Stay of Execution Part II

June 7, 2010

These days we have to be grateful for partial victories. You will all remember the pre-Xmas pain of finally hearing the results of the STFC prioritisation review. This included the half-expected but grim news that there would be a “managed withdrawal” from UKIRT. Over the following weeks this got worse, as we discovered that this meant shutting down UKIRT by the end of this year, 2010.  The announcement hit my own scientific ambitions, as it would mean UKIDSS would not get finished as originally intended. It was also grim timing, so soon after the workshop celebrating 30 years of UKIRT. And, as I wrote during my last UKIRT run, UKIRT has gradually evolved into the most efficient telescope I know.

However, the UKIRT leadership evolved a cunning plan. UKIRT is run by the Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC), sharing much support with the JCMT, which is guaranteed to stay open to mid-2012. If UKIRT closes, the operating cost of JCMT would actually go up somewhat. So a new “bare bones” model was developed in which the cost of running both telescopes would be pretty much the same as running JCMT by itself. I have been aware of this behind the scenes for a while, but I am very pleased to see that it has been officially approved by STFC and by the UKIRT Board, and was announced yesterday on the UKIRT website.

The general idea is that the TSS runs UKIRT from sea level, there are no visiting observers, and there is heavily reduced tech support. UKIRT Head Andy Adamson has already moved to Gemini, but luckily the equally trusty Tom Kerr is taking over. You can read more about minimalist mode at Tom’s blog, A Pacific View, which regularly has the most stunning pictures.

The good news is that UKIDSS will finish, and UKIRT stays open, and presumably continues to welcome possible partners. The bad news is that this means real cuts, and there will be real redundancies, over and above the voluntary ship jumping and person shuffling – something lke thirteen posts I believe.

The sounds of youth

February 13, 2010

I do miss the Mellotron. It was the sound of my youth. I resumed my acquaintance on a flight from the UK to Hawaii for my latest observing run by listening to ancient King Crimson. With those synthesised strings a band could sound radical and modern and gushingly sentimental at the same time.

I was expecting more gushing sentiment in Hawaii. I am here to push on with UKIDSS, our infra-red sky survey, which will take a thousand nights at fourteen thousand feet. Except that now it might not finish … as UKIRT‘s closing date has been set by STFC as Dec 31st this year. So this might be my last ever UKIRT run…

So I was expecting the local staff to be wallowing in gloom, bitterness, and weepy nostalgia. What I found was a kind of resigned pragmatism. Senior staff are putting on their salesman hats and looking for buyers; junior staff are just getting on with their jobs.  And of course they are all brushing off their CVs. But there was no ranting or choking back tears.

I did get my nostalgia fix tonight though. Tom Geballe, who is currently on a staff astronomer run at Gemini, dropped in to UKIRT with his son and other visitors. Tom used to work at UKIRT many moons ago, and was touched to find CGS4 still bolted on to its Cassegrain station. He patted it gently. His son too found his head thrown back in time. The sound of his youth, he said, was the CGS4 closed cycle coolers.

But now the future is upon us ! VISTA works. See lovely new Orion picture. Last night I looked at the Orion nebula with my binoculars. Its nice to be reminded every now and again that what we do is real. It ain’t just a TV game.

Angels over Stanford

September 5, 2008

I had lunch today at the Quadrus cafe, just across the road from SLAC. This is where the angels eat. Years back, Sand Hill Road was buzzing with busy Venture Capitalists, shovelling their money into computer startups. Apparently they are still there, but now they are for looking for alternative energy technologies. Steve Kahn told me that office rental is six times higher around here than in Palo Alto.  This makes SLAC folks nervous. Will Stanford keep backing them when they could flog the land instead ?

On the way back I picked up Symmetry, the PR magazine for Fermilab and SLAC combined. By PR mag standards, its actually a pretty good read. The editorial took me by surprise – it was labelled “Positive News for Particle Physics”. (I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d kept up with Mark Lancaster’s web page or read this Physics World article )

Back before Christmas, panic and despondency hit US physics at pretty much the same time as the STFC crisis blew up in the UK. Work on the ILC and ITER was cut right back, and almost three hundred redundancies (“layoffs” in US-speak) planned between SLAC and Fermilab. Now it seems Congress has “appropriated” an extra $32M, and the President has announced a supplemental budget. The planned Fermilab layoffs have been halted. Its too late for 125 people laid off by SLAC, but apparently they might want to re-apply …

So how come Parliament can’t vote us some extra money ? Tough guy Willis wrote a stinging report … but he didn’t get us any money. Or did he ? Its pretty hard to tell in the UK system. It could well be that behind the scenes DIUS and the Treasury are doing what they can for STFC, slipping over extra LFCF or TSB money, so they can save money in their main budget etc etc .. but how would we know ? The only rule is that the Minister cannot imply that the Government made a mistake. There simply cannot be any publicly announced rescue. We all know that. But why not ?  Cue the Watcher to tell us its because the Government believes you mustn’t give in to children with tantrums.

Sweet and Sour, Nuclear Power

July 10, 2008

Being stuck in the grim Californian sunshine I didn’t make it to the STFC Town meeting on the 8th. So I don’t have insightful analysis for you. Instead this is a kind of dummy post so other people can tell me what happened.

Following up links from Paul Crowther’s site, the press seem to think the entire thing was about Jodrell Bank, so everything is ok now. Oh good. You might expect me to whinge on about AstroGrid now, but I just don’t have the energy. (Its too hot here). Hang on a tick though, the Telegraph seems to have a story about STFC destroying the country’s nuclear power capability !!! Naturally, STFC have put out a statement explaining that they are reponsible for the nation’s power stations.. Fair enough. But perhaps someone has some facts on how much has been cut on the Nuke Physics side ?

C-day Plus One

July 3, 2008

Here I am in the very thick of the madding crowd : Heathrow Terminal Three, en route to San Francisco. Yesterday STFC Council met and finally sealed the fates of various projects (*). The outcome is described in a pdf file you can get here. STFC folk will brave up to the crowd and explain it all at the Town Meeting on July 8th … but there ain’t really any surprises, so not sure how that will go. For me, its a mixed story; the approach to UKIRT/UKIDSS is much saner than before; the WFAU/CASU stuff is peripheral, outside the core work, and shouldn’t really have been in the review at all; and AstroGrid as expected is sacrificed. The previous two days I have been running the twice yearly AstroGrid Consortium Meeting, and we have planning how to “gift wrap” our product as professionally as we can, on the assumption that our early closure would indeed be announced. The referee’s decision is final; no barricades will be manned or TV crews invited; but if I hear that there are no cuts, only “unfulfilled aspirations”, I will spit. E-science fans may note that the long term situation is much more complex; the Astronet facility roadmap strongly recommends continued investment in the VO, and the international drive in this direction is undiminished; all we have done is relinquish the UK lead in this area. Hey, you can’t have everything. No really, you can’t. Probably we have just displaced the cost of dealing with the global data management infrastructure elsewhere. Watch this space.

So whither STFC ? They seem to be doing a Geoffrey Boycott, sticking doggedly at the wicket and adding a run or so every few minues. The Select Committee report was vicious, with many truths but also unecessary personal attacks on KOM. The Government response seemed to be a stubborn and patronising denial of all the points … but … you will note that there is now an organisational review of STFC underway. Is this a deflection, or a lining up for the firing squad ? Time will tell.

You have only until July 9th to make your input to the review

Meanwhile, lets look on the bright side ….

  • PPAN did make SOME changes
  • DIUS is looking hard at whether STFC is the right structure
  • MoonLite is being opened up to very public scrutiny
  • Advisory Panels are being re-invented
  • The competent ex-PPARC bureaucracy is re-asserting itself

* posted next day, stateside

Reasons to be cheerful, one, two, three.

June 16, 2008

So the advisory panel reports have been released ; PPAN has responded; and Science Board has endorsed PPAN’s pronouncements. The final word is with Council on July 1st. The rankings have been nicely analysed by Stuart over at The Astronomy Blog. So where are we now ?

Wandering the halls of academe, and reading my inbox, I get the impression most people are saying “why did we bother ? PPAN has changed almost nothing.”. I think this is a mistake for several reasons.

(1) Some things have changed. UKIRT went up a notch, and LT went down a notch – although the ground based advisory panel wanted a larger movement. PPAN took the theory panel idea of splitting HPC operations into strands so some of it could be funded. XMM went up a notch and SWIFT went down a notch, but is still high.

Of course I am being a big brave boy because AstroGrid and CASU/WFAU are still in the pits, and UKIDSS is still at risk, so thats ten years of my life down the toilet. Hey Ho.

(2) The advisory panel reports are excellent – really good pieces of analysis, accurate, well considered and argued. And the level of discussion from PPAN, while still not extensive, is much much more than the brief, vague and almost insulting “feedback” we had before. It engages with the arguments, and sometimes but not always concedes points. Its just all much healthier.

(3) Advisory panel members (including myself, on the space panel) had insisted that our reports be made public. But STFC had not committed to make the PPAN and PALS responses public. But they have done so, and this is a huge advance.

Because of history, and because of the cuts, the commmunity is still not going to be happy. But its a vast improvement. If we’d had these kind of detailed panel reports before the original PPAN deliberations, everybody would have been onside. The result might have been different. Or it might have been just the same. But the referee’s decision would have been accepted.

(This reminds me of a story by Borges, about a literary critic who immerses himself so deeply in Don Quixote that he is able to spontaneously recreate it word by word. But when he has, it is. of course, not the same book …)

So is the result scientifically wise and sound ? Well of course you can’t expect me to be unbiased on UKIRT, AstroGrid, and WFAU/CASU, so I won’t try. Standing back and looking at the big picture, many things are just clearly correct, but there is a tendency to fund the future by cutting the present – i.e. things like XMM and UKIDSS producing results NOW. This is kinda brave but foolish.

Postscript When I googled “reasons to be cheerful”, although Ian Dury did of course come up first, entry number three was a blog by a woman obsessed with ukeleles and knitting. Isn’t the Internet wonderful ?

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.

Gordon’s Final Word

April 8, 2008

I got another email from 10 Downing Street today. (Yes I know, most of you did too..) I wrote about Gordon’s initial response to the famous petition in this post. Here is the text of the final response :

You signed a petition asking the Prime Minister to “reverse the decision to cut vital UK contributions to Particle Physics and Astronomy.”

The Prime Minister’s Office has responded to that petition and you can view it here:

Prime Minister’s Office

Petition information –

If you would like to opt out of receiving further mail on this or any other
petitions you signed, please email

Have a read of the petition. Its a mixture of depressing and encouraging. Of course, the Government was never going to say “Oh dear you are quite right, here is lots more money”. That ain’t how things work. However this :

Claimed reductions in STFC’s budget appear to have been derived from STFC’s aspirations for the three-year Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) period (2008/9 – 2010/11). These aspirations never constituted an agreed set of activities or funding for them, and the suggestion that £80m has been cut from its budget is wrong.

is close to insulting. We are not stupid. Nobody said £80M has been cut from the STFC budget. Merely unfunded aspirations ? That applies to the ILC, but not to discussing plans for several hundred job cuts, sending a message to every UK University saying “how would you respond to 25-40% grant cuts”, and publishing a Delivery Plan announcing “We plan to withdraw from future investment in the twin 8-metre Gemini telescopes” and “We will cease all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities” and “We will cease to invest in high-energy gamma ray astronomy experiments”. (I am avoiding plugging the cases that affect me personally). These are facts and quotes and they are cuts. I am not even saying they are wrong to do … I might have done these things too … but saying “there are no cuts, only unfunded aspirations” is more or less spitting in our face. I was actually pretty impressed with the STFC performance at NAM, and so really disappointed they allowed these patronising words to escape Number Ten.

On the other hand .. The response says

It is a tribute to UK science that it will always be the case that there will be more proposals for scientific research than the funding is able to cover. Funding bodies such as STFC will always have to make difficult decisions and it is both justified and understandable for there to be a debate over how these decisions are made.

Which seems to say it was ok for us to make a fuss. Huh. Maybe we are not foolish children after all. Perhaps more importantly the response says :

This follows large increases in funding in recent years and means that there would be no major reductions in physics funding before the outcome of the Wakeham Review is known. (Professor Bill Wakeham, Vice Chancellor of Southampton University, has been asked to lead an independent review of the health of physics overall and we, and the Research Councils UK (RCUK), will pay close attention to his conclusions, which are expected in the Autumn.)

The community and the RAS have been consistently asking for this, so its very good to see. So.. having had my hissy fit … lets all start working to make the best of this. We have time.

Next up, Wakeham. Just got the questionnaire … some thoughts on this soon…

The King’s Shilling

March 27, 2008

The panels for the STFC consultation exercise are filling up and starting work. I have taken the King’s Shilling and agreed to serve on the space science and space exploration panel, chaired by Steve Schwarz. I think I am seen as an independent in this context … although I have used all sorts of space-based data over many years, I am not an insider on any space project. A good colleague has suggested to the SCAP list that we only agree to serve under some sort of statement of fundamental disagreement with the process. This is a bit like those French citizens who voted for Chirac with pegs on their noses, to keep Le Pen out. I think that is going slightly too far; but I (and others) have asked that our deliberations should be public, and we can then include a statement of discomfort, along the lines that Walter Gear made for PPAN at the March Town Meeting

Paul Crowther’s web site contains an update today of a meeting that Oxford profs had with Science Minister Ian Pearson, who asked for details of grants cuts. According to the email circulated amongst the SCAP list, Pearson also said that we had to co-operate with the consultation exercise, rather than try to destroy it. I am pretty sure most people’s instincts will indeed be to co-operate to the fullest extent and to do a very thorough job. The result will be to make STFC’s job much much harder. What stands out in the Programmatic Review priority list is that a large fraction of the highest priority things are very exciting but speculative things – grand plans for the future – whereas a large fraction of the lower priority things are projects and facilities that are producing science now, or are just about to. The present is being sacrificed for the future. There is a brave logic to this; but my guess is that the instinct of most working scientists will swing the other way. Of course any sensible programme has some of each …

Here is the weekly reminder of the two mantras :

(1) STFC inherited a budget deficit of £75M from CLRC.

(2) Its the Economy Stupid

My understanding of Mike Green’s commentary on the papers released to him under his FoI request, is that the Executive explained to Science board that “previous inadequate provision by CCLRC” led to a “negative dowry of £40M”. Its not clear what time frame this refers to so we don’t have to agonise over the exact amounts, but at least the basic principle is clear.

This seems to me to be the thing to concentrate on politically. You can complain about STFC’s approach to community engagement; you can disagree if you like about their chosen science policy; but these things are within their rights as an organisation; and they may improve with time. But the political record states that the PPARC science programme was not to be damaged by the act of merger itself; this principle has blatantly been breached. And the extra cost of operating Diamond and ISIS-2, at +£25M/yr, goes on ad infinitum.

Moreover, someone high up understood this problem, and chose not to address it. This is is related to mantra number two.

Because I know these two things are really the problem, I can participate openly in the consultation exercise, and do my best for STFC under their own rules.

Keep your eye on the ball.

Budget 2008 surprise rescue plan for science allocation

March 13, 2008

Nah, only kidding.