Big Kit Vote Trap

August 18, 2009

Just in case you felt bored, here’s another consulation.

(I spotted this while catching up on Paul Crowther’s amazing comprehensive STFC Funding Crisis website. How does he keep it up ? Should we officially declare him a National Treasure ?)

Anyhoo. This one is about the RCUK Large Facilities Roadmap. On the list of “emerging facilities” i.e. “things we might give money to” are four astro things – Cherenkov Telescope Array, Einstein (3G grav waves), ELT, and SKA. Get your vote in. I see that ELT got a pretty good economic impact plug. Is this a good sign ?

However, as John Peacock reminded us recently, it ain’t clear that taking money from the LFCF is a good thing. These capital investments are a loan from the Treasury, which have to be paid back. Allocations to research councils include ear-marked amounts which allow them to pay their current debts back to Treasury spread over some years.  Err… I hear you say … so why give them this money at all, if it just whistles past invisibly ? Why, so Government can boast of what a fantastic large allocation they have been given ! It took us quite some time before we realised how crap STFC’s real allocation was. Well, when I say “we”, I expect Keef and Richard understood this all the time but were too embarassed to explain it.

John’s conclusion was that this is dodgy money and we should steer clear. I’m not sure thats right. Surely now we have learned about this trick we can watch the pea under the cup next time ?

Who’s in charge of the Big Kit ?

August 13, 2008

Its terribly important to keep bang up to date. So here are some thoughts on an announcement made by RCUK a month ago and the related announcement made by STFC the next day. This concerns allocations from the Large Facilities Capital Fund (LFCF). Cold news I know .. but I just accidentally rediscovered the file on my laptop and its rather interesting. First, because of whats in it; and second, because it highlights a political puzzle.

How much is it worth ?

More every year … If you go back to the December science budget allocations you will see that the amount allocated to the Large Facilities Capital Fund is rising rapidly :

STFC 2008-9=£624M 2010-11=£652M
MRC 2008-9=£606M 2010-11=£707M
LFCF 2008-9=£105M 2010-11=£265M
University Capital Fund 2008-9=£267M 2010-11=£214M

This is serious money…

Whats in it for STFC ?

Well there’s money for Diamond and for ISIS-2 of course, and quite right too. But its also full of things that ain’t even in the Programmatic Review – the new Gateway Centres – the Detector Centre, the Imaging Centre, the Hartree Centre. Many tens of millions. Why were Universities not given the opportunity to bid for these enterprises? We in Edinburgh are running HECToR for EPSRC because we won an open competition. The ESA space science centre is still to emerge as well. One hears that ESA centre should wash its own face .. but how does all this compare to what we just cut ?

Along with these specific allocations, DIUS has published a roadmap for large facilities. This is important for astronomy as along with SKA development, the longer term plan includes ELT and Einstein, a third generation gravitational wave system. It also includes FAIR .. and it seems the ILC is back in but “after 2020”, and no decisions will be made until 2010 or 2012.. Finally the Neutrino factory and dark matter are all in there somewhere in a woofly kind of way …

The political puzzle

Back in 2006 when STFC was invented, it all seemed a bit odd. It felt like a strong wind was blowing, so there was no point resisting, but what was it all about ?

(i) An extremely well placed source once told me that the root cause was that the Large Facilities Capital Fund was felt by Treasury to be not well spent; there ought to be a Council that managed its expenditure. That does indeed sound like a logical reason for inventing STFC …But the LFCF was not given to STFC. Its still top sliced. Think how much more wriggle room they could have had…

(ii) The same well placed source told me and several other senior astronomers a year and a half later that STFC was invented because Keith O’Nions felt it was the best way to protect big long term science like astronomy and particle physics. Yeah, right.

(iii) Another well placed source told me unequivocally that STFC was created because CLRC was in a mess and PPARC was put in to sort it out. Sounds completely plausible. But it doesn’t look like what happened ..

(iv) Various intelligent but not particularly well placed individuals have speculated that STFC was a corporate raid. Some people understood earlier than others about CLRC’s overcommitment and needed to create a larger pond to swim in.

(v) Some of my Physics chums have suggested more or less the inverse. Huge PP and astro bills were looming, with the exchange rate going the wrong way …

I dunno. Give up.

So why was STFC invented ?