Scientists on tap

November 9, 2009

I have been worrying about the Professor Nutt story, for personal reasons. For those who don’t know, this business is about the science adviser fired by the Home Office for criticising the government in public. Of course the gut instinct of most of our scientist colleagues will be to side with the Prof – Science versus the Barbarians ! Man the Barricades ! I am not so sure . Its the Government’s job to govern, and the Adviser’s job to advise. I wouldn’t quite go with the classic Winston Churchill quote – scientists should be on tap, not on top – but a little humility is due. On the other hand, the current government can be a tad brutish, as we know. It all depends what Nutt actually said, which I haven’t found out.

This is on my mind because I am about to take the Kings Shilling. As of next year yours truly is becoming chair of the Astronomy Grants Panel. Early Warning. Do not expect the inside dope. Do not ask. I will still be free to talk of matters Ess-Tee-Eff-ical, but anything connected with my newly privileged position will be off limits. STFC have asked me to help them, and that is what I will do.

Meanwhile, there is a renewed sensitivity to public comment in RCUK-land.  Upstairs of STFC they were very concerned about the Sunday Times story a few weeks back, that reported that STFC were seriously considering leaving CERN. The Sunday Times was able to write a somewhat alarmist story because they got a quote. This actually just stated the obvious – well, we will have to consider every option, Brian – but coming from a senior STFC staff member, whose blushes I shall spare, it sounded like a secret policy had been uncovered.  Sooo…. I understand that as a result new guidelines are being issued. Staff can freely comment on uncontentious things – like their own exciting science – but should refrain from things that might sound like a policy statement. Unless, presumably, it really is a policy statement. Quite right too. If I was in charge of RCUK I would I do much the same thing.

I just hope the baby isn’t thrown out with the bathwater…

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 ?

Wakeham out ! Read all abart it !

October 1, 2008

Check out the RCUK Review of Physics web site. The Wakeham report is out, as is RCUK’s response. My RAS spies tell me they will have a response out in the morning. So far I have only had time to read the Executive Summary … but the main points seem to be :

  • UK Physics is jolly healthy
  • Physics research is healthy, but has fallen behind other areas in funding
  • Physics education is declining because of funds and interest
  • Physics research has a significant economic impact
  • High Performance computing is very important
  • Universities should be more involved in facility management
  • A small body of independent wise people should help DIUS with the CSR allocation.
  • Astronomy and particle physics should stay inside STFC …
  • … but their funding should be clearly separated from other facilities

Rats. I seem to agree with all of that. Where’s the fun in that ?

Wakeham Up

April 23, 2008

The long awaited RCUK review of the Health Of Physics in the UK, aka the Wakeham Review, is now thoroughly underway. The panel had their first meeting Feb 29th; by May 2nd Physics Departments and VCs etc have to return their questionnaire submissions; there is a two day meeting with witnesses on June 23-24; the panel reports to DIUS Sept 15th. The questionnaire is fairly weird … The review has a web page on which you can find the panel membership. You can also find the review remit. This of course is deathly dull and detailed, leading to one thinking “OK, what’s REALLY going on ?”. Coffee room chatter produces three theories :

(A) The Fix. Government knows that the funding crisis is real, and that the STFC is after all the wrong structure, but they can’t be seen to be caving in to whingeing and sensational press. So they need a nice quiet rational review to justify rescuing astro-pp without destroying facilities for condensed matter, chemistry, and biology in the process.

(B) The Kick into Touch. Government is uninterested in all the whingeing because they have given a broad area plenty of money and its up to us to sort out our own problems. So the review is just to keep us busy while we all gradually calm down and accept life.

(C) The Descending Boot. Government feels that the fundamental problem is in the Universities, who have been trapped into relying too much on “PPARC” science because of competing for student bums on seats. The balance of Physics is unhealthy in the UK and needs fixing.

Mesdames et Messieurs, faite vos jeux.