. Watch this space.

The Oxford Gemini team have a News Page, and this has collected links to the various press reports, letters that people have written, and so forth. Pat Roche’s letter to Oxford MPs puts it pretty much how I would. Astronomy is suffering because of problems in other parts of the science programme that STFC has absorbed.

There is also a nice letter from Jim Emerson, leader of the VISTA consortium, which I trust will appear there soon.


Gemini withdrawal : worse to come ?

November 18, 2007

The agency that now funds UK Astronomy – STFC – has announced its intention to withdraw from its partnership in the Gemini Telescopes. This is worrying news, but I fear worse is to come. The Treasury has left STFC with a gaping hole in its budget, and I don’t really understand why.

You can read the reaction of the Royal Astronomical Society here, a couple of UK Astronomy blog reactions here and here, and a letter to the Guardian.

I almost signed the Guardian letter, but had asked Roger Davies for some minor changes, and he was left unsure whether I wanted to sign or not by the time he had to act – I didn’t get back to my email at the right time. What I had suggested was a more sympathetic tone to the problems of STFC … They are in a tight hole.

Once every few years the UK Government holds a “Comprehensive Funding Review (CSR)”, which decides amongst other things the budgets for the Research Councils for several years. Here are the figures. Below is this year’s budget in millions, budget in 2010-11, and average increase per year after inflation at 2.8%. In reverse size order …

MRC Medical 543 707 6.4%
BBSRC Biology 387 471 4.0%
EPSRC Engineering & Phys.Sci 711 844 3.1%
ESRC Economic & Social 150 178 3.1%
NERC Natural Environment 372 436 2.6%
STFC Sci. & Tech. Facilities Council 574 652 1.6%
AHRC Arts and Humanities 97 109 1.2%

Source : Research Fortnight

At least its a real increase ? Not really. The way grants are paid to Universities has changed, and some of the extra money is to take account of that. When you allow for this, and compare to the STFC planned programme, they are about £80M short. This is a real cut.

This is not just a problem for Astronomy. Already, plans to go ahead with the 4GLS Synchrotron light source have been cancelled, and the long awaited second target station for the neutron beam facility ISIS looks doomed. The ambitions of the Nuclear Physicists to join FAIR look likewise a faint hope. Saving £4m/year on Gemini is just a wee bit of extra help ..

So.. if you write to your MP .. tell him/her how bad it is that the Government formed a brand new Research Council, and then screwed it straight off.