Behave yourselves

March 13, 2008

I have just taken the difficult step of deleting a few comments. I am very happy for my blog to be a forum for people making quite strident comments – as long as others know these aren’t necessarily my opinions, hence the recent disclaimer box. (Some of them might be of course …) Also I do recognise that the option of being anonymous can make it easier to say things that you genuinely feel need saying. I am sure readers are able to calibrate appropriately.

When things get just slightly too personal however, its not healthy; and allegations of actual misconduct (rather than misjudgement) shouldn’t be made unless you have evidence, and are ready to disclose that through the proper channels. Otherwise its getting rather close to libel, innocent people get hurt, and it would be better for me, the respondent, and the accused parties not to go down that road.

I have also deleted some comments relating to the original inappropriate comment, even though these mostly stated that the comments shouldn’t have been made

Nuff said. I hope.

Mint in the box

March 11, 2008

You may have heard the rumours by now that some wag put Jodders on eBay. This was posted by Chris Lintott, but the link is broken .. some spoilsport removed the listing.

Paul Crowther also has the story, along with a listing of some other bargain basement items. I particularly liked his description of AstroGrid as “mint in the box”. Spot on Paul. In fact it aint even in the shops yet. Turn up at NAM and order your copy. May become a collectors item.

Its the Economy Stupid

March 10, 2008

Patience dear reader. The Clinton reference is explained at the end.

I haven’t posted for a few days. I have been visiting ESO, participating in an internal review they were having of their Virtual Observatory Systems (VOS) Department. This was a very interesting event : some hard bitten VO sceptics were converted. Of course as well as telling them how good our ESO chums were, I slipped in a quick demo of AstroGrid’s VO Desktop… sorry Paolo, couldn’t resist it. Meanwhile, like many other UK astronomers, I have been manning the barricades and joining about six telecons a minute trying to plot our rescue plans. On the plane home, somewhat exhausted, I was re-reading The Tragical History of Dr Faustus (pretentious ? moi ?)…

Now thou hast but one bare hour to live,
And then thou must be damned perpetually !
Stand still, you ever moving spheres of heaven,
That time may cease and midnight never come;
Fair Nature’s eye, rise, rise again, and make
Perpetual day; or let this hour be but
A year, a month, a week, a natural day,
That UKIRT may repent and save its soul !

For UKIRT, read MERLIN, AstroGrid, WFAU, etc. Mephistopheles cometh.

The community consultation is an interesting exercise. After being heavily criticised for not consulting the community, STFC has thrown things wide open for comment. Every postgrad in the land can vent her spleen. Of course “community consultation” is normally a euphemism for “allow the big profs to lobby”, so STFC may claim this is a real community consultation. As a Head of Department I know that the job is more like being King John than Louis Quinze if you know what I mean. How do you avoid being at the mercy of the squabbling barons ? Well of course, you appeal directly to the yeomen and peasants, and they become your power base. Hmm. Thinks. Maybe should change metaphor from mediaeval Europe to ancient Rome. Who are the People’s Tribunes ?

Well, anyhoo… you can’t have failed to notice that STFC is not exactly an anarcho-syndicalist commune, and in fact tends somewhat to the dirigiste. (Not inconsistent with populism of course…) There are two reasons for this. The first is that it is the personal management instinct of senior STFC staff. The second is the nature of STFC and its appointed mission. It is not the embodiment of the scientific community, channelling upwards to government; it is an arm of government, whose aim is to improve the performance of UK PLC. Keith keeps telling us this but we don’t listen. Its the economy stupid.

Some scientists are gung ho for Knowledge Transfer. Others are nervous and distressed, worrying that the purity and independence of academic science is being destroyed. These fears are growing as the commercial pressure builds on the teaching side too. According to the FT, a confidential DIUS report plans a new business focus on teaching. The FT article is here and a related Guardian leader is here.

The worries that commercial engagement will destroy academic science are a bit daft. They do both perfectly well in the USA. Galileo flogged his inventions as fast as he uncovered the secret laws of Nature. And the although the current government is even more insistent on economic relevance than before, notice that unlike governments in the 80s and 90s, they want to pay us extra to help industry. Up here in Schottish-land we don’t want less of this Science and Innovation stuff, we want more please.

Of course thats me talking as Head of Physics rather than Andy the Astronomer. How do we engage with industry when we study the stars ? Answer-1 is that we don’t have to. The Government does recognise the intrinsic value of pure science. But how do you put the correct number on that value ? Same budget as AHRC ?? Answer-2 is that we should re-define KT as “economic impact”. Or put another way, our Knowledge Transfer is people not widgets. This is all going to be vairy important in the Wakeham Review.

Meanwhile keep repeating these two mantras :

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

(2) Its the Economy Stupid

STFC review : bloodbath starts now …

March 3, 2008

STFC just announced the rankings in its infamous “Programmatic Review”. I have several favourites down in the dungeons, and on Friday at 5:21 p.m. got my “Dear John” letter. This was “in advance” of the Town Meeting being held today in London. Despite my personal interests, I am not at that meeting, even though I am in London today. Thats because I have been attending the Critical Service Review for AstroGrid. We concluded that everything looks on target for our planned public release of the software at the NAM in Belfast on March 31st. You will love it, trust me. Our attendees from the STFC Oversight Committee and from our own Science Advisory Group were really impressed. Putting that together with the known fact that the material used by the Programmatic Reviewers was eighteen months out of date, I am confident sense will prevail in our case. Honest.

But of course the other reason I am not at the Town Meeting is that it is bound to be horribly bad tempered – people will be queuing up to shout at anybody with an STFC badge on. My guess is that it won’t be the most productive of meetings.

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.

A message from Gordon

February 7, 2008

I just got an email from 10 Downing Street .. mind you, so, I think, did everybody who signed the “stop physics cuts” petition. This is what it says :

You recently signed a petition relating to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC):

You may wish to know that the STFC issued a statement on its funding plans today – you can read the statement on the STFC website by going to:


Downing Street petitions

Petition information –

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

The petition now has 16,232 signatures and is the 11th most popular out of 8000 petitions currently active. Amazing.

Meanwhile everybody I know is trying to decode the somewhat Delphic statements that the STFC announcements are sprinkled with. Its a real tease.

For weeks we have all been living in fear of the “Programmatic Review”, waiting to hear if our favourite projects/facilities – UKIRT/UKIDSS, AstroGrid in my case – have been cancelled. PPAN and Science Board made the list weeks ago …On January 28th there was “news from Science Board” but this only described the process. The rumours I heard were that the next step would be publishing a ranked list – but without the crucial dotted dividing line. But when the news emerged today, in four related announcements, it still didn’t give us the answer – there are lots of warm words about Innovation Centres , but no ranked list. Apparently this comes at the end of February .. and then there will be a “community consultation period”. For this read “savage interlude of competitive lobbying”. Ain’t gonna be pretty.

How to fix Physics

February 5, 2008

SUPA supremo Ian Halliday was recently SUPA CEO Ian Halliday in Strathclydeasked by high-ups in the Scottish Executive “what should we tell DIUS and STFC about how to protect Physics funding in HEIs and the UKATC ?” Ian asked Team SUPA to chip in our bits. Well, I fed him exactly what I would have said to anybody, so here it is :


  • Short term : a large part of the current crisis stems from STFC inheriting underprovisioning by CCLRC, causing an unexpected step change in problems for particular segments of physics. There is therefore a strong case for targeted assistance from DIUS. This should be primarily for protecting grants income rather than changing STFC policy decisions, and should be aimed at smoothing out problems. The chaos comes from d£/dt.
  • Empower the Physics HEI community. We are problem solvers and can do a good job if trusted. First and foremost this means improve engagement with the HEI community – not “consultation” but “engagement”
  • Restructure so that delivery is separated from policy and funding. STFC has a massive conflict of interest, as did CCLRC before it. Scotland can easily do its part here via the ATC and EPCC; the elephant in the room is the power and influence of RAL. (Apologies to my RAL chums – this is a political statement, not a technical one)
  • Make the case for economic impact of Physics, including fundamental physics. This is partly on (long term) technology return, but mostly is about skills; training of people at all levels, and attraction of young people into science.


  • Restore some key parts of programme, and allow ATC to diversify.
  • Allow ATC to pursue external contracts in order to stabilise its income stream. Decide who holds the operating risk.
  • Separate and protect the historic and cultural aspects of the Royal Observatory; these are properly a Scottish affair, whereas the ATC science programme is UK.
  • Engage politically to help establish ATC as a European (not just UK) centre, with aim of stability and international subscription return.
  • Help establish ATC as part of a Scottish Knowledge Exchange agenda.

Stormy Space Weather

January 31, 2008

One of the victims of the STFC funding crisis is ground-based solar-terrestrial physics : STFC decided to pull out of ground-based radar systems. A few years back, many mainstream astronomers would have quietly let it slip, as it seemed rather dull compared to cosmology, solar physics, or planet hunting : good stuff but not top priority. But now its not so clear, as space weather has an important part in the climate change story; and now of course its all part of the “man the barricades” defence campaign. On January 21, the informal club of that community, known as MIST, had a meeting following which they issued an extremely strident set of resolutions. They also issued a press release, which was picked up by the BBC, and by New Scientist. The tone is getting tougher all round. Here is a toughly worded article in New Statesman, brought to my attention by Rob Ivison.

Behind the scenes, very strongly worded emails are flying around. Not sure where this is all headed… Meanwhile the IUS select committee continues. The next evidence session is on Feb 20th, when they will interview Science Minister Ian Pearson and Research Councils Supremo Keith O’Nions. Meanwhile, subsets of the committee are on a fact finding tour. They were at RAL today; are due at ATC on Feb 5th; and they will presumably be visiting Daresbury, but I haven’t heard about this …

Gemini Roller Coaster

January 28, 2008

Things have been happening fast over the weekend… On Friday STFC announced that the UK had been summarily evicted from Gemini. They consider us not just to be giving notice of withdrawal, but to have left the partnership immediately, and not even the next semester’s observing allocations will be honoured. The same day the relevant Gemini Board resolutions appeared on the Gemini website. (Committees are so efficient these days !). By late Friday evening and Saturday morning emails with words like “stunned and appalled” and “spectacular failure of diplomacy” and “call for resignation” were flying round the community. Part of the upset was the suddeness of the announcement without going through the UK Gemini team first.

By teatime on Saturday, Stuart had written things up nicely on the Astronomy Blog. Saturday night I went to a Burns Supper at Andy Taylor’s house. John Peacock and I chinked our glasses of Talisker and toasted the death of Gemini. This all feels particularly depressing in Edinburgh. Gemini withdrawal knocked out key parts of the ATC work programme, and now US astronomers will find it easier to follow up UKIDSS than we will in the UK. The timing is horrible. On Thursday, Dan Mortlock, Steve Warren et al announced the discovery of our first z>6 quasar – using Gemini of course…

Next morning however, a kind of community PR fightback started. Paul Crowther circulated a message from Richard Wade setting out what he believed to have been the real sequence of events. Given that this emailed to a huge list of people, I see no harm in attaching it here, as it is interesting reading. Even more fun is the attached exchange between Keith Mason, Steve Miller and Hugh Jones, in which amongst other things the whole sorry episode is compared to a Marx Brothers film. (Don’t forget, there ain’t no such a thing as Sanity Clause). Finally for your edification, you might be interested to see the message that has been circulating to US astronomers, sent on to me by Martin Elvis. (Hope thats ok Martin). Hey, at least there is some good news for US astronomers !

One thing that is interesting and encouraging about all this is just that Keith and Richard have been actively engaging with UK astronomers. After last week’s select committee hearings, everybody was very depressed because it didn’t sound like Keith was sticking up for us. (The comments on my blog posts were getting mildly unpleasant but understandable.. and even the normally mild mannered Omar Almaini sent me an email wondering if Keith was really Chas from Chas and Dave)

I wasn’t surprised; Keith Mason’s job is to run the whole of STFC, not astronomy; and he has a horrible tightrope to walk between the community, his Council, DIUS, the Minister, the press…He couldn’t possibly be seen to be knocking DIUS at the select committee. He had to do the opposite. Still, he could have handled us with more tact at the same time …and the lack of community engagement (as opposed to bigwig consultation) has been the poorest thing about STFC performance. So I wonder, is it a coincidence that suddenly the Gemini fiasco has been handled in a very different way, with mass emailing and “lets all pull together chaps” ??

Sunday evening Andrew Jaffe covered the issue in his blog and included the nice phrase “you attract more flies with honey than vinegar”. Putting aside the issue of whether you want to attract more flies, this is certainly what concerns me about the whole STFC funding gap crisis pallaver brouhaha thingy. When to shout and when to help…