Science, Money, and Derring Do

July 11, 2013

Lots of readers for NAM and the Knife Edge, but only one comment. Maybe its a summer thing. The other Professor L expressed his surprise that I didn’t get whingeing about the Edinburgh footie victory.

Meanwhile, over in US-land, less than flat cash for the NSF is being hailed as a major victory. Typical government cuts are 5%, but NSF has “only” 2.1%. Thats before inflation folks. It includes $232M for Astronomy in FY2013, as we can see here. This is probably stage 7B in the 11 stage horse trading process or something. US politics and bureaucracy is very hard to follow. Anyhoo. I am crossing fingers for the LSST kick-off.

Back in the realm of her Brittanic Majesty, if you really want to see how research funding works, the NAO (isn’t that the Nautical Almanac Office? – Ed.) has released a very informative report which you can find here. I think the bottom line is that our R&D per unit GDP is slightly better than Kazakhstan or something like that. This perfectly simple flow diagram explains everything.

How R&D funding works in the UK

How R&D funding works in the UK

Because science funding is so depressing, I have been retreating into entertainment. Rather than my usual habit of finding old records, I went out and found some old books. I just read a 1930 copy of the 1916 book Greenmantle, the Ripping Yarn that John Buchan wrote after The Thirty Nine Steps. Its a spy story set in the middle of the First World War, climaxing at the battle of Erzerum. Interesting and confusing. I kind of expected an Edwardian book to be written in turgid and complicated sentences, kinda like Dickens or Scott I suppose, but in fact its in short punchy very lively style. It really rattles along. I also expected it to be jingo-istic and full of racist stereotypes. Well it is. But it is also full of surprising insights and sympathies for ordinary Germans, and for Islam. A very interesting post was written on this topic by Jeremy Calder at the Liberal England blog. I can’t say it better, so visit that if you are interested. It seems really surprising that Greenmantle has never been a movie.

NSF starts slicing

August 17, 2012

Scary times for our US chums. The dreaded NSF Portfolio Review finally did its thing. The news is pretty bad in places, but to be honest I think its less to do with our austere times than it is to do with historic overheating and the “funding wall” problem.

You can find the full report at this web page here . Stein Siggywatsit at Dynamics of Cats has already digested the report and written a nice commentary . Under the harsher but probably realistic “Scenario B”, here are the headlines :

  • ALMA, Gemini, EVLA, Blanco, and grants protected
  • LSST and ATST get a go ahead;
  • GSMT, CCAT will maybe get some peanuts
  • Mayall, KP 21.m, WIYN, GBT, VLBA out

I skimmed the report and found two figures illuminating. The first figure shows the evolution of the NSF Astronomy budget.

Budget scenariosIgnore the impressive temporary spike due to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act (ARRA). The story is not one of massive decline; the real budget will be pretty much the same as 2001, and about 7% less than most of this decade. The Decadal Survey (NWNH) wish list required a large expansion. Well, it was worth trying. So how can there be a problem ? Well, look at this next figure.

Budget squueze

This shows what it costs to just keep all the current commitments running. The boxes labelled LSST, CCAT, GSMT are the likely operating cost contributions, not the construction costs.

So basically what you see is that the US has done such wonderful things in the past, that if we keep them all going – especially the very newest things like ALMA – that uses up all the money forever. You want LSST, ATST, CCAT ? OK. What are you chopping ? Thats it.

The trouble with Big Science is that it is only ever worth doing things that are much better than before. The squeeze is ineluctable.

US astronomy crumbling ?

October 25, 2011

Many of us were rather perturbed to receive the latest edition of the NOAO newsletter, NOAO Currents, warning the community that KPNO or even CTIO as well might be forced into closure by the dire state of the NSF budget. They have started a community discussion. UK readers should bear in mind that unlike our situation, the operation and the funding is from two separate bodies (AURA and NSF) so the psycho-dynamics of lobbying is a little different.

NSF is indeed in a tight spot, as described in the talk by Jim Ulvestad at a recent meeting of the NSF A&A advisory committee. The Decadal Survey (aka NWNH) assumed 3% growth but actually NSF astro is taking a 4% cut this year. NSF as a whole is roughly flat cash The OMB is asking all agencies for 5-10% cuts next year. The current top priority is making a success of ALMA; the top priority new start, LSST, probably won’t have the funding faucet turned on until 2015; and whichever is chosen out of TMT and GMT won’t get NSF money until at least 2020. Jim doesn’t say “we will have to trash Kitt Peak” but NOAO ain’t stupid and are getting their groundswell started early.

I heard a rumour of a rumour that NSF are punishing astronomy because their budget cut was caused by the Senate putting JWST back in to the budget. But I don’t think this is correct. The NSF asked for $7.8bn; the House bill gave them NSF $6.9bn; the Senate bill gave them $6.7bn. So they are both suggesting fierce cuts regardless of the JWST thing. Maybe some US reader can explain how the reconciliation happens, but presumably they will end up with 6.8bn or thereabouts.

To fill in the picture, the House bill gave JWST zilch, and the Senate bill gave them $593M this year, with a capped total of $8.7bn. In that Senate bill, total NASA science is 5.1bn – thats Earth Sci 1.76; Planetary 1.50; Astrophysics 0.68; JWST 0.53; Heliophysics 0.62. The astro 680M includes HST at 98.3M, SOFIA at 84M, and NUSTAR at 11.9M. Interestingly, it looks like JWST hasn’t particularly damaged the rest of NASA astrophysics that much. The hit has come in other NASA programs. NASA as a whole is given $17.9bn, half a billion down from last year. So non-science programs are being hit hard.

Meanwhile, other gossip mongerers of my acquaintance are fretting over some of the words in the Senate bill. For example, it exhorts NSF to take a decision this year between TMT and GMT, but includes the words “… to develop that telescope on domestic soil …”. So. telescopes to be sited in Chile, as opposed to Hawaii, need not apply ? Hmm. ”Develop” ain’t the same as “built on”…

Enough of the paranoia I say ! Of course just because you are paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.


May 25, 2011

* Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt

Strictly speaking FUD is a management technique. Whereas with mushroom management you keep people in the dark and pour shit on them, with FUD you give them lots of information, but make sure half of it is misleading, and that staff are maintained in a state of fear. The executioner can always be glimpsed just over your shoulder. However, FUD is also a good description of the state of confusion and division created by the cost-cutting strategic reviews which we we all know and love.

A US colleague tells me that NSF must be either less panicky or dopier than NASA. Whereas the NASA side of the the decadal review fell apart within weeks (“WFIRST ? You made that up right ? Yeah, right, maybe 2025”), its taken NSF nine months to start backtracking. According to this Nature News blog post  Jim Ulvestad told the Town Meeting at the AAS that they are setting up a “portfolio review panel” to decide what to cut. They have capital issues – they promised to build LSST, and to cough up 25% of either TMT or GMT – but their real problem is operations, including LSST downstream of course. There will be no money left for grants. Sound familiar ?

I am sure such a panel will look at salami slicing – NOAO trimming, bare-bones style Gemini etc – but they may have to take a deep breath and think about closing something. Mesdames et Messieurs, faites vos jeux.