STFC crisis : taking stock

October 4, 2008

I just got back to Palo Alto. It feels like a turning point. The rain finally came (first rain since March !), and my daughter just left home – off to China to teach English in her gap year. We have a new Science Minister (see Kav’s analysis) and the famous Wakeham review is finally out. People are still simmering and fizzing, but the sense of alarm and fury that dominated November to April has subsided. It seems a good time to attempt a summary of what really happened over the last year. Lots of public money is spent on astronomy, and the Government has been increasingly generous to science overall. Where does the alarm come from ?

(Note : to my condensed matter and PP chums … this is just an astro viewpoint …)

  • Diamond and ISIS-2 were over budget ? Nope.
  • Diamond and ISIS-2 ops costs were not in the pre-merger budget ? Kind of. But this problem is still to come …. its not the famous 80M. But watch this space. It will hit us later.
  • STFC is stuck with covering Diamond depreciation ? Yup. Once you realise this, you see that actually STFC had a very poor allocation. Thats it. (Thanks for pushing through that logic John..)
  • STFC did not have a CSR winning bid, which is why we have a crap allocation ? Yup. In other words, there was no equivalent to the ESO bid, or the e-science bid, from previous CSRs. I guess the whole Aurora-Moon etc thing was the attempt at this.
  • It was politically impossible to close Daresbury ? Yup. OK, I am putting my tin hat on now … But before my Daresbury correspondents kill me, what I mean is you could see it making sense to fund healthy scientific activity at Daresbury .. or to gulp and close the site … but being fobbed off with a glorified Business Development Park was a cunning but failed idea ..
  • STFC demonstrated arrogance and incompetence in its relationship with the Astro community ? Yup. Does this matter ? Yup. We aren’t children; we like solving problems; we have a long tradition of being a responsible and organised community; we had established an excellent relationship and understanding with PPARC programme managers. I think it is not a coincidence that public outcry reduced enormously after the consultation panels were established. They just should have been there first.

Gemini : outbreak of sanity

February 27, 2008

I am sitting at home listening to a recording of the last session of the IUS Select Committee .. when suddenly along comes an email from Roger Davies (to the SCAP list I think) alerting us to what Roger called “an outbreak of sanity”. There is an announcement at the Gemini web site. This has a joint statement from STFC and the Executive Agency (NSF) that UK is a Full Partner in Gemini. Here is the text :

The Science and Technology Facilities Council has reaffirmed the UK’s position as a full member of the Partnership under the terms of the current Gemini Agreement. The Gemini Board welcomes this statement. The Board acknowledges the STFC’s need to address its budgetary constraints and notes that, under the terms of the Agreement, the UK is entitled to seek to sell some of its telescope time both within the partnership and, subject to the approval of the Board, outside the current partnership. The Board has directed the Observatory to continue the UK as a full partner, participating in all subsequent observing semesters, and all relevant committees and functions of the Observatory.

Note it gives us permission to start flogging off time. Any takers ?