Exploitation

At the last Meeting of the RAS Council on October 9th 2009, Professor Keith Mason, Chief Executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), made a presentation after which he claimed that STFC spends too much on “exploitation”, i.e. on doing science with the facilities it provides. This statement clearly signals an intention to cut grants to research groups still further and funnel a greater proportion of STFC’s budget into technology development rather than pure research.

Following on from Phillip Helbig’s challenge a couple of posts ago, I decided to commemorate the occasion with an appropriate sonnet, inspired by Shakespeare’s Sonnet 14.

TO.THE.ONLIE.BEGETTER.OF.THIS.INSU(LT)ING.SONNET.

Mr K.O.M.

It seems Keith Mason doesn’t give a fuck
About the future of Astronomy.
“The mess we’re in is down to rotten luck
And our country’s  ruin’d economy”;
Or that’s the tale our clueless leader tells
When oft by angry critics he’s assailed,
Undaunted he in Swindon’s office dwells
Refusing to accept it’s him that failed.
And now he tells us we must realise:
We spend “too much on science exploitation”.
Forget the dreams of research in blue skies
The new name of the game is wealth creation.
A truth his recent statement underlines
Is that we’re doomed unless this man resigns.

33 Responses to “Exploitation”

  1. Did it take more than 5 minutes to write it? 🙂

    Please correct the spelling of my name. Probably both versions are Googlable, but I want to avoid confusion in cyberspace.

  2. It would be nice if comments here could be edited by the commenter within a few minutes after posting them.

    I might be the only “Phillip Helbig” in cyberspace, but there is at least one “Philip Helbig”, so we should avoid confusion.

    By “Googlable” I meant a name which is unique, which means that all Google hits refer to only one person.

    I kept the surname of my first wife even after I married again. There were many practical reasons to do this, but a side effect is that I am Googlable, whereas I wouldn’t be with my original surname. (Helbig is a German name, but my first name in German would normally be spelled “Philipp” (which corresponds to the original Greek); a combination of names from different languages is helpful when becoming Googlable, but by no means sufficient. “Phillip” isn’t the normal English spelling either (“Philip” is more common), so that helps as well. As far as I know I am the only one in cyberspace.)

  3. “STFC spends too much on “exploitation”, i.e. on doing science with the facilities it provides”

    Reminds me of an exasperated comment by a computer manager (who shall remain nameless, unless until Peter comes clean on the cosmological bigwig) at an observatory when a user lodged a complaint: Do you really have to use the compiler?

  4. telescoper Says:

    Sorry for the spelling error. I think it’s fixed now. It took me about 30 minutes to write it, but then I had some help from the original!

  5. Mr Physicist Says:

    Good try – give you a B+.

    The exploitation game was up once it was christened the Science and Tecnology FACILITIES Council (and before that the Large FACILITIES Research Council). So, there is something fatalistic about it all and KOM will presumably argue that he is just steering the ship he has been asked to captain.

    The question is should there be another ship with another captain and a grants/exploitation cargo?

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    He’s only doing what his political bosses tell him. We can blame *them* for the fact that the exchange rate has declined relative to all other industrialised nations who faced the same global recession. The politicians in turn try to blame the banks – who are fairly unlovable – but to every supply side there is a demand side, and who is it that has soaked up so much easy credit before 2008, much more per capita than in the rest of Europe, so as to live beyond their means? The People. We are (nearly) all guilty.

    As for pumping money into applied research: nobody knows in advance which research is going to turn out to be a wealth creator, for if they did they’d be busy seeking venture capital. This is madness.

    Anton

  7. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    Of course there have been circumstances beyond Keith Mason’s control. But the basic problem was a terrible settlement for STFC in the 2007 Comprehensive Spending Review. It was clear at that point that it was a disaster, and that’s only got worse because of the exchange rate things. As Chief Executive, Mason should have taken responsibility for his failure to persuade government of the merits of STFC science and fought the corner for pure research. Instead he’s gone along with an agenda that threatens excellent physics and astronomy researchers with extinction. Had he made a courageous gesture way back in 2007, the politicians might have helped us out. Instead we’ve not just got the original problem but some new ones for good measure.

    In 2007 he predicted that the next CSR would be even worse for us than the current one. I think with the same person in charge that prophecy is self-fulfilling.

    Peter

  8. Mr Physicist Says:

    And talking of the RAS, over at Paul Crowther he has spotted the response to the cancellation of the STFC Large Awards Scheme at
    http://tinyurl.com/yh85glw

    Now what were we saying about inspiring students with astronomy….?

  9. telescoper Says:

    Yes, I twittered about that just now. The Large Awards scheme was an important Outreach activity intended to generate public awareness of the importance of Big Science projects. Obviously that’s something STFC thinks it should no longer do…

  10. Mr Physicist Says:

    Something has got to make room for all those KE schemes…

    Maybe make your Twitters a bit more visible at the top of your blog instead of relying on the scroll button to be used?

  11. telescoper Says:

    I’ve moved them up the widget list now.

  12. Mr Physicist Says:

    Thanks – thats better.

  13. He won’t go of his own accord since he truly believes that its our fault; he has spent enough time saying it.

    He won’t be fired because that would be an admission of something going wrong by the government, plus at the moment he is delivering what they want, being a yes-man rather than being independent.

    He’ll go when his term is up, the only thing that will make him go sooner will be if he gets the job as the head of a UK space agency.

  14. telescoper Says:

    Kav,

    I know he won’t resign, but that doesn’t mean I should’t say he should.

    The astronomy community less organized than other disciplines, which means that its Peer Review systems tend to be less coherent. In his presentation, Keith Mason blamed the peer review system for some of the difficulties.

    But the real problem is a wilful misappropriation of the pure science budget. Science should be driven by scientists, not simply used as an excuse for building big gadgets to subsidise industry. The fact that “exploitation” is treated so disdainfully is further evidence of the fact that we’ve completely lost control of the agenda. We won’t get it back unless and until we have a new Chief Executive.

    Peter

  15. Peter,
    “I know he won’t resign, but that doesn’t mean I should’t say he should. ”

    I agree completely. Hell I was in the room and voted for the MIST resolutions way back when. I was just laying out how I see it.

    Something else that bugs me is the continuing ‘advice’ not to make a fuss about things to the government as we just look like whiners. In the current climate that seems fine enough but when you slice it its gets a little dodgier.

    There is the implicit suggestion that we voters cannot complain to our elected government about decisions without fear of some sort of reprisal for our sheer nerve. To be clear, this is what I take from STFC comments, not from government comments. If I was the Minister and I saw some of the comments I would be a bit offended that it was being implied that I was so petty.

    Then there is the conflation of two separate issues: first, complaining that we want more money because we were underfunded and are unhappy with new government policies (a debate for another day); second, complaints about the management of STFC.

  16. Sad-ministrator Says:

    “Undaunted he in Swindon’s office dwells”…

    … I agree with the rest of your rather lamentable, but accurate verse, but one thing Keef doesn’t do is dwell in Swindon office. I don’t know where exactly he DOES dwell, but it isn’t Swindon office. Come to think of it, nobody dwells in Swindon office other than us poor administartors who are trying to do our very best for you all.

  17. telescoper Says:

    Kav,

    I think what we should be doing is whining. I remember feeling completely sick at the Town Meeting in 2007 which was supposed to present the so-called Operating Plan in the wake of the CSR settlement. The official document was bland and sanitised. When he spoke he told a tale of slahed budgets and cancelled projects entirely absent from the written version.

    The reason? The document was what his political masters would see, which was want they wanted to see. The rest of us got the truth. If we keep quiet about what a state things are in then the politicians will continue to be feed disinformation of this sort and things will go from bad to worse.

    Anyway, the Chief Executive is a public figure paid by taxpayers money. We all have a right to say what we think of the job he’s doing.

    Peter

  18. telescoper Says:

    Dear Sad-administrator,

    If he’s not in Swindon where is he? Does he have a bunker somewhere?

    I wasn’t sure whether my verse was lamentable because it was so bad, or lamentable because it’s depressing. I can believe both!

    Peter

  19. Sad-ministrator Says:

    Spotting Keef in Swindon office is even trickier than finding the Higgs-Boson – maybe a slightly higher chance of finding H-B now that LHC is running again.

    Lamentable on both counts, I’m afraid… sorry.

  20. Maybe he hides out in Dick Cheney’s secret bunker in an undisclosed location. Or maybe he can sometimes be spotted in the environs of Oxfordshire.

    Sadly, Peter, you seem to be in the minority. I agree that we should be doing appropriate whining – but too many others disagree (and are even afraid of getting someone worse. I have never understood ‘better the devil you know’ when that devil is sticking red hot pokers in inconvenient places). Keith thinks there are too many astronomers and I suspect he would quite like to direct what those that remain do (to quote he himself: ‘peer review advises it doesn’t decide’).

    Another couple of related things spring to mind:
    Following the first session of the reformed Science and Technology Committee I am left curious over whether the Minister is aware of the fine distinctions of near and non cash in relation to the ‘sufficient money’ that STFC was given. I also wonder which areas the Minister has been told are in overspend and causing cuts in other areas.

  21. telescoper Says:

    I’ll throw away my application for the post of Poet Laureate.

  22. Naw, I thought it was quite good actually

  23. telescoper Says:

    If Shakespeare was alive today he’d be turning in his grave

  24. Anton Garrett Says:

    Your blog clock needs resetting. It’s 1010 as I upload this; what time will it say I did?

  25. telescoper Says:

    I found out how to change it. See, I’ve now travelled back in time!

  26. To be expected now that they have turned the LHC back on again

  27. Anton Garrett Says:

    How about a clerihew and a limerick to go with the sonnet?
    Anton

  28. There’s a few interesting remarks from Mason in those minutes. In particular, he is not at all sympathetic to arguments for funding astronomy (or indeed any field far away from producing applications) for its own sake (what he refers to as cultural reasons).

    The push on the astronomical community seemed to be to make the case that impact comes in form of researchers training up skilled, knowledgeable students, and for the type of research done to be inspiring enough to bring more students in.

    I found it a shame he makes no mention at all of this sort of research being regarded as high-risk, long-term investment for society.

    • telescoper Says:

      Brendan,

      The point I keep trying to make is that the case isn’t being made in the corridors of powers for funding pure science. One of the reasons for that is that Mason simply doesn’t believe the argument. We won’t get a better state of affairs until STFC is run by someone who does.

      Peter

  29. Peter,

    You wrote: “The point I keep trying to make is that the case isn’t being made in the corridors of powers for funding pure science. One of the reasons for that is that Mason simply doesn’t believe the argument.”

    I think that’s exactly right, but it’s only the half the problem with his strategy. Not only is he not making the positive case for doing our sort of science, as you say, but he appears also to making a poor strategic decision with pushing the argument that we should still be funded because of the impact that spin-offs from our research has in “useful” areas such as biomedicine. If I were the Treasury my response to that would be “fine – then we’ll give all your money to the MRC, and they can decide if you really are the people most likely to further medical research”…with obvious consequences.

    Bob

  30. Mr Physicist Says:

    Every “science using” department of government now has a Chief Scientific Adviser. See http://tinyurl.com/yh6655s

    We should now all be OK then with all this “robust” advice…. 🙂

  31. Bryn Jones Says:

    I feel Bob, above, has articulated a central weakness in the current STFC funding philosophy: if applied science and industrial applications are what matter in terms of funding outcomes, it might appear that taxpayers’ money would be better spent directly on applied science and technology, not on blue-skies basic science. If what matters is producing people with PhDs in science and technology for the needs of industry, the money spent on funding PhD students in astronomy and particle physics would be better spent instead on training PhDs in applied physics and in technology: industry wants people experienced in areas of specific industrial applications, such as semiconductor physics or biophysics, not in searching for extrasolar planets or supersymmetry. The STFC argument is fundamentally self defeating.

    Astronomy and particle physics are of strong, indirect economic value, because the practitioners train undergraduate physicists and mathematicians who then go to work in industry. The scientists develop generic computing, analysis and numerical techniques that are later taken up by industry. Through their high public profile, they inspire the public and switch school pupils to study science, mathematics and engineering. A healthy industrial sector needs active astronomy and basic physics within society, but the connection is indirect.

    The trouble is that the STFC overstates the immediate, direct benefit of astronomy and particle physics to industry. The manufacture of widgets for telescopes and satellites can provide nice contracts to companies, but it is not sufficent to justify basic science funding in itself. Training people to PhD standard in astronomy and particle physics may help a few areas of industry when the companies’ needs happen to coincide with the precise skills of those people. However, the reality is that companies programming in C++ have little interest in proficient Fortran programmers with PhDs in star formation, or companies manufacturing semiconductor components slight interest in PhDs in the origin of mass.

    The tragedy here is that the genuine, strong arguments for funding astronomy and particle physics have been replaced by a set of weaker arguments that are likely to be exposed by Treasury officials. Mind you, judging by the last comprehensive spending review, those arguments may already have been exposed.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: