Archive for December 16, 2009

Day of Reckoning

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on December 16, 2009 by telescoper

10.45am. I came in this morning determined to get on with some work to distract my attention from the looming announcement of budget cuts from the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC). I was up nearly all night worrying about the future, especially for the current generation of postdocs whose careers I’m pretty sure are going to sacrificed in large numbers to balance the books. It reminded me a bit about a poem I posted a while ago: I could not sleep for thinking of the Sky STFC.

Anyway, I’ve spent over an hour trying to write one paragraph of the paper I’m trying to finish and I can’t settle so I thought I’d start a post, with the intention of updating it as the day goes on, the picture gets a bit clearer, and I become increasingly suicidal.

The actual announcement of the result of the prioritisation exercise will appear this afternoon on the STFC website here under the heading

STFC: Investing in the Future

Who said these guys don’t have a sense of humour? What’s underneath is currently completely blank. Hang on, they might have put the result up early in that case…

Most of the blogs and tweets I follow – at least those emanating from this side of the Atlantic – are about this today, so if you’d like to keep up here are some useful links:

Paul Crowther at Sheffield has kept up with all the ongoings and downturnings at STFC and you can expect him to understand it better and quicker than the rest of us  here.

There’s a very good (and nearly anonymous) post about all this on the blog To Left of Centre.

The e-astronomer (Andy Lawrence at the ROE)  has written about this and a lot of important people have commented on it.

Rob Simpson, a PhD student here in Cardiff,  is probably expressing the fears of many younger researchers as is Sarah Kendrew who gives a postdoc perspective.

There’s a list of things astronomical that are probably about to eat the dirt at this website. My bet is that everything on their list will go, plus more. The reason is that most of the things at the bottom of the prioritisation exercise are actually fairly cheap, so just closing a few won’t plug the gap. As a colleague of mine said the other day, “It’s a big shit sandwich, and we all have to take a bite.”

11.15am. If the phrase “going forward” appears anywhere on the STFC announcement page, then I won’t be responsible for my actions…

11.50am. WICKET! Prince c Collingwood b Swann 45. Oh sorry. Wrong blog.

12.08pm. Incoming transatlantic link from the Starving Economist, from whose page I’ve pulled the following comment:

So I’d almost forgotten that other countries are out there, facing the Great Recession as well, and making really stupid decisions in the face of it. IMHO one example of blatant incompetence in an economic sense is being perpetrated by none other than the UK. We kind of look up to them, don’t we? It’s the accent or something. But they are busy tossing some of their world-renowned science, and much of their past investment in such, out the door rather than restructure some of their government funding. Talk about inertia. Their astronomy program appears to be particularly hard-hit. Interesting way to close 2009, the International Year of Astronomy.

I couldn’t agree more. It also reminded that I haven’t made enough of the irony that this is indeed the International Year of Astronomy. For a lot of people it will be the last year they’ll be doing astronomy.

12.25pm. Meanwhile, our man in Madrid, Matt Griffin has been wowing the audience with some of the new results from Herschel. I hope to be able to post a few of them later when the official workshop results go live.

12.45pm. STFC operatives have been phoning project leaders this morning to tell them the bad news. Our head of school, Walter Gear, has got his phone call telling him that our attempt to resurrect Clover will not be funded. Disappointing, but not entirely unexpected…

13.15pm. It’s tea-time in sunny  South Africa (with the home side at 159-4) but here in Blighty it’s the long dark lunch break of the soul, waiting for news of the inevitable.

13.30pm. Half an hour to go. Most of the astronomers in the department have now left to travel to Madrid for the big workshop starting tomorrow. They tell me the new results probably won’t be available for public consumption until Friday (18th December). Nothing to sugar the pill, then.

13.55pm. I’m not often right, but I was wrong again. I’ve just noticed that there is already an ESA press release that includes this stunning image of a star-forming region in the constellation of Aquila made using both PACS and SPIRE observations. This is just a first look at part of an extended survey of stellar nurseries that Herschel will be undertaking over the forthcoming months.

14.00pm. And there were are, right on cue. Here is the announcement. As expected, there is a ridiculous attempt to put a positive spin on it all, but you will find immediately, sigh, another 10% cut in research grants to universities (on top of the 25% we already had) to reduce the amount of “exploitation”, plus 25% cuts in the number of PhD students and fellowships “mirroring the overall reduction in the programme”. I read that as meaning that STFC wants, in the long term, about 25% of the astronomers in the UK to go somewhere else and, preferably,  never come back.

I’ll post more when I’ve read the details.

14.10pm. So here’s a quick summary of what projects will be funded in (ground-based) astronomy:

Advanced LIGO, JCMT (to 2012), Gemini (until end 2012), ING (to 2012), KMOS, VISTA, Dark Energy Survey, E-ELT R&D, SKA R&D, SuperWASP, e-Merlin, Zeplin III; Total cost of £87m over 5 years

(the big surprise to me in there is  e-Merlin, which I thought would get the chop) and what won’t

Auger, Inverse Square Law, ROSA, ALMA regional centre, JIVE, Liverpool Telescope, UKIRT. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £16m. Total savings of £29m over 5 years

And on the space side we have the lucky ones:

Aurora, GAIA, Herschel, JWST-MIRI, LISA Pathfinder, Rosetta, Planck, ExoMars, Hinode, Cosmic Vision, Solar Orbiter, Stereo, Swift, Bepi-Colombo; Total cost of £114m over 5 years

and the losers

Cassini, Cluster, SOHO, Venus Express, XMM. Additional reduction imposed on ongoing projects of £28m. Total Savings of £42m over 5 years

Note that both Aurora and Bepi-Colombo were both rated very low on scientific grounds but have been retained in the programme, presumably for political reasons.

However, the big downside for everyone is the cut in university grants for “exploitation” that I mentioned above. STFC wants to have lots of expensive facilities, but doesn’t want to fund the modest among of staff needed to actually get science out of them. The stupidity of this decision is made even more depressing by its inevitability.

Even the top-rated projects are getting cuts to their funding. It just shows how little thinking is going on about the actual science that STCF is supposed to be supporting. Isn’t it a more sensible strategy to do a few things well, rather than a lot of things poorly? It’s a mess.

14.38pm. From a Cardiff perspective this is nowhere near as bad as it could have been, but is still pretty dire. The primary activities for our current astronomy programme, Herschel and Planck, are both very high in the priority list and the relativity group is relieved to see ground-based gravitational wave research, including Advanced LIGO, at the highest priority. Moreover, it looks like what I feared most of all – an immediate clawback of existing grants with consequent immediate redundancies – is not going to happen, owing to what appears to be a last-minute injection of funds from RCUK. We’re still looking at cash cuts though, and we’re vulnerable because so much of our research income comes from STFC.

14.43pm. Not on the STFC webpage, but it appears that they are not going to support LOFAR-UK either.

15.05pm. If you want to read the full outcome of the prioritisation exercise, in terms of a batting order of projects, you can download it here. It includes a recommendation that the top funded (alpha-5) projects should get a 15% cut and those at the next leveldown (alpha-4) should get a 20% cut. However, things will probably turn out worse than that because those cuts were suggested on the basis that only those projects would be funded at all. As it turns out, some alpha-3 projects have made it through also, so the cuts to the higher-rated projects must be larger to compensate. Mustn’t they?

15.24pm. I note that STFC have decided to carry on their programme of outreach activities:

Ongoing support for public outreach and science communication, through continuance of our award schemes and Fellowships, and public engagement and communications, helping to ensure new generations of children are enthused and inspired by science, and encouraged to continue study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects. we can kick them in the teeth when they’ve just started a scientific career.

15.30pm. Press release, from Unelected Minister for Science and Innovation, Strategic Defence Acquisition Reform, and Formula 1 Car Racing,  Lord  Drayson of Twitter.  I quote:

… it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control.   I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

Is there a possibility that a light has gone on somewhere to the effect that something must be done to stop STFC killing University research? I hope so. If he can pull something out of the fire before March 2010, though, I’d be very impressed.

16.07pm. I may be clutching at straws here, but it is interesting to join the dots between Lord Drayon’s comment above and the following excerpt from the STFC announcement

discussions would be held in coming months with national and international partners, including universities, departments and project teams, on implementation of the investment strategy. This will include discussions with EPSRC and the University funding councils on the impact of these measures on physics departments in universities.

I doubt if EPSRC is going to come running to the rescue without a great deal of encouragement. However, taken together with the comment above by Lord Drayson, there’s at least a hint of a possibility that a way to protect grants might be found. Calling them “research” rather than “exploitation” grants would be a start…

16.18pm. Press statements from Jocelyn Bell-Burnell, President of the Institute of Physics here and Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society here.

17.08pm. I think that’s enough for the day. It hasn’t been good, but the nightmare scenario was that my own research grant would be terminated immediately and I’d have to break the news to my PDRA. At least that didn’t happen, not yet anyway. I suppose we should be thankful for small mercies. But I’m exhausted after sleeping so badly last night, so I think I’ll close this for now. Keep your comments coming if there’s anything significant I missed…

19.45pm Before I settle down with my gramophone records for the evening, I just thought I’d remind anyone not sufficiently depressed at the state of STFC that the drastic cuts announced today do not take account of whatever share of the £600 million “efficiency savings” announced in the budget has been allocated to them. It may look bad now, but it’s probably going to get worse. On that cheery note, I’m going to have a drink and listen to Mahler.