Archive for STFC

A Plug for Some Research…

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on May 12, 2014 by telescoper

Very busy today so I just thought I’d give a bit of publicity to a paper that’s just been accepted for publication. I’m actually one of the authors, but the other guys (Dipak Munshi of Sussex, Bin Hu of Leiden, Alessandro Renzi of Rome, and Alan Heavens of South Kensington Technical Imperial College) did all the work! I’m posting it mainly to remind myself that there is a world outside of administration. If it weren’t for my inestimable (STFC-funded) postdoc, Dipak Munshi, I don’t know where my research would be!

Here is the abstract:

We use the optimised skew-spectrum as well as the skew-spectra associated with the Minkowski Functionals (MFs) to test the possibility of using the cross-correlation of the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe effect (ISW) and lensing of the cosmic microwave background (CMB) radiation to detect deviations in the theory of gravity away from General Relativity (GR). We find that the although both statistics can put constraints on modified gravity, the optimised skew-spectra are especially sensitive to the parameter B0   that denotes the the Compton wavelength of the scalaron at the present epoch. We investigate three modified gravity theories, namely: the Post-Parametrised Friedmanian (PPF) formalism; the Hu-Sawicki (HS) model; and the Bertschinger-Zukin (BZ) formalism. Employing a likelihood analysis for an experimental setup similar to ESA’s Planck mission, we find that, assuming GR to be the correct model, we expect the constraints from the first two skew-spectra, S(0)   and S(1), to be the same: B0 <0.45  at 95  confidence level (CL), and B0 <0.67  at 99  CL in the BZ model. The third skew-spectrum does not give any meaningful constraint. We find that the optimal skew-spectrum provides much more powerful constraint, giving B0 <0.071  at 95  CL and B0 <0.15  at 99  CL, which is essentially identical to what can be achieved using the full bispectrum.

It’s part of a long sequence of papers emanating from work done by Dipak (with various combinations of co-authors, including myself) which have been aimed at optimising the use of statistical techniques for detecting and quantifying possible departures from the standard model of cosmology using various kinds of data; in this case the paper is entitled Probing Modified Gravity Theories with ISW and CMB Lensing; `ISW means the Integrated Sachs-Wolfe Effect and CMB is the cosmic microwave background. This kind of work doesn’t have the glamour of some cosmological research – I don’t think we’ll be writing a press release when it gets published! – but it is the kind of preparatory analysis that is essential if cosmologists are to make the most of present and forthcoming observational data, which is why we keep plugging away…

Day Trip to Harwell

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 1, 2014 by telescoper

Only time for a quick post as I’ve just got back from a visit to the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory which is located at Harwell (in the heart of the Midlands).

I was there to find out about the Science and Technology Facilities Council‘s Apprenticeship scheme, as we are planning to introduce a similar scheme at the University of Sussex and needed some advice about how to set it up. I hope to write more about that in due course.

Anyway, it was a very informative and useful visit with the added bonus that we also got an impromptu guided tour of the Diamond Light Source (and its associated workshops where some of the current STFC apprentices are employed). The Diamond Light Source is actually shut down at the moment so various upgrades can be performed, and we were therefore allowed up close to where the beam lines are. That was very interesting indeed, especially when I saw that special devices are apparently deployed to counteract the effects of Cold Dark Matter..

Some B-Mode Background

Posted in Astrohype, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 15, 2014 by telescoper

Well, in case you hadn’t noticed, the cosmology rumour mill has gone into overdrive this weekend primarily concerning the possibility that an experiment known as BICEP (an acronym formed from Background Imaging of Cosmic Extragalactic Polarization). These rumours have been circulating since it was announced last week that the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) will host a press conference  on Monday, March 17th, to announce “a major discovery”. The grapevine is full of possibilities, but it seems fairly clear that the “major discovery” is related to one of the most exciting challenges facing the current generation of cosmologists, namely to locate in the pattern of fluctuations in the cosmic microwave background evidence for the primordial gravitational waves predicted by models of the Universe that involve inflation.

Anyway, I thought I’d add a bit of background on here to help those interested make sense of whatever is announced on Monday evening.

Looking only at the temperature variation across the sky, it is not possible to distinguish between tensor  (gravitational wave) and scalar (density wave) contributions  (both of which are predicted to be excited during the inflationary epoch).  However, scattering of photons off electrons is expected to leave the radiation slightly polarized (at the level of a few percent). This gives us additional information in the form of the  polarization angle at each point on the sky and this extra clue should, in principle, enable us to disentangle the tensor and scalar components.

The polarization signal can be decomposed into two basic types depending on whether the pattern has  odd or even parity, as shown in the nice diagram (from a paper by James Bartlett)

The top row shows the E-mode (which look the same when reflected in a mirror and can be produced by either scalar or tensor modes) and the bottom shows the B-mode (which have a definite handedness that changes when mirror-reflected and which can’t be generated by scalar modes because they can’t have odd parity).

The B-mode is therefore (at least in principle)  a clean diagnostic of the presence of gravitational waves in the early Universe. Unfortunately, however, the B-mode is predicted to be very small, about 100 times smaller than the E-mode, and foreground contamination is likely to be a very serious issue for any experiment trying to detect it. To be convinced that what is being measured is cosmological rather than some sort of contaminant one would have to see the signal repeated across a range of different wavelengths.

Moreover, primordial gravitational waves are not the only way that a cosmological B-mode signal could be generated. Less than a year ago, a paper appeared on the arXiv by Hanson et al. from SPTpol, an experiment which aims to measure the polarization of the cosmic microwave background using the South Pole Telescope. The principal result of this paper was to demonstrate a convincing detection of the so-called “B-mode” of polarization from gravitational lensing of the microwave background photons as they pass through the gravitational field generated by the matter distributed through the Universe. Gravitational lensing can produce the same kind of shearing effect that gravitational waves generate, so it’s important to separate this “line-of-sight” effect from truly primordial signals.

So we wait with bated breath to see exactly what is announced on Monday. In particular, it will be extremely interesting to see whether the new results from BICEP are consistent with the recently published conclusions from Planck. Although Planck has not yet released the analysis of its own polarization data, analysis of the temperature fluctuations yields a (somewhat model-dependent) conclusion that the ratio of tensor to scalar contributions to the CMB pattern is no more than about 11 per cent, usually phrased in the terms, i.e. R<0.11. A quick (and possibly inaccurate) back-of-the-envelope calculation using the published expected sensitivity of BICEP suggests that if they have made a detection it might be above that limit. That would be really interesting because it might indicate that something is going on which is not consistent with the standard framework. The limits on R arising from temperature studies alone assume that both scalar and tensor perturbations are generated by a relatively simple inflationary model belonging to a class in which there is a direct relationship between the relative amplitudes of the two modes (and the shape of the perturbation spectrum). So far everything we have learned from CMB analysis is broadly consistent with this simplifying assumption being correct. Are we about to see evidence that the early Universe was more complex than we thought? We'll just have to wait and see…

Incidentally, once upon a time there was a British experiment called Clover (involving the Universities of  Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester) which was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. I won’t describe it in more detail here, for reasons which will become obvious.

The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff in 2007, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output.  Unfortunately, however, none of that actually happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had spent a large amount (£4.5M) on it already,  STFC decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M)  and cancelled the Clover experiment. Had it gone ahead it would probably have had two years’ data in the bag by now.

It wasn’t clear that Clover would have won the race to detect the B-mode cosmological polarization, but it’s a real shame it was withdrawn as a non-starter. C’est la vie.

Service Complet

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , on December 3, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post from the London to Brighton train, having spent the day at my last ever “Plenary” meeting of the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council which was held at the Institute of Physics. This meeting marks the end of the annual grants round; in January there’ll be a meeting to kick off next year’s business.

I’ve been on this panel for four years now, so I think I’ve done my bit. Time for some new blood to replace those of us who have been stood down.

Anyway I just want to say a big public thank you to the STFC staff, especially Kim, Diane, and Colin for doing their best to keep the panel members in order, as well as to Theory sub-Panel Chair Tom and overall Chair Andy who are also stepping down.

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof. I refer to the day, not the AGP, because it began with a major wobbly in Victoria station on the way to the IOP but ended with a couple of pints and a nice chinwag in the pub round the corner..

Introduction to the PhD for Physics or Astronomy students

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2013 by telescoper

It’s the time of year when final-year students start to think about the possibility of doing a PhD after they have graduated, so I I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people who are thinking of taking the plunge. I’ve posted on such matters before, but this is something that comes around every year so I hope you’ll excuse the repeat. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £13590 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

Don’t be shy! There’s nothing at all wrong with being pro-active about this process. Contact academic staff at other universities by email and ask them about research, PhD opportunities. That will make a good impression. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Although we’re all keen to recruit good PhD students for our own departments, we academics are  conscious that it is also our job to give impartial advice. Ask your tutor’s opinion.

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

Here are some of the slides I used for a talk on such matters a year or so ago, which you might find useful.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…

Welcome to Astronomy (unless you’re female)

Posted in Biographical, Education with tags , , , , , on September 14, 2013 by telescoper

I’m here on campus preparing to attend a series of receptions at the start of Freshers’ Week to welcome new students to the University of Sussex. Over the next few days I’m going to be involved in a lot of events aimed at helping all our new undergraduate students settle in, before teaching starts properly. There’ll also be events for our new postgraduates, at both Masters and Doctoral levels.

Every year the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) funds an Introductory Summer School for new postgraduate research students in Astronomy. It’s held at a different university each year and is a long-running tradition. I attended such a School at Durham University way back in 1985, long before STFC was invented! We organized and ran one at Nottingham while I was there and last year the corresponding fixture was held at Sussex University, though that was before my time here and I wasn’t involved in it at all. This year, the Introductory Summer School was held at Queen Mary, University of London (often abbreviated to QMUL).

I spent eight happy years at Queen Mary (from 1990-98) so it pains me to have to criticize my friends and former colleagues there, but I really feel that I have to. Look at the programme for the Summer School. You will see that 18 (eighteen) lecturers were involved, covering virtually all areas of current research interest in the field. There is not a single female lecturer among them.

Yesterday I blogged about the invisibility of LGBT astrophysicists, but this is a glaring example of the problems facing female scientists embarking on a career in the same discipline. What message does a male-only programme send to aspiring female astronomers and astrophysicists? The lack of female speakers probably wasn’t deliberate, but was clearly thoughtless. Discrimination by omission is real and damaging. I mean no disrespect at all to the lecturers chosen, but looking through the topics covered I could easily have picked a female alternative who would have done just as good a job, if not better.

I think this is a scandal. I’ll be writing a letter of complaint to STFC myself, and I encourage you to do likewise if you agree. It’s too late to do anything about this year’s School, of course, but STFC must make sure that nothing like this happens again.

Good Morning Swindon

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , on August 28, 2013 by telescoper

So here I am again, in the picturesque town of Swindon (Wilts) for the three-day festival of fun and frivolity that is the Astronomy Grants Panel. I probably won’t get much time to blog, so I thought I’d post a photograph of the idyllic view from my hotel window, in case any of you think I’m here enjoying myself…

 

The Cosener’s House

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , on May 9, 2013 by telescoper

Back in Brighton after a busy but productive day-and-a-half in Abingdon discussing the future of SEPNET of which more soon. I just have time to post a few pictures of the place I was staying, The Cosener’s House.

Incidentally, being fascinated by words, I just looked up “cosener” on the online Oxford English Dictionary and found that it is a common variant of the word “cozener” which means a “deceiver, cheat or impostor”. I felt quite at home there

The place is right next to the River Thames, which runs along the bottom of the pleasant garden adjacent to the house. I hadn’t realized that the whole establishment is run by the Science and Technology Facilities Council and is much frequented by users of various large scientific facilities (such as ISIS and the Diamond Light Source) situated nearby at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL).

The particle physicists among us were quite familiar with The Cosener’s House owing to the connection with RAL but although I’ve done quite a few STFC panels I’ve never been there before. Anyway, as you can see, it’s a pleasant enough location and it met with my particular strong approval because of the splendid black pudding available at breakfast!

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House and Garden

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This be the Thames…

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The Bridge at Twilight.

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Calm as a Millpond…

Should UK Research Funding Be Reorganized?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by telescoper

A couple of recent news items spurred me on to reflect a bit about the system of research funding in the UK. The first of these was an item I noticed a while ago in Research Fortnight about the (ongoing) Triennial Review of the research councils, and specifically, input from the Wellcome Trust to that review that was rather critical of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and suggested it might be dismantled.

For context it’s probably a good idea to look back to the formation of STFC in 2007 via the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Previously, PPARC had looked after particle physics and astronomy (including space science) and CCLRC had run large experimental facilities in other branches of science. The idea of merging them wasn’t silly. A large chunk of PPARC’s budget went on managing large facilities, especially ground-based astronomical observatories, and it was probably hoped that it would be more efficient to put all these big expensive pieces of kit under the same roof (so to speak).

However, at the time, there was considerable discussion about what should happen in general with science grants. For example, physicists working in UK universities in areas outside astronomy and particle physics previously obtained research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), along with chemists, engineers and even mathematicians. Some experimentalists working in these areas used facilities run by the CCLRC to do their work. However, astronomers and particle physicists got their grants from PPARC, the same organisation that ran their facilities and also paid subscriptions to international agencies such as CERN and ESA. These grants were often termed “exploitation”  or “responsive mode” grants; they involved funding for postdoctoral researchers and staff time used in analysing observational or experimental data and comprised relatively little money compared the the cost of the PPARC facilities themselves. PPARC also funded PhD studentships and postdoctoral fellowships under the umbrella of its Education and Training division, although needless to say all the Education and Training involved was done in host universities, not by PPARC itself.

The question was whether the new merged organisation, STFC should continue giving grants to university groups or whether the responsibility for doing this should be moved elsewhere, perhaps to EPSRC. At the time, most astronomers were keen to have their research grants administered by the same organisation that ran the facilities. I thought it made more sense to have research scientists all on the same footing when it came to funding and in any case thought there were too many absurd divisions between, say, general relativity (EPSRC) and relativistic astrophysics (PPARC), so I was among the (relatively few) dissenting voices at the time.

There were other reasons for my unease. One was that, during a previously funding squeeze, PPARC had taken money from the grants line (the pot of money used for funding research groups) in order to balance the books, necessarily reducing the amount of science being done with its facilities. If STFC decided to do this it would probably cause even more pain, because grants would be an even smaller fraction of the budget in STFC than they were in PPARC. Those EPSRC physicists using CCLRC facilities seem to have managed pretty well so I didn’t really see the argument for astronomy and particle physics being inside STFC.

The other reason for me wanting to keep research grants out of STFC was that the (then) new Chief Executive of PPARC, Keith Mason, had made no secret of the disdain he felt towards university-based astronomy groups and had stated on a number of occasions his opinion that there were too many astronomers in the United Kingdom. There are two flaws with this argument. One is that astronomy is essential to the viability of many physics departments because of its appeal to potential students; without it, many departments will fold. The other problem is that Mason’s claim that the number of astronomers had grown by 40% in a few years was simply bogus.  This attitude convinced me that he in particular would need only the slightest excuse to divert funds away from astronomy into areas such as space exploration.

It all seems a very distant memory now, but six or years ago UK physics (including astronomy) was experiencing a time of relative plenty. The government had introduced a system whereby the research councils would fund research groups on the basis of the Full Economic Cost of the research, which meant more money coming into research groups that were successful at winning grants. The government increased funding for the councils to pay for this largesse and probably diminished the fear of another funding pinch. Astronomers and particle physicists also felt they would have more influence over future strategy in facility development by remaining within the same organisation. In the end what happened was that STFC not only kept the portfolio of astronomy and particle physics grants, but also acquired responsibility for nuclear physics from EPSRC.

But then, in 2007, just after STFC came into existence,  a major financial disaster broke: that year’s comprehensive spending review left the newly formed STFC with a huge gap in its finances. I don’t know why this happened but it was probably a combination of gross incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive and deliberate action by persons higher up in the Civil Service. The subsequent behaviour of the Chief Executive of STFC led to a public dressing down by the House of Commons Select Committee and a complete loss of confidence in him by the scientific community. Miraculously, he survived, at least for a while. Unfortunately, so did the financial problems that are his legacy.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but that’s exactly what I am going to dp. Everything that happened was predictable given the initial conditions. You might argue that STFC wasn’t to know about the global economic downturn.As a matter of fact I’d agree. However, the deep cuts in the science budget we have seen have very little to do with that. They all stem from the period before the Credit Crunch even started. Although Prof. Mason was eventually replaced (in 20111), the problems inherent in STFC are far from solved.

The last Comprehensive Spending Review (2010) was less bad for STFC than some of us feared – with a level cash settlement which still holds. In real times the funds are now being eroded rather than being slashed further, but the situation remains very difficult because of past damage. I don’t think STFC  can afford to settle for flat cash at the next spending review. The new Supreme Leader  Chief Executive of STFC, John Womersley, said much the same thing at last night’s RAS dinner, in fact.

I know this preamble has been a bit long-winded, but I think it’s necessary to see the background to what I’m going to propose. These are the steps I think need to be taken to put UK physics back on track.

First, the powers that be have to realize that university researchers are not just the icing on the cake when it comes to science: they actually do most of the science. I think the new regime at STFC recognizes this, but I’m not sure the government does. Another problem is that  that the way scientists are supported in their research is a complete mess. It’s called the dual support system, because the research councils pay 80% of the cost of research grants and Higher Education Funding Councils (i.e. HEFCE in England) are meant to provide the other 20%. But in reality it is a bureaucratic nightmare that subjects researchers to endless form-filling and costs hundreds of millions in wasteful duplication. This was true enough of the old Research Assessment Exercise, but has been taken to even higher levels of absurdity by the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, the decisions coming out of which will be more influencing by guesswork and institutional game-playing than actual research excellence.

The Research Councils already have well-managed systems to judge the quality of research grant applications, so do we really needed the REF on top of them?  The second article I referred to in the introduction, on a study showing that Research Council grant income, appeared in last week’s Times Higher. That study shows -at least at institutional level – that the two streams are pretty closely correlated. While REF/RAE income is awarded on a retrospective basis, and grant awards are based on proposals of future activity, it should be a surprise that people with a good track-record are also good at thinking up interesting new projects. Moreover, panels such as the STFC Astronomy Grant Panel (of which I am a member) certainly take into account the applicants’ track-record when assessing the viability of research proposals.

So if we don’t need two systems, what could we have instead? Moving grants from STFC to EPSRC, as some proposed in the past,  would go part of the way, but EPSRC has many problems too. I would therefore prefer to see a new organisation, specifically intended to fund blue-skies scientific research in universities. This organisation would have a mission statement that  makes its remit clear, and it would take over grants, studentships and fellowships from STFC, EPSRC and possibly some of the other research councils, such as NERC.  The new outfit would need a suitable acronym, but I can’t think of a good one at the moment. Answers on a postcard.

As a further suggestion,  I think there’s a strong case to be made that HEFCE should be deprived of its responsibility for research funding. The apparatus of research assessment it uses is obviously  flawed, but why is it needed anyway? If the government believes that research is essential to universities, its policy on selectivity doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if it believes that university departments don’t need to be research groups then why shouldn’t the research funding element be administered by a reserch organisation? Even better, a new University Research Council along the lines I have suggested  could fund research at 100% of the Full Economic Cost instead of only 80%. The substantial cash saved by scrapping the REF should be pumped into grants to be administered by the new organisation, reversing the  cuts imposed we’ve endured over past years.

So what should  STFC become after the Triennial Review? Clearly there is still a role for an organisation to manage large experimental facilities. However, the fact that the UK now has its own Space Agency means that some activity has already been taken out of the STFC remit.  The CERN and ESO subscriptions could continue to be managed by STFC along with other facilities, and it could in some cases commission projects in university research groups or industrial labs as it does now. Astronomers and particle physicists would continue to sit on its Board.  However, its status would change radically, in that it would become an organisation whose job is to manage facilities, not research. The tail will no longer be wagging the dog.

I very much doubt if these suggestions are at all in line with current political “thinking” nor with those of many of my colleagues. The input to the Triennial Review from the Institute of Physics, for example, is basically that nothing should change. However, I think that’s largely because most of us working in STFC area,  have much greater confidence in the current management than we did in the previous regime rather than because the structure is right. Some of the bureaucrats in the Treasury, RCUK and HEFCE won’t like my suggestion  either, because they’ll all have to go and do something more useful.  But unless someone stands up for the university sector and does something to safeguard future funding then the ongoing decline in funding levels will never be reversed.

I very much doubt if many of my fellow physicists or astronomers agree with my suggestion either. Not to worry. I’m used to being in a minority of one. However, even if this is the case I hope this somewhat lengthy post will at least get you thinking. As always, I’d be interested in comments..

Being on the panel…

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , on March 26, 2013 by telescoper

As well as all the University of Sussex business I’ve been having to take care of over the last couple of months or so, I’ve also been trying to find time to keep up with the new round of applications to the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. I had originally thought that the 2012/13 round would be the last one on which I served, but I must have misbehaved in some way because it appears that my sentence has been extended for another year.

The latest duty required of panel members has been to assign reviewers to the new proposals, which means reading each case and trying to think of appropriate experts to assess them in detail. Normal procedure is to contact such people informally in the first instance, with Swindon Office following up by sending the actual documents if and only if they agree. fortunately, most people out there in astronomyland are very public spirited and it’s usually not that difficult to find willing reviewers.

In the course of contacting potential referees this round I had a couple of replies from people who were apparently already considering the possibility of volunteering to be on the panel next year and who therefore asked me what it would be like. I thought I’d make a few comments here in case anyone reading this blog has toyed with similar thoughts.

Basically, my view is that the AGP is extremely hard but also extremely interesting work, and it’s also the chance to work with a very friendly and cooperative group of people. From that point of view I think it’s well worth doing. Plus, of course, the wider the range of people who participate in panel work the fairer it is likely to be.

In fact, if it weren’t for the friendly company the three-day meetings in Swindon during which the final recommendations are drawn up would be truly horrendous. These meetings are extremely pressured, by the way. If I recall correctly the volume of grants to get through corresponds to about £10,000 per minute of discussion time.

On the other hand, the job is not without its frustrations. Most important of these is that there simply isn’t enough money to fund all the top-rated research proposals. Established researchers who have become used to having a steady stream of research grants are not spared this stark arithmetic. I think most people are mature enough not to take it personally when a grant application is turned down, but there are exceptions. I’ve been beset at more than one RAS dinner by disgruntled senior scientists complaining about various aspects of the AGP process. Sometimes these have been fair criticisms (e.g. about the quality of feedback) but others have been quite disturbingly ill-informed, to such an extent that I don’t think the persons concerned had even read the grant guidance…

Anyway, if you’re wondering whether to put yourself forward for nomination as a member of the AGP then please do, because the process needs to engage the community it tries to serve. If you do join up, though, just be prepared to suffer a few of the odd slings and arrows. As for me, this is definitely my last year. I have a few enough friends already, and I can’t afford to lose any more.

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