Community Matters

Well, here I am back in sunny Cardiff after a pleasant journey back from Llandudno and a very enjoyable and productive National Astronomy Meeting. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank all those involved at the Royal Astronomical Society in putting the programme together and doing a huge amount of work behind the scenes. The staff at the Venue Cymru in Llandudno were very friendly as well as highly professional and well organised, and everything seems to run exceptionally smoothly.

Oh, and I shouldn’t forget the conference dinner on Tuesday night, which ended with a serenade from the magnificent Maelgwyn Male Voice Choir. It was fitting to have the chance to experience a fine Welsh tradition, and I thought they were wonderful to listen to.

Anyway, I might get a bit of time over the Easter break to comment on some things that struck me over the course of the past week but for today – because I’m quite tired after the journey (and several late nights at NAM) – I thought I’d just comment a bit further on the first session I attended, on Monday evening, attended by various representatives of STFC, at which John Womersley gave a presentation about the status of various projects in the existing astronomy programme and prospects for the future. It was clear from that presentation that there are many challenges ahead, but I was relieved that the atmosphere of the meeting wasn’t anything like as confrontational as on many previous occasions. This process of reconciliation will no doubt take futher steps forward when the new Chief Executive takes over next year.

Drinking in the bar much later in the evening with a number of senior figures from diverse branches of astronomy the issue arose of the now notorious petition that George Efstathiou blogged about in a guest post some time ago. Two things are now clear about this initiative. One is that it caused deep ructions within the astronomical community, with a number of senior figures vociferously both for and against it – even within the same department. When I revealed that I had signed it myself, a few of the assembled company expressed their views in forthright language about why I had been wrong, but I have to say without much coherence in the actual logic.

The other thing that emerged during the STFC session was an explicit acknowledgment that the petition had, in one particular respect, made a very big difference, namely that the criteria for the appointment of the next Chief Executive of STFC specifically took into account some of the comments made in it.

Anyway, the point of raising the dreaded petition is not to rake over this whole business but simply to try to put it to rest. We need to move on, and should be trying to heal any wounds that it may inadvertantly have caused. There are definitive signs that the STFC Executive is now really starting to listen, so now there’s a chance to really engage with them through the channels they are opening up rather than having to resort to extreme measures such as George’s petition.

Oh, and I’ll just remind anyone who is interested in the vacancy at the top of STFC that the deadline for applications is April 28th….

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6 Responses to “Community Matters”

  1. George Efstathiou Says:

    People ought to be aware of the effects of the petition. As a consequence
    of the petition, Council created a sub-committee chaired by Keith
    Burnett to ovesee the STFC CSR bid. Keith and his committee did
    a brilliant job. In addition, Peter is correct that the petiition focussed
    minds on the qualities needed for a new CEO. Now that a year has
    passed, I am convinced it was the right thing to do. In fact, it
    should have been done sooner.

  2. George Efstathiou Says:

    I should have added that the CSR sub-committee was formed as a direct
    result of the petition. It wasn’t , as claimed by STFC in their
    submission to the House of Commons Science and Technology
    select committee, suggested by the Executive as part of a
    processes of further engagement with the community.

  3. telescoper Says:

    I should add that I certainly have no regrets about signing the petition. I agree that the astronomy community should have acted more decisively after the 2007 CSR debacle too.

    Let’s just hope that whoever the new CEO turns out to be is someone who can build a good working relationship with the whole community. There are positive signs, such as the new fellowships scheme that will replace the Advanced Fellowships, but there is a lot of work still to do.

  4. George is spot on that STFC’s research community owe a great deal of thanks to the Council CSR group (chaired by Keith Burnett*, who’s now stepped down from STFC Council) to which i’d like to add & acknowledge the role played by Paul Williams, who was the BIS civil servant involved with RCUK during SR10 negotiations.

    Regardless of the identity of the new CEO, i’d also echo George’s aim of a higher percentage of senior independent research scientists on STFC Council. The composition of BBSRC’s Council ensures that at least half are appointed for their qualification in science/engineering yet only Martin Barstow, Peter Knight, James Stirling and Burnett’s replacement Julia Goodfellow (Kent VC, fmr BBSRC CEO!) appear to quailfy at present, putting aside the CEO/Chair.

    FWIW community attempts at an earlier petition in 2008 were thwarted by another civil servant in the predecessor Gov’t dept to BIS.

    *conflict of interest declared (Sheffield V-C)

  5. George Efstathiou Says:

    Paul, I am extremely concerned about the composition of Council.
    The proportion of research scientists is evidently too low. Even worse, the
    proportion of research scientists in particle physics, astronomy
    and nuclear physics is even lower (Barstow and Stirling). Wakeham
    picked up on this and recommended an increase in the number
    of Council members who were academic stakeholders in
    STFCs activities. STFC has actually gone backwards in this
    respect under the Chairmanship of Michael Sterling. I’ve discussed
    this at length with Michael Sterling and also with Adrian Smith. Neither
    see this as a problem. If the new CEO understands how Universities
    work, has genuine concern and empathy with the academic community,
    the membership of Council is probably not a critical issue. But if
    they choose an unsympathetic CEO, expert knowledge on Council
    becomes our last line of defence if the Executive is promoting
    wrong-headed ideas.

    It is far from clear that our problems with STFC are over.
    Michael Sterling’s lack of confidence in welcoming
    stong academic scientists in the main research areas that STFC
    supports leaves me deeply suspicious.

  6. telescoper Says:

    The composition of the STFC Council is of course a concern but looking back at 2007 (when it had a much higher proportion of academics on it), it was notably ineffective as a “last line of defence” even then.

    I think what we need to do as the astronomical community is build up constructive engagement with STFC so that if and when another calamity befalls us then if we have to resort to drastic means we’re not simply branded as a load of whingers.

    As it was, the policy of not rocking the boat was disastrous and the grey eminences responsible for engineering the original funding crisis got away with it because we were far too complacent and compliant. I suspect many who could have made a difference were motivated primarily by their own self-interest. I hope that was comes out of this is a stronger sense of community responsibility from senior academics.

    I have to confess that I was appalled by what happened at the infamous Town Meeting in 2007, but I didn’t have the courage to stand up and say so. Had we all made our views plain then we might have averted a lot of what has happened in the following 3 years as there was a sizeable press contingent there.

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