Archive for March 9, 2011

Batting for Astronomy

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 9, 2011 by telescoper

I was too busy teaching this morning to watch streaming video of the meeting of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee I referred to in a previous post, but then, being a confirmed Luddite,  I rarely manage to get such things to work properly anyway. Or is it just that Parliament TV isn’t very good? Anyway, I did get the chance to do a fast-forward skim through the coverage, and also saw a few comments on Twitter.

By all accounts the two big hitters for astronomy, Professor Roger Davies and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell both played good innings, watchful in defence, parrying the odd tricky delivery, but also scoring impressively when the opportunity arose. Dame Jocelyn, for example, got in a nice comment to the effect that the shortfall in observatory funding was equivalent to one banker’s bonus.

Any other reactions are welcomed through the comments box.

The e-astronomer (whose pseudonym is Andy Lawrence)  has already blogged about the event, including a delightfully pithy summary of the written evidence submitted beforehand . But then Andy’s never reluctant to take the pith when the opportunity arises…

The thing that depresses me most is the contrast between the forthright and well-considered performances of leading figures from the astronomy establishment with the bumbling efforts of the Chief Executive of STFC, Keith Mason. As Andy Lawrence points out, some of the latter’s responses to questions at the last session of the inquiry were downright misleading, giving the impression that he didn’t know what he was talking about. And that’s the more generous interpretation. Combine the poor grasp of detail with his generally unenthusiastic demeanour, and it becomes easy to see that one of the main reasons for the ongoing crisis at STFC is its Chief Executive.

I’ve been told off repeatedly in private for posting items on here that are severely critical of Professor Mason, sometimes on the grounds that my comments are ad hominem, a phrase so frequently misused on the net that it is in danger of losing its proper meaning. It’s not an “ad hominem” attack to state that a person is demonstrably useless at their job. I stand  my ground. He should have gone years ago.

Unfortunately we still have to wait another year or so before a replacement Chief Executive will be installed at STFC. Good people elsewhere – both  inside and outside science – have lost or are losing their jobs, because of the recession and cutbacks, through no fault of their own. Reality is much less harsh if you’re at the top.


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