Clover Story

Just a quick note for those interested in the story of Clover, Physics World have run a news item on their website.

You may also like to read the article by Alan Heavens over on the e-astronomer.

Note added on Monday 6th April: the Nature slant on the story is now published online, complete with quote from yours truly…

Another update (9th April). Welsh Newspaper The Western Mail has now run a story on the clover cancellation and there was a short item on the BBC Radio Wales News this evening.

Another update (14th April). A statement from Walter Gear, Principal Investigator of the Clover project, about the current status of Clover has been placed on the Cardiff University School of Physics & Astronomy web pages.

Update: 22nd April 2009. Here is the text of a piece I wrote for today’s Research Fortnight:

An undeserved end

Science projects don’t get much purer than CLOVER, an experiment designed to search for evidence of the existence of primordial gravitational waves by making ultra-sensitive measurements of the polarisation of the cosmic microwave background.

From its vantage point in the Atacama Desert in Chile, CLOVER was intended to probe the state of the universe when it was less than a billionth of a billionth of a second old, to test our understanding of the Big Bang theory. Unfortunately, the Science and Technology Facilities Council says it is cancelling funding for the experiment.

Gravitational waves have been studied theoretically and are known to be intimately related to the structure of space-time itself, the understanding of which is arguably the fundamental goal of modern science. The first discovery of the presence of gravitational waves will lead to the emergence of a brand new area of physics. In anticipation of this new science, the CLOVER team—entirely British, with members in the universities of Cardiff, Cambridge, Oxford and Manchester—has established a technical capability in the UK that is second to none. Cancellation will prevent the team from making direct experimental observations of the universe that would not only have been of immense scientific importance, but could also have had deep cultural significance.

So if CLOVER is so good, why is it being cancelled?

The answer lies in an unfortunate combination of circumstances. CLOVER was initially funded in 2004, with
£4.8 million from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, one of the forerunners of the STFC. This budget was not sufficient to complete the experiment, for two main reasons. First, the original grant did not include the costs of setting up a site, which was originally to be provided by overseas collaborators in Antarctica. When this option fell through, the cost of the alternative site in Chile (approximately £0.8m) had
to be found. Second, there were delays due to technical challenges, such as the need to develop some of the world’s most sensitive far-infrared superconducting cameras. So, the CLOVER team was unable to complete the project within the original budget, and went back to the STFC to request extra money. This brought a third factor into play.

Since 2007, the research councils, including the STFC, have changed their method of funding university-based research. In the new full-economic-costs regime, costs are substantially higher than at the time of the original award. These elements combined to leave the CLOVER team with a shortfall of about £2.6m, bringing the overall cost to completion to about £7.5m, although the increase in resources required would be only around 20 per cent if calculated on the pre-FEC basis of the initial funding.

Unfortunately, despite receiving strong support from the scientific community and being rated extremely highly in recent prioritisation exercises, the STFC Council has decided that it does not have the funds and has abruptly cancelled the CLOVER experiment.

The background to this decision is one of dire financial circumstances within the research council. Created in 2007, the STFC was set up with insufficient funding to continue all the programmes that it inherited from its predecessors. The deficit (of around £80m) has led to swingeing cuts in research grants over the past year. The pound has also fallen dramatically against the euro, increasing the cost of subscriptions to the European Space Agency, Cern and the European Southern
Observatory. The balance sheet of the STFC is now in total disarray. CLOVER is the first casualty in what may become a large-scale cull of fundamental science projects.

The STFC’s decision on CLOVER means that an important instrument will be lost, and the millions already spent on it wasted. The technology will be difficult to replace. The many gifted scientists who have been working on CLOVER will have to leave the UK to continue in the field, and are unlikely to return. Their fate is unlikely to tempt younger people into a career in science either.

In cancelling CLOVER, the council has effectively closed the door on UK involvement in cosmic microwave background science in general, an area that has already led to two Nobel prizes for physics. The decision also provides worrying evidence that the STFC seems to be turning away from fundamental science towards technology- driven projects. For example the lunar probe Moonlite has recently won funding for initial development studies without ever passing through the rigorous peer review required of CLOVER. If this really is the way the STFC is going, then we may be witnessing the beginning of the end for British astronomy.

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