Phil Charles fallout

March 18, 2010

Nature News has a very interesting update on the continuing Phil Charles story. Here is a precis :

  • Phil Charles has been re-instated and publicly declared innocent of all charges.
  • …but the NRF has still not said … err… what the charges were. (Here is last week’s press release.)
  • Phil Charles is is not allowed to discuss these charges
  • The NRF say the charges were definitely nothing to do with location of the MeerKAT HQ site. No sirree. Purely to do with unauthorised circulation of confidential documents…
  • Michael Feast states this actually refers to an email that Charles forwarded to colleagues
  • That email concerned …  the location of the MeerKAT HQ site
  • Royal Society of South Africa has called for “public inquiry into this damaging incident”

So if Phil was hoping to settle down to a quiet life he might be disappointed.

Update Friday : the Department of Science Technology issued this press release. It explains that although last week’s NRF press release seemed to say “the judge says you was not guilty, but we know where you live , see”, actually this was just an “unintended ambiguity”.

Phil Charles latest

March 12, 2010

A wee birdy just told me that as of 30 minutes ago, Phil Charles was cleared of all charges.

Haven’t seen an official announcement yet….

Evening update : The Nature news team have been quick off the mark. They have a story already. As you will see there, it is still officially completely unclear what Phil Charles was actually accused of. But maybe we will find out by Monday…

Midnight update : Here is the NRF announcement. Possibly a tad petulant and stunningly unspecific.

Phil Charles update

March 7, 2010

Regular readers will be aware of the Phil Charles suspension issue. The attached NRF press release has come to my attention; it seems that both the accusation and defense sides have been heard, and the Chairman of the hearing has now retired to consider his verdict … due at the end of the coming week.

Initially many of us had assumed that the hearing would be a one day affair. Then it gradually became clear that it would be spread over multiple days, followed by this consideration period. It seemed to be pretty formal and legalistic, but with the defense case heard BEFORE the accusations, which seems quite bizarre. Halfway through, there was an attempted intervention by the Science Minister, Naledi Pandor, as described in this piece in the Mail and Guardian. This shows I guess that the shocked international reaction has made a difference.

But at the end of the day it may come down to judgement by senior NRF staff. None of us know exactly what happened, or what the NRF rule book says; just that firing an honourable figure like Charles on a technicality would be a mistake – politically, managerially, and morally.

Cross fingers for the final run.

Phil Charles suspended

February 2, 2010

Maybe STFC ain’t so closed and autocratic after all. I have just been hearing distressing news about Phil Charles, currently Director of SAAO, but of course very well known to UK astronomers from his long distinguished career in Oxford, La Palma, Southampton and elsewhere. Phil has been suspended for talking to his fellow astronomers about the plans of the parent body of SAAO and SALT, the South African National Research Foundation (NRF). There is a hearing due in a few days and he may well be dismissed.

You can read about the affair in a report in the Cape Times, and in a piece by an opposition politician. Its quite hard to tell exactly whats going on, because everybody in an official position is being tight lipped. But judging by the unattributed comments referred to in those articles, it seems to be connected with NRF’s bid to host the SKA, the siting of its operational centre, and the lack of consultation with SAAO staff about these issues.If anybody knows better, and can speak without breaching confidence, do let us know.

Everybody who knows Phil knows what a straightforward chap he is, and how passionate he is about South African astronomy (as well as astronomy in general !) It seems that the NRF may be concerned about controlled handling of the SKA situation, and goodness knows this will be increasingingly politically tense; but if they want to seem like responsible and competent corporate partners, then firing such a respected and trusted senior astronomer seems a pretty dim thing to do. Lets hope they see sense.

Does anybody know whether lobbying will help ? And if so, how it should be done ?

You might also want to read about pigeons are faster than email if you want to contact SAAO.

Ground-based review : going, going ….

October 12, 2009

I guess you have all been poring over the draft report of the Ground Based Facilities Review, trying to decode its somewhat incomprehensible ranking scores, and either getting excited because your horse is in the lead, or fuming because they have obviously misunderstood why your favourite 4m telescope is crucial. You have until the 14th to get your feedback in … Its not perfect, but by and large they have done a pretty good job I think. In case you are too busy to read it, here is the short version :

  • Top priority : Carry on with VLT, ALMA and VISTA please. Thou shalt not touch.
  • ELT and SKA : fantabulous. Lets do …. both !!!!
  • eMERLIN and LOFAR. Well, if SKA is so good, we just have to.
  • Gemini : sorry, squire, down the toilet it is .
  • WHT : look, it doesn’t cost much. Oh, ok then. Gone.
  • UKIRT : maybe somebody else can pay ? Oh, ok then. Gone.
  • LSST : come to think of it, this would be rather nice. I know ! ESO can pay !
  • Liverpool Telescope : sorry, not your turn this time
  • WASP and MROI : well, they are kinda fun.

Sounds like a plan. Trouble is of course SKA is fantasy land for years yet, ESO is bust, and we can’t afford to increase the subscription. System in chaos. Mega-projects implausible. Hmm. All change ! Bring back WHT and UKIRT !

They certainly bought the product from the SKA propaganda machine. Respect. Apparently Jodrell Bank invented wifi shortly after CERN invented the Web. Or something like that. Fantastic. I am much more interested in SKA than I was a year ago, cos I have been working on very faint radio sources, which are v.fascinating. (See this paper if you can be bothered.) Trouble is, its also made me worried that SKA will be completely buggered by source confusion. Help.

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 ?

Overheated Telescopes

June 11, 2009

Do we have too many telescopes ?

The STFC Ground Based Facilities Review is now well under way. There is an official GBFR web page, including a link to a well written consultation document, and an online questionnaire (did I spell that right ?)  The deadline for responses is July 31st. There is related “Town Meeting” scheduled for July 9th. (Thanks to Peter for spotting my earlier date screw-up).  The panel expects to publish a draft report by October 2nd; this schedule is designed to allow some chance of interaction with the US decadal survey.

Back in the 1990s I was on a PPARC review panel called the Ground Based Telescopes Development Panel (GBTDP).  Everybody referred to it as the  Ground Based Telescopes Destruction Panel. This time round the gloomy talk says the answer is already written : pull out of Gemini, close everything else except ESO membership, and pick ONE of ELT or SKA. Is that too pessimistic ? Is it in fact the right thing to do ? (See also Sarah’s post)

For sure, money is short and prospects poor. On top of STFC’s dodgy CLRC inheritance, we have a dodgy economy, subscriptions fixed in Euros with a falling pound, Research Councils faced with “efficiency savings”, a new Science Minister rumoured to be unconvinced by astronomy, and dark rumours of other problems.  Furthermore, as the consultation document says upfront, there is no doubt we have a somewhat “overheated” ground based programme, for understandable historical reasons. Something has to go or we will look foolish as well as greedy. But it would be equally foolish to swing right through to the doom scenario where we have only ESO and ELT.

After reading the GBFR document, I felt the urge to boil down some of the figures to get the big picture. So here are some bottom line round figures in size order. These are rough ten year costs, even though some things might not have ten year lifetimes. The idea is just for very rough comparison. I have mixed up existing things, current requests, and likely future requests, and have used todays exchange rates.

  • ESO incl ALMA : £212M
  • ELT-UK  £110M
  • SKA-UK : £82M
  • Gemini incl Oxford office : £60M
  • eMERLIN : £24M (could reduce)
  • 90% of UKIRT : £20M
  • LSST-UK (guesstimate to 2020) £20M
  • 55% of JCMT : £14M
  • 33% of WHT+INT : £10M
  • 40% of Liverpool Telescope : £5M
  • SuperWASP :  £4M
  • 8% of Magdalena Ridge : £3M
  • ALMA Reg. Centre : £3M
  • Dark Energy Survey (DES) £2M
  • LOFAR ops share £2M
  • JIVE £1M

Note that the fractions are open public fractions – eg Iain Steele (see comment below after my original version) notes that most of the rest of LT is still for UK astronomers.

One way to group these numbers is :

  • ESO+Gemini=260
  • new big-tickets=210
  • 4m-era legacy = 67
  • small beer = 30

So the legacy+smalls represent 17% of the total. My guess is that they represent very good value for money … but they are our only margin.

Galaxy Wide Telescope

June 18, 2008

My favourite bit from today’s Astronet sessions … The Square Kilometre Array (SKA) guys say they will find 30,000 pulsars , and 1000 of these will be millisecond pulsars. So we will have a network of these beasts spread through the Galaxy, and will know their frequencies and phases very accurately. Then … here comes the cool bit …. as gravitational waves pass through the Galaxy, and temporarily alter the path lengths to different parts of this network, we will see phase shifts. So we will be using the whole Galaxy as a gravitational wave detector. Its as sensitive as LISA but sensitive to higher frequencies.

How cool is that.