UKIRT and Star Wars

September 14, 2009

Todays lessons : (i) never understimate the public appeal of astronomy, and (ii) stop worrying and learn to love the bomb.

I am sitting in a fascinating but sentimental workshop : UKIRT at 30, a celebration of thirty years of ground-breaking infrared astronomy at the UK Infrared Telescope. It is pretty amazing how UKIRT got proposed as a very cheap and simple light bucket, but in fact has stayed ahead of the game in technical innovation and scientific impact at every step.

The classic era for some was the revolutionary application of infrared imaging arrays – the famous IRCAM. Ian MacLean’s description of the history had some interesting insights. He showed a blow-up of the first array in the lab at ROE, and there, etched along the bottom in tiny letters was the word “tankbreaker”. This is what you get when you inherit military technology …

Ian heard rumours of a group in a US university that had an IR arrray to play with and went to see them. They wouldn’t say who they got it from, but Ian convinced them to let who-ever-it-was know that ROE was interested in getting a working camera on a real working telescope. They did. This, we now know, was Al Hoffman at SBRC (now Raytheon). Al in fact convinced his management to start a new program of commercial array development specifically for astronomy. Apparently he skipped his boss and went straight to one of the VPs. Why ? Because he knew that guy was a keen amateur astronomer …

SBRC and UKIRT/ROE entered into a formal partnership. It is very unnusual for a US commercial corporation to enter such a partnership with a non-US non-commercial entity. This sounds like just the sort of Knowledge Transfer success that the powers-that-be are urging us to achieve today. But hang on – note which direction the Knowledge is Transferring…. Did we invent some great new technology, which industry gratefully devoured ? Don’t be silly. They were the dog, and we were the flea. Partnership is the word. As customers we helped them develop a new market.

Same story with Adapative Optics. Probably same story developing now with ginormous databases.


Excellence, Impact, and All That Jazz

April 29, 2009

Like several hundred others, I received an email last week from STFC explaining that from now on my grant proposals have to include an “impact plan”, i.e. we have to impress with our impact on the economy. (Read about it here.)  Along with the renewed gloom and doom about STFC finances, people seem to be seeing this as another sign that the barbarians are at the gates. I don’t see it that way; but there is cause for concern. Lets take this in three steps : why we should whinge, why we should help, and why we should be worried.

Why we should whinge : For as long as I can remember, British Industry has been (on average) second rate, and British Science has been (on average) world class, and often world beating. Whats more, the qualities that characterise our academic sector are just those you want in industry – we are competitive, ambitious, innovative, and we work hard. However, over the same period of history, Government has consistently concluded that we are the problem – the economy is stodgy because academic science is too pure, and this must change. Wuh ? Why are they wasting time leaning on us when the problem is elsewhere ?  It seems perverse. Whip the guys who are good at their jobs ????

Why we should help : Well, ok, the Government only has so many levers, so of course they are going to lean on us. And clearly the combined academic-industrial complex is not as porous as in the US; there is a problem somewhere. Furthermore, why should Government spend all that money on science unless it helps the economy ? If we make cultural “good of mankind” kind of arguments, we can expect the same budget as the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Of course we know that in much of science our economic impact is long-delayed and indirect, and we hope Government somehow takes this into account – but how do you do that ? You can’t blame them for wanting to see some evidence. If you read the Excellence with Impact report, this is mostly what its about : collecting evidence.  Likewise the new additions to grant proposals. This isn’t really about university scientists proving their impact. Its about Research Councils demonstrating to the Treasury that the money they have been given has made a difference. So we need to help our Research Council colleagues in that game. Sorry, transparency exercise.  Note that there is now a consultation on RCUK’s Knowledge Transfer schemes – see here and here.

Why we should worry : The depressing thing about the Excellence with Impact report is not some kind of brute message about only funding applied research : its that astronomy and particle physics have made little impact on the impact agenda. For goodness sake, there is a half-page splash about the Centre for Surrealism which has “generated economic impact of at least 1M” and has “restored the credibility of surrealism research”. There are boxes on PPARC detectors for medical imaging, and the careers of PPARC students, but somehow they are worded in a damp squib kind of way. Where is “World Wide Web utterly transformed our society” ???!!!!??? I just have the horrible feeling we simply lost a classic inter-departmental battle.

We need to score some Treasury goals. And we need a bold simple ticket. Complex programmes don’t sell. You need 100M size baubles you can sell over a cup of coffee – the e-Science programme, joining ESO, etc. I guess at the last CSR, STFC’s ticket was “Space ! The next frontier” which is why we have MoonLite and the RAL ESA Space Centre. They should at least be given credit for trying. Of course you have to watch the pea under the cups when you play that game…

Anyway. When faced with gloopy stuff about “impact” and “space” its maybe a mistake to back away with pegs on our noses; we should read the game and play with gusto. Its not too late to win.


Its the Economy Stupid

March 10, 2008

Patience dear reader. The Clinton reference is explained at the end.

I haven’t posted for a few days. I have been visiting ESO, participating in an internal review they were having of their Virtual Observatory Systems (VOS) Department. This was a very interesting event : some hard bitten VO sceptics were converted. Of course as well as telling them how good our ESO chums were, I slipped in a quick demo of AstroGrid’s VO Desktop… sorry Paolo, couldn’t resist it. Meanwhile, like many other UK astronomers, I have been manning the barricades and joining about six telecons a minute trying to plot our rescue plans. On the plane home, somewhat exhausted, I was re-reading The Tragical History of Dr Faustus (pretentious ? moi ?)…

Ah UKIRT
Now thou hast but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually !
Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That UKIRT may repent and save its soul !

For UKIRT, read MERLIN, AstroGrid, WFAU, etc. Mephistopheles cometh.

The community consultation is an interesting exercise. After being heavily criticised for not consulting the community, STFC has thrown things wide open for comment. Every postgrad in the land can vent her spleen. Of course “community consultation” is normally a euphemism for “allow the big profs to lobby”, so STFC may claim this is a real community consultation. As a Head of Department I know that the job is more like being King John than Louis Quinze if you know what I mean. How do you avoid being at the mercy of the squabbling barons ? Well of course, you appeal directly to the yeomen and peasants, and they become your power base. Hmm. Thinks. Maybe should change metaphor from mediaeval Europe to ancient Rome. Who are the People’s Tribunes ?

Well, anyhoo… you can’t have failed to notice that STFC is not exactly an anarcho-syndicalist commune, and in fact tends somewhat to the dirigiste. (Not inconsistent with populism of course…) There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is the personal management instinct of senior STFC staff. The second is the nature of STFC and its appointed mission. It is not the embodiment of the scientific community, channelling upwards to government; it is an arm of government, whose aim is to improve the performance of UK PLC. Keith keeps telling us this but we don’t listen. Its the economy stupid.

Some scientists are gung ho for Knowledge Transfer. Others are nervous and distressed, worrying that the purity and independence of academic science is being destroyed. These fears are growing as the commercial pressure builds on the teaching side too. According to the FT, a confidential DIUS report plans a new business focus on teaching. The FT article is here and a related Guardian leader is here.

The worries that commercial engagement will destroy academic science are a bit daft. They do both perfectly well in the USA. Galileo flogged his inventions as fast as he uncovered the secret laws of Nature. And the although the current government is even more insistent on economic relevance than before, notice that unlike governments in the 80s and 90s, they want to pay us extra to help industry. Up here in Schottish-land we don’t want less of this Science and Innovation stuff, we want more please.

Of course thats me talking as Head of Physics rather than Andy the Astronomer. How do we engage with industry when we study the stars ? Answer-1 is that we don’t have to. The Government does recognise the intrinsic value of pure science. But how do you put the correct number on that value ? Same budget as AHRC ?? Answer-2 is that we should re-define KT as “economic impact”. Or put another way, our Knowledge Transfer is people not widgets. This is all going to be vairy important in the Wakeham Review.

Meanwhile keep repeating these two mantras :

(1) STFC inherited a budget deficit of £75M from CLRC.

(2) Its the Economy Stupid