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.

Wakeham out ! Read all abart it !

October 1, 2008

Check out the RCUK Review of Physics web site. The Wakeham report is out, as is RCUK’s response. My RAS spies tell me they will have a response out in the morning. So far I have only had time to read the Executive Summary … but the main points seem to be :

  • UK Physics is jolly healthy
  • Physics research is healthy, but has fallen behind other areas in funding
  • Physics education is declining because of funds and interest
  • Physics research has a significant economic impact
  • High Performance computing is very important
  • Universities should be more involved in facility management
  • A small body of independent wise people should help DIUS with the CSR allocation.
  • Astronomy and particle physics should stay inside STFC …
  • … but their funding should be clearly separated from other facilities

Rats. I seem to agree with all of that. Where’s the fun in that ?

Wakeham weirdness

April 27, 2008

This evening I have been drafting our submission to the Wakeham review – both the Departmental submission, and the Vice Chancellor’s submission, which of course I have the honour of having been asked to draft … The questions are quite striking. After Q1=”name please” (oooo der hard ones first eh…) we go straight into

Q2 Please list and describe five examples of non-academic impact that have stemmed from research carried out by members of your department …

Wow. It takes until Q9 before we get to the expected “so, is STFC crap or what ?” question. (Of course many of my colleagues are looking for the “so is EPSRC crap or what ?” question … you can stare at EPSRC documents all day trying to decide whether your grant application should fit into “digital economy” or “securing the future”…

Over at the VC questionnaire this looks like a key question :

Q3 : Has the focus of research in your Department had to be adjusted to attract students and ensure long term viability ?

Of course ! We hire nothing except astronomers, because this gets thousands of punters in. We tell them at interview they are almost certain to meet Heather Cooper at some point, or possibly just Chris Lintott. Meanwhile, every one of these astronomers demands a personal eight metre telescope.

My favourite though is Q12 on the Departmental submission :

Q12 : Please detail the number of staff in your Department that have received senior management training.


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.