Ground-based review : going, going ….

October 12, 2009

I guess you have all been poring over the draft report of the Ground Based Facilities Review, trying to decode its somewhat incomprehensible ranking scores, and either getting excited because your horse is in the lead, or fuming because they have obviously misunderstood why your favourite 4m telescope is crucial. You have until the 14th to get your feedback in … Its not perfect, but by and large they have done a pretty good job I think. In case you are too busy to read it, here is the short version :

  • Top priority : Carry on with VLT, ALMA and VISTA please. Thou shalt not touch.
  • ELT and SKA : fantabulous. Lets do …. both !!!!
  • eMERLIN and LOFAR. Well, if SKA is so good, we just have to.
  • Gemini : sorry, squire, down the toilet it is .
  • WHT : look, it doesn’t cost much. Oh, ok then. Gone.
  • UKIRT : maybe somebody else can pay ? Oh, ok then. Gone.
  • LSST : come to think of it, this would be rather nice. I know ! ESO can pay !
  • Liverpool Telescope : sorry, not your turn this time
  • WASP and MROI : well, they are kinda fun.

Sounds like a plan. Trouble is of course SKA is fantasy land for years yet, ESO is bust, and we can’t afford to increase the subscription. System in chaos. Mega-projects implausible. Hmm. All change ! Bring back WHT and UKIRT !

They certainly bought the product from the SKA propaganda machine. Respect. Apparently Jodrell Bank invented wifi shortly after CERN invented the Web. Or something like that. Fantastic. I am much more interested in SKA than I was a year ago, cos I have been working on very faint radio sources, which are v.fascinating. (See this paper if you can be bothered.) Trouble is, its also made me worried that SKA will be completely buggered by source confusion. Help.

Don’t panic yet …

September 30, 2009

The advisory panels have done their thing and reported to PPAN. The report of the Far Universe Advisory Panel can be found at this link, and that of the Near Universe etc can be found here. Both panels are offering one last chance to comment – FUAP has a deadline of Oct 8th, and NUAP will be telling us soon.

The reports have some interesting differences. The FUAP report has a very long term feel to it, concentrating on Big Questions and the “Crown Jewels”, meaning JWST, ALMA, ELT, and SKA, with barely a mention of the role of existing facilities. The NUAP report is more nitty gritty, with a mapping of ongoing programmes onto current facilities, as well as big future ones. I was pleased to see that both reports include a reminder that an infrastructure for HPC, data processing, and data management, including “internet based solutions” is also very important.

So read those, and gird your loins for Friday, as we expect the first draft of the report by the Ground Based Facilities Review. But we can afford anything new ?

Yesterday I heard from my University admin that a letter had been sent by STFC to all VCs/Principals explaining that as a necessary caution all new grants would be announced with a closing date of October 2010. Gulp. Rumour has it that the new STFC chair, Michael Sterling has decided that the doors are locked until this mess is sorted out. STFC are already on the case. Committee attendees no longer get biscuits.

OK. Ready ? Panic …. now.

GB review : deadline approaches

July 27, 2009

Like many others, I got an email this week with a link to notes from the Ground Based review Town Meeting. You can find this linked at the official GBFR page.  There is nothing very unexpected from that debate, but Michael Rowan-Robinson stressed that we should all pitch in. At the time of the town meeting, there were 95 responses. To make the powers that be pay attention, MRR says we need at least 400, similar to the number that responded to the Ward panel. I know some of you may be thinking “what difference does it make ?” but unless there is a large response, there will be every justification for thinking that ground based facilities don’t matter very much. So get your response in !

The panel have also made it clear that they can accept unsolicited papers, as long as these are within two pages. General rants won’t help at all, but if you have a specific proposal, make sure its known.

MRR also noted that somehow we have to make our economic impact case. In various places, senior STFC folk have made it clear that “the case for space” is made, and indeed there has been a fair amount of PR recently about space and the UK economy and the new Harwell ESA centre, and indeed a consultation has been launched. It seems a bit rough to split off “astronomy in space” from other astronomy, as astronomy overall could have made a good economic impact case. Note however that most of the space industry is not about astronomy, so if space-based astronomy gets bundled up, thats good. But the lesson is that we can’t allow “astronomy on the ground” to be forced into an unfunable ghetto. Must be some trick here we haven’t thought of.

Overheated Telescopes

June 11, 2009

Do we have too many telescopes ?

The STFC Ground Based Facilities Review is now well under way. There is an official GBFR web page, including a link to a well written consultation document, and an online questionnaire (did I spell that right ?)  The deadline for responses is July 31st. There is related “Town Meeting” scheduled for July 9th. (Thanks to Peter for spotting my earlier date screw-up).  The panel expects to publish a draft report by October 2nd; this schedule is designed to allow some chance of interaction with the US decadal survey.

Back in the 1990s I was on a PPARC review panel called the Ground Based Telescopes Development Panel (GBTDP).  Everybody referred to it as the  Ground Based Telescopes Destruction Panel. This time round the gloomy talk says the answer is already written : pull out of Gemini, close everything else except ESO membership, and pick ONE of ELT or SKA. Is that too pessimistic ? Is it in fact the right thing to do ? (See also Sarah’s post)

For sure, money is short and prospects poor. On top of STFC’s dodgy CLRC inheritance, we have a dodgy economy, subscriptions fixed in Euros with a falling pound, Research Councils faced with “efficiency savings”, a new Science Minister rumoured to be unconvinced by astronomy, and dark rumours of other problems.  Furthermore, as the consultation document says upfront, there is no doubt we have a somewhat “overheated” ground based programme, for understandable historical reasons. Something has to go or we will look foolish as well as greedy. But it would be equally foolish to swing right through to the doom scenario where we have only ESO and ELT.

After reading the GBFR document, I felt the urge to boil down some of the figures to get the big picture. So here are some bottom line round figures in size order. These are rough ten year costs, even though some things might not have ten year lifetimes. The idea is just for very rough comparison. I have mixed up existing things, current requests, and likely future requests, and have used todays exchange rates.

  • ESO incl ALMA : £212M
  • ELT-UK  £110M
  • SKA-UK : £82M
  • Gemini incl Oxford office : £60M
  • eMERLIN : £24M (could reduce)
  • 90% of UKIRT : £20M
  • LSST-UK (guesstimate to 2020) £20M
  • 55% of JCMT : £14M
  • 33% of WHT+INT : £10M
  • 40% of Liverpool Telescope : £5M
  • SuperWASP :  £4M
  • 8% of Magdalena Ridge : £3M
  • ALMA Reg. Centre : £3M
  • Dark Energy Survey (DES) £2M
  • LOFAR ops share £2M
  • JIVE £1M

Note that the fractions are open public fractions – eg Iain Steele (see comment below after my original version) notes that most of the rest of LT is still for UK astronomers.

One way to group these numbers is :

  • ESO+Gemini=260
  • new big-tickets=210
  • 4m-era legacy = 67
  • small beer = 30

So the legacy+smalls represent 17% of the total. My guess is that they represent very good value for money … but they are our only margin.