Keith 1 Profs 1

March 16, 2011

Just read a tweet from Rob Ivison :

some people won’t like it, certainly won’t acknowledge it, but it was a very good performance from Keith Mason in select committee hearing

Watch the show for yourself, but I find myself in agreement. More or less. The Profs were fine too, but Keith put the ball in the net. (Unlike Chelsea. Oh crikey, what am I doing, pretending I know about football ?) I noticed Ian Corbett sitting at the back. He used to be the spider at the centre of the web. I wonder what he was thinking ?

Here are a few bullet points. From the assembled profs :

  • Things are better, but starting from a low base
  • We need a stable environment
  • If any money becomes spare, put it in grants
  • The real problem is we spend only 1.7% of GDP on R&D. What happened to that target of 2.5% ? Oh, yeah, that was the last government
  • This overinvestment thing : yes there was a pulse but that was the joining fee. Nobody said we had to close stuff. And anyway we have closed stuff.
  • Instrumentation re-balance to labs : bad idea… it works now, don’t change it
  • Those Northern Telescopes : fairly cheap, although we reserve the right to disagree with each other’s numbers

Next, edited highlights from His Keefness and The Smith :

  • Should STFC fund all of outreach ? Don’t be silly
  • Northern Telescopes : yes we agree that would be good and can confirm we are trying to do this; but times are tight; lets be realistic
  • Ahem. Permit to read from 2001 Council Minutes. Says to pay for ESO we will need to withdraw from AAT, JCMT, UKIRT, and ING by the end of the decade. Hope thats a bit clearer.
  • Do all the tech work in the labs ? I would definitely disagree with that. Its not what we said. Permit me to read from the Delivery Plan.
  • Astronomy is important to the Nation. Do we have too many astronomers ? Absolutely not. That spending feeds back in to the economy. We are nowhere near the point of diminishing returns.
  • Grants ? Err, mumble, mutter. (Almost let a goal in there.)
  • Scientist balance on Council ? Same as BBSRC actually.
  • Would I do anything different if I started again ? I sleep easy at night, knowing we did the best we possibly could. (Oops. Candide-ian own goal at the very last minute).

So. It was a draw, but Keef scored both goals.

However. This Council minute thing. As it happens, I have a copy of the Council papers from Dec 2001. (I was on Council at the time). I can’t find this statement in the actual minutes, but it is referred to obliquely. However, amongst the papers was a copy of the “Strategic Plan for Astronomy” given to Science Committee on Nov 27/8 2001. It does indeed propose saving £5M/year by withdrawing from those telescopes, on the assumption of a flat budget.  But But But we have pulled out of Gemini, saving more than that… and after 2001, the Labour government increased science spending by a lot. So all that history is pretty irrelevant. Where are we now and what can we afford ?

Whats that spluttering noise ? Peter ?

Cute kids report

March 9, 2011

So how was today’s show at the Select Committee hearing ? The main thing to say is that in fact the genuine young persons were pretty damned cute, in sense B as opposed to sense A – i.e. mentally keen, shrewd. After a bit, it worried me that this was in fact a weakness of the hearing, if they wanted to find out what would make young people more attracted to physical science. These young people were already physics fans. Anyhoo. Here are some bullet point impressions :

  • Kids apparently value active research participation, rather than (just) TV science  programmes. But as I said, these were already fans..
  • I loved the lad who said he was hooked one day in a kind of  epiphany : seeing the glare from a car he suddenly realised those photons had just travelled 8 minutes from the Sun, bounced off the car, and entered his eyeball. Man thats not just physics – thats Zen.
  • Some of them didn’t know UKSA had been created… but one did because “they rejected a lot of people from my school for work experience”
  • Maggie Aderin-Pocock had her kid there … that was so cool.
  • Maggie stressed that some people can communicate and some can’t… she quoted a school who said “we had a physicist come and talk last year and after that fewer people wanted to do physics”
  • Jim Al Khalili said that we want real science not girls in bikinis blowing up caravans
  • Jocelyn and Roger both said that  STFC is now communicating a lot better, and they are trying hard, but – there still aren’t enough scientists on Council; STFC has structural issues; and there are “some crazinesses they still haven’t thought through”.
  • Roger was polite but firm on the issue of whether there was a deliberate overinvestment in astronomy in the past
  • Roger was very concerned about the suggestion that construction might be concentrated into the labs, rather than university groups. Students have to be trained or the instrumentation field will become moribund, he said.
  • Asked if  we have to cut costs to pay for ESO, Roger and Jocelyn said yes, but we already have : we pulled out of AAT; we reduced membership of WHT and cut operating cost of UKIRT; and of course we pulled out of Gemini. Roger said nobody said we’d have to completely close all  Northern Hemisphere  observatories.
  • Finally, when asked how much extra resource was needed to keep those Northern observatories open, Roger said  2-3M. Jocelyn said “a banker’s bonus”.

Well thats what I got. You can still see the video at the CSC website.

Bring on the cute kids

March 8, 2011

Enough of this astronomical puzzle fest. Its time to get back to a spot of astro-political fretting. Tomorrow (today by the time most of you read this) is the first sitting of the latest STFC show trial, aka the enquiry into astronomy and particle physics by the Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

Some of you may have perused the transcript of the Jan 19th session, when the committee grilled various Research Council CEOs. I am sure you loved the bit where Keef says that there was an agreement that astro funding was temporarily artificially high after joining ESO, and was planned to come down again. Also the bit where  Keith says that STFC facilities like Diamond and ISIS would be running at full capacity. Maybe you liked even more Keef’s follow-on letter explaining that by full capacity, he meant absolutely fully the level of reduced capacity that Council had agreed. For all you Fawlty Towers fans, I thought this was the “oh, Harold Ro-BINS” moment of the show. I should just add that I am v.glad I am not doing that job.

Tomorrow is not yet the whingeing profs day. Its the how-do-we-inspire-the-kids day, with a succession of actual young persons having their say. There are a couple of Profs lined up (Roger Davies and Jocelyn Bell-Burnell) but I am sure they won’t be whingeing.

If you want to get in practice for a bit more heavyweight fretting, try reading the written submissions by all sorts of good folk. For the impatient, here is a quick summary :

Various nuclear physicists : Ahem. We notice you didn’t ask about nuclear physics. But we are going to tell you anyway.

George E : Keith-must-go ! And more scientists on Council !! (George has an amazing personal quote from Michael Sterling : senior academics in receipt of STFC grants have a conflict of interest and should not sit on Council…)

Various astronomers : We still need the North !

A few particle physicists : Hello ? Anybody there ? Is this thing on ?

Roger The Prezz : So. This planned overfunding thing. Not what we recall, I’m afraid. Got any evidence ?

Mike B : Too many astronomers ? Err, nope. Number per GDP unit pretty average for Europe ole bean.

Em R-squared : Well ok, you’ve followed some of my recommendations, but I was pretty clear about this Northern Hemisphere thing..

John P : do the sums right and you will see we have been cut in half. Some of it has gone to ESA, and some of it has been swallowed by RAL. Diamond and ISIS have suffered too, but they would have suffered even more without the merger.

Actually, if you want to read just one letter, read John’s. Here is my favourite quote :

In complaining about loss of funding, scientists risk radiating a sense of entitlement to public money, and this is an impression we must avoid. But what we can legitimately demand is stability: society needs to decide what it wishes to spend on relatively abstract activities like astronomy and particle physics, and then stick to its bargain. Young scientists of great talent will plan accordingly, and some will choose to dedicate their lives and careers to a given subject, and to pursuing it in the UK. But no-one can plan sensibly in the fact of a 50% cut; unless we start to reverse it, the damage will be felt for decades.


Diamond Geezers

May 13, 2008

For many weeks, I have had interesting and difficult conversations with fellow Physicists in Edinburgh who have a somewhat different perspective on the STFC situation – condensed matter physicists who are long term users of ISIS, SRS, ESRF, and now ISIS-2 and Diamond. These guys are fed up with us astro-pp folk acting as if we were all of Physics; and fear that our whingeing is going to damage us all. A comment on this earlier post gave a link to a Research Fortnight piece. Not everybody has access, so here is a PDF.

Now these guys do some really good stuff. I would say that, because I am Head of the School of Physics, but its true. Even as an astronomer, I am fascinated by some of what they do. They are measuring material properties at pressures close to that in the centre of Jupiter, and within shouting distance of the outer parts of Brown Dwarfs. They want to understand the formation of planetary ices, and we are talking about simulated planetary atmosphere experiments.

As the STFC problems broke, they too were nervous, but for different reasons. It seemed obvious to them that the underlying problem was that astro-pp spending was out of control, as it periodically is (they say). This is mostly because subscriptions dominate the budget, are set in Europe not the UK, grow with GDP, and are subject to exchange rate fluctuations. But also there were vast aspirations such as ILC and Aurora, and looming problems such as the VISTA penalties. As far as they were concerned, the idea that problems were “due to Diamond and ISIS” were just a myth. There is no Diamond over-run they said – the costs have not changed since 2003. Diamond has been delivered on time and on budget. So they felt this was nothing to do with them.. but then ..woahh !! Hundreds of redundancies at Daresbury and RAL ! And rumours of closing down Diamond and ISIS for part of the year.

So.. since then the National Audit Office report has become well known, making it clear that the problem was indeed NOT with Diamond and ISIS. The problem was simply with CCLRC not putting enough money aside for all its commitments. But, my colleagues say, this is only one of several problems, along with the others above. Furthermore, if you know enough tensor calculus to understand near cash, non cash, DEL and all that mumbo jumbo (see John Peacock’s recent comment), it looks like Government has fixed the ~Diamond-ISIS ops costs problem, which means that what remains is that other astro-pp stuff.

So all this was coffee room grumbling until the IUS select committee report came out; now the “ex-CCLRC community” have gone public, because they fear our childish behaviour will bring us all down.

Some of the IUS report wording certainly did not help. “One community has been saddled with the debt of another” was an attempt at blunt truth, but its not fair – the debt had nothing to do with the community that used CCLRC facilities. Now STFC Council have fought back on this issue – news issued by Council states that pain has been equally shared – £38M cuts on the PPAN side, £45M cuts on the PALS side. My guess is some of you will be sceptical about that, so I will let you at it…

Actually the bit that made me larf in the RF piece was the suggestion that astronomers are organised … If Particle Physics is a Stalinist Economy, and EPSRC and their clients represent a perfect Free Market, then of course Astronomy is a bit of a good ole British muddle. You can do what you like, but we don’t do things like that here old chap.

Our Day in Court : Part Three

February 28, 2008

Ladles and Jellyspoons, I preezent to yew, the Third, the Grandest, and the Very Final Part of The Grilling of Keef, in which the assembled forces of the Spanish Inquisition, the Sacred Congregation of the Index, and the IUS Select Committee, do assert and demonstrate that the said Keef did with malice aforethought and gross negligence of the Body Astronomickal, perpetrate gross, persistent, and heinous acts of heresy and apostasy, and also did quite blatantly take his library books back two weeks late.

You can listen to the recording, and check out my spin on Part One and Part Two. This time the session came in two halves. In Fit the First we had operations guys from behind the Chinese Wall – Richard Holdaway, STFC Director of Space Science and Technology and Swapan Chattopadhyay, Director of the Cockcroft Institute. In Fit the Second we had the Big Cheeses, Chas, sorry I mean Keith Mason, CEO of STFC, and Peter Warry, Chairman of STFC. I am sure Peter must have a minor celebrity lookee-likee but I can’t think who. Answers to this address please on a twenty pound note.

Oh dear this is all a bit jaded. Am I getting tired of this show ? Well anyhoo, here are a few reactions.

The Chinese Wall. Richard Holdaway carefully explained that there is a Chinese Wall between the operations and strategy parts of STFC, so chaps like him and Swapan had no part in all those decisions, and first knew about the cuts at the same time as the rest of us. (I voz only doo-ink my job. I had no idea vair zose trains vere go-ink.) This is an interesting line to push in the Wakeham review. I think it is fundamentally correct that delivery should be separated from policy and funding; it would be sensible if RAL, Daresbury, and the ATC were independent (even if Government owned) and bidding for money just like Universities. This is (almost) how NPL works. But reality has always been a mongrel. CCLRC never was really a Research Council. It was two big labs. But it had to stay inside the machine; the story of British Government Science over the last fifty years has been the slow growth and unmoveable power of the Harwell campus.

But really, they are just like University research groups, says RH. An innocent abroad, our Dick.

The Death of Peer Review. Keith states he is proud of STFC’s peer review, and he seems to mean it. Swapan was scathing, saying that all the wrong people were involved (the committee had to stop him being almost libellous at one point..). Can they both be right ? Yup. STFC high-ups see themselves as delivering a strategy for UK PLC on behalf of DIUS, and hand pick experts to give them advice in this difficult task. Keith and Peter explained that it’s better to pick a tight and dedicated group; larger groups don’t get anything done. Furthermore, as every scientist who has been on science strategy committees knows, if you try to get every area and interest represented, you have too many people, you build inertia into the system, and you get perpetual tribal squabbling. If you start by insisting that every committee must have a representative of ground-based STP on, then they are hardly going to vote to close down ground-based STP. But suppose (just hypothesis guys!) that closing down ground-based STP is the right thing to do ????

However… the astronomy and particle physics communities have been used to running their own shows, with PPARC just a kind of administrative convenience. They are our telescopes, our decisions, surely ? Otherwise whats the point ? If you start from there, its not the same game. Unfortunately STFC is a different kind of beast, covering a much wider range of science, and with an explicitly strategic and economic remit. Its not that STFC are playing the game wrong. Its that they are playing a game we don’t like.

The Bright Future of Daresbury Lab. Yet again, there was hours of anguishing about Daresbury, and about thirteen seconds of “I expect you are chatting to people in Edinburgh” followed by “Oh yes, no doubt about it guv.” It emerged that Science Board actually recommended closing DL “to minimise overheads and maximise synergies”, and the CEO suggested that the logical thing was to “concentrate most if not all facilities on the Harwell campus and plan for all future national facilities to be located there”. (Hem. Kinda relevant to ATC too…) Then DL should be developed primarily as a private sector venture with some core science or technology. But Council decided not to follow these recommendations.

Keith was actually quite open here, stressing that the problems at DL are deep seated and long term, stemming from the Diamond decision taken before STFC’s time. So .. how to take DL forward ? Well, hope was pinned on 4GLS … but even before the two year stalling of 4GLS, this would not have started until 2012 anyway so there was a big hole however you looked at it. So his plan was to fill that gap with the Hartree Centre. Thats about £50M of gap filling. Stomach’s rumbling a bit up here actually ..

Keith also stated that the suggestion of closing DL was made at time when the financial situation looked even worse…. eg included 50% cut in grants not 25% …. gulp.

Killing STP : the mask slips. STFC have carefully insisted that the decision to close down ground-based STP was made by PPARC, before their time. They are just implementing the decision. Phil the Willis pointed out that the relevant PPARC minutes said “some facilities” whereas the STFC Delivery Plan said “all facilities”. Keith said this was not inconsistent and members of the committee giggled “this will be interesting” and “strange science you are giving us here” to which Keith responded “Welcome to my world”. At this point Willis just said quietly “Oh, right”. After hours of politeness, this was the moment when he couldn’t hide the scorn. Very very interesting.

What Keith meant – I think – was more or less that what the PPARC minutes were able to say was more cautious and guarded than people actually felt at the time.

The Zero Sum Game. The committee confessed to being confused about Gemini. Hours after the hearing, it was announced that we were definitely back in. Yes folks its the Gemini Hokey Cokey. Keith emphasised that there is no manna from heaven. This will cost us money. Indeed in emails later that day, and even on my blog, people started worrying about what we would lose instead. This outbreak of selfishness is going to reach fever pitch on Monday at the Science Board Town Meeting …

Our Day in Court : Part two

February 21, 2008

Yesterday was the second session of the IUS Select Committee investigation into the Science Budget Allocations, with the comittee grilling the Science Minister Ian Pearson, and Research Council Supremo Keith O’Nions. You can listen to the live recording of the proceedings. I reported on the first session here, and you can find the transcript here.

Pearson and O’Nions were completely truthful throughout, but placed shall we say a certain gloss on matters. Likewise, in places they were interestingly helpful, and in others were careful to silently drive round certain holes in the road. Lets have a go at summarising/paraphrasing some of the key statements made by Pearson and O’Nions, and reversing back over the potholes.

Crisis ? What Crisis ? Its all over blown. Everything is fine.

I know this will have annoyed a lot of people, but lets not waste time on it. Politicians can’t agree there is a crisis in public. They never do. Would you ?

No grants cuts. There is an impression abroad of swingeing cuts, but actually they are staying broadly level.

Andrew King nailed this one in his piece in Research Fortnight the other day. First, it is true that in 2006 and 2007 astronomy grant awards went up; so the size of cut depends on what baseline you compare to. Second, grants last several years; O’Nions was quoting RAs in place, which will take about three years to show the full effect. This round, according to Andrew K, 88 RAs are leaving and 82 RAs are arriving. Those 88 however mostly come from the 2005 low year; if the awards stay at 82, then the un-replaced fraction will be going up over the next two years. After three years, the effect on RAs in place will be pretty much the 25% cut that STFC in December asked every University in the country to be ready for.

There is more money for Universities. Including FEC, money for astronomy grants is going up 67% over the CSR, and 43% for Particle Physics.

Absolutely correct. Don’t just shout at Keith Mason and Keith O’Nions. Get inside your University committee system and find out where the money is going. This is related to the next point : O’Nions was asked “so who is that extra money being taken away from” ?

Inappropriate unfunded research. FEC is not a shift from QR. Its real extra money. What was happening in the past was that Universities were doing underfunded research, and taking the money effectively from teaching and from not fixing the roof etc. This is what FEC is for.

Absolutely correct. However, as I said last time, watching the pea under the cup is tricky; its not clear enough extra money has been allocated to the Research Councils for this purpose, unless they cut grant volume.

This is only part of Physics. Not every area of Physics is damaged, or complaining. Some people are indifferent.

This was in fact a subtle but important understatement by O’Nions. My condensed matter and photonics colleagues (some of whom I know read this blog) are not just shrugging their shoulders and saying “nothing to with us”. They believe that any day now they will have to close down beamlines and so on because of problems originating in Particle Physics and Astronomy – uncontrollable subscriptions, huge project commitments, grants that had been going up. And they were made very nervous by STFC announcing that they would make £120M cuts to solve an £80M problem. Finally, they get annoyed by us guys referring to “core physics” and behaving as if STFC were the same thing as PPARC but gone a bit wrong. Even finally-er, they score points on KT and we don’t. (I know thats wrong in a deep way, but thats the way it looks).

Think on this hard as we come up to Wakeham. Is its remit “to look at the health of particle physics, astronomy, and nuclear physics” ? Nope. Its “to look at the health of physics.” Firm voices will be heard to argue as follows :

The essential problem is that university physics departments rely too much on astronomy and particle physics. For twenty years, universities have been hiring astronomers because it gets bums on seats; the number of academic astronomers has grown considerably. That army of astronomers of course demands more RAs and more telescopes, insisting that RC funding follow the same trend. But this is in the opposite direction to government policy towards more practical and economically focused research. This has to stop. Universities cannot blackmail the government in this way.

Answers on a postcard please.

STFC did not inherit any problems from the merger.
The budget of the merged council was the same as the sum of the two. An NAO report before the merger did due diligence and did not find either PPARC or CCLRC to have any deficits.

This really was economical with the actuality. The merger happened just in time before the deficits hit CCLRC. This is unambiguously stated in the NAO report and the later proceedings of the Public Accounts Committee. By 2003, the Diamond and ISIS-2 teams had correctly estimated the predicted operating costs, but the CCLRC projected budget did not have enough to cover these costs. This is what the NAO report says about CCLRC :

The anticipated total increase in its operating costs is in the region of £25 million per annum at 2006-07 prices or around 12 per cent of the Council’s current annual operating expenditure. If the Council does not secure additional resources, this degree of cost growth could exacerbate existing constraints….

That last bit means “they would have to shut down ISIS and Diamond half the year”. Now you see why our condensed matter chums are worried.

The STFC budget was increased. On the basis of flat-cash plus FEC, STFC had the second largest increase, after MRC. The net increase was 3.2%. NERC was 2%; EPSRC and AHRC were -1%.

This is very useful and fascinating in various ways. First, EPSRC and AHRC are probably worst off because they are completely dominated by grants, whereas NERC and STFC have a significant fraction of facilities costs. Second, it does indeed look like FEC has been slightly underfunded. Third, STFC, did indeed get a perfectly decent settlement. So what went wrong ? The answer is bleedin’ obvious, and is contained in the section above. Everything would have been fine if it wasn’t for the fact that STFC inherited from CCLRC an unfunded overcommitment of £25M/yr.

I can fine tune this a little. A colleague of mine recently got someone pretty knowledgeable in The Machine to say privately that “the CCLRC overcommitment is about 70% of the problem”. OK, so STFC got net 3% over three years, i.e. 1% per year, so an extra 6M/yr-ish. Thats about a quarter of of 25M/yr.

So in round terms, three quarters of our problem is inherited Harwell campus overcommitment, and one quarter is other stuff – loss of subscription protection etc. Keep repeating this mantra.

Daresbury has a healthy future.
We are absolutely committed to building up Daresbury as a Science and Innovation Campus. Every day new companies are signing up.

OK, we believe you. But as various committee members stressed, this policy may fail if there is negligible core science there. The SRS has gone and they didn’t get Diamond. ILC work has gone out the window. The future of the 4GLS concept is uncertain. They have a vague promise of 50M for a supercomputer centre (the Hartree centre) but does that make sense now ?

Pearson and O’Nions got lots of hard questions along these lines, and persistent pressure on whether there should be a policy of regional development. Mutter Mutter Haldane. By contrast, the discussion of ATC took ninety seconds. Blah Blah understand useful discussions going on about closer links with University etc etc. Wasn’t sure what to think about this. Keep my head down or climb up and wave the Scottish Banner ? Somewhere in between maybe.

Lessons learned in communication. The fuss made by certain parts of the physics community has been unfortunate, and obviously orchestrated. We must think about how to handle this better next time. There has been a lot of criticism of the STFC advisory process. It did not look anomalous from where we were sitting, but obviously this is something we can look at.

By Civil Service standards, this was actually quite strong stuff. “My underlings screwed this up. But I want you to understand it wasn’t my fault.”

That’ll do for now. Watch out for news from Council Feb 28th, and the Science Board Town Meeting on March 3rd. That is when the blood-fest starts.

Our day in Court

January 23, 2008

So the Select Committee hearing on the Science Budget Allocations finally came and went. You can listen to the proceedings
at the Parliament web site. There are postings at the Astronomy Blog and at Chris Lintott’s Universe . There are already all sorts of angry comments on earlier posts of mine here and here . STFC have put out a positive news spin on the BBC , but Ken Peach has produced a Panglossian parody of this . I didn’t know Ken was quite so erudite. (My daughter once asked what “erudite” meant. I told her it described the kind of person who knew what “erudite” meant).

So what have we learned ? Here’s my take.

It was all a mistake.

Oh no it wasn’t.

“Unintended consequences” was the line taken by Michael Rowan-Robinson and Peter Main, who were utterly cogent overall – but wrong on this point. This was a conscious act by DIUS. To be fair to Keith Mason, he says this consistently and firmly. The priority was medicine. Who is going to argue ? And they had to fund FEC, and the subscriptions; and meeting the costs of Diamond and ISIS. Fine. Tick, as MRR said. STFC and DIUS knew that this left the rest of the programme in a hole. They could then have added just a wee bit more. They chose not to. They chose not to because astronomy and particle physics did not make a strong enough case; and some people believe genuinely that University departments are too reliant on particle physics and astronomy.

Whatever short term help we may or may not get, this is the big message. We aint getting the message across, and unless we do, at the next CSR we are utterly sunk. Mason et al have screwed up in all sorts of ways, but on this basic issue they have told the truth repeatedly.

But the hearing was depressing because it sounded like Keith agreed with this government view of astronomy.

FEC : watch the lady

Paying for Full Economic Costing really is a problem. And it is going to be worse for EPSRC, as they are grants dominated. If you are doing condensed matter physics, don’t be smug … EPSRC will probably start announcing cuts a few months from now. But how can this be ? Surely the whole FEC thing should be cost neutral ? It looks like the Government has not passed enough money to the Research Councils to pay for FEC .. so this is really a hidden cut that we hadn’t understood.

But there is some extra money here … and its flowing to our Universities. Where will it go ? Its meant for infrastructure, not PDRAs, but we should asking our admins for that lab refurbishment and extra server and so on that we might have put on grants … Don’t wait until that new Management School Building appears and you wonder where it came from …

Diamond is not the problem .. or is it ?

Diamond is not the problem. CCLRC underprovisioning is. The Diamond and ISIS guys are professionals. By 2003-4 they had accurate operating cost estimates, and have stuck to them since. But CCLRC never had enough money in their budget to cover this : they were £25M/year short, as explained in the National Audit Office report. They were crossing their fingers. It seems they were right to trust in God. Eventually, God agreed that exploiting Diamond and ISIS was top priority and just had to be paid for. At the hearing, it was pointed out that the consequences of this were stated clearly in the Delivery Plan. I quote from page 7 :

Our ability to fully exploit the facility will depend on the success in making the savings elsewhere in this plan.

Remember, this what they had to write after their bid for that wee bit extra had failed.

Was PPARC Science damaged by the merger ?

Of course it was. At the hearings, Keith denied this, pointing out that their initial budget was equal to the sum of the two old Research Councils. But as explained above, the CCLRC budget had a £25M/yr hole in it. Derrrh.

Should we go for a vote of no confidence ?

I am not going to go for personal criticisms in my blog, although I won’t stop other’s comments unless they are really over the top. I don’t think its the right place.

What do we do ?

Either back room deals are happening or they’re not. Most of us can’t do much about that. Hopefully they are, and it will produce enough money to smooth over the chaos.

But get ready for the future. Make the case for fundamental science. Brain Cox can’t do it all.

The Murder of PPARC ?

January 8, 2008

Hard to believe, but the following exchange is quite genuine. It is an extract from the Sixth Report of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology, HC203, the Scrutiny Report for session 2005-6, published April 2007, and including evidence taken on Jan 17th 2007 (section “Ev49”)

Dramatis Personae

Chris Mole : an MP who was a member of the Committee.

Malcolm Wicks : Science Minister at the time (now its Ian Pearson).

Keith O’Nions : DG of Science and Innovation. Mr Big.

Plot so far

The infamous merger of CCLRC and PPARC to make STFC has already been stitched up agreed, and Wicks and O’Nions are being grilled on whether its all happening as planned …

Now Read on :

Q294 Chris Mole: Minister, last year the Government published the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004–14 subtitled Next Steps and then held a consultation on it. What has been done since the publication of the responses to the consultation document in September last year to move forward the Next Steps agenda?

Malcolm Wicks: I think some of the discussion we have had already is relevant to this… (blah blah … then continues ..) The statutory instruments have now gone through the two Houses so we are well on the way to establishing that formally in April; is that right, Sir Keith?

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: Formally in April but it will probably be July before warm bodies are—I will stop.

Malcolm Wicks: Stop there. I think that is a very large part of it. We have also, of course, put forward the plan to merge two of our leading research councils, those concerned with large facilities, which I need to know more about. Again, I wonder if Sir Keith could just bring us up to date on where we are, but in terms of statutory instruments we have got formal approval.

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: It went through to the Technology Strategy Board and the STFC—a merger of PPARC and CCLRC went through the two Houses at the same time. We are completely on track with STFC.

Malcolm Wicks: Did you say “merger”? I though you said “murder”.

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: No, it was definitely a “g”.

Malcolm Wicks:
Oh, it was a merger, yes, which is the way to look at it, of course.

Professor Sir Keith O’Nions: That is on track for starting in April at the beginning of the new financial year. There is a chief executive designate, Keith Mason. We have interviewed for a chair and later this week I will be putting advice to the Minister and Secretary of State on a chair for STFC and, of course, that is a prime ministerial appointment ultimately. That is where we are.

Wicks (sotto voce): Diss Mole guy is a problem. Keith, I want you to make shure he got company on der way home, capiche ?

O’Nions (perfectly boldly): Hey, I ever let you down ?

Well, ok, I made up that last bit, but the rest is verbatim. Talk about letting the cat out of the bag.