The STFC ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise

I suddenly realized this morning that I there was a bit of community service I meant to do when I got back from vacations, namely to pass on to astronomers and particle physicists a link to the results of the latest Programmatic Review (actually ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise) produced by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It’s a lengthy document, running to 89 pages, but it’s a must-read if you’re in the UK and work in area of science under the remit of STFC. There was considerable uncertainty about the science funding situation anyway because of BrExit, and that has increased dramatically because of the impending General Election which will probably kick quite a few things into the long grass, quite possibly delaying the planned reorganization of the research councils. Nevertheless, this document is well worth reading as it will almost certainly inform key decisions that will have to be made whatever happens in the broader landscape. With `flat cash’ being the most optimistic scenario, increasing inflation means that some savings will have to be found so belts will inevitable have to be tightened. Moreover, there are strong strategic arguments that some areas should grow, rather than remain static, which means that others will have to shrink to compensate.

There are 29 detailed recommendations and I can’t discuss them all here, but here are a couple of tasters:

The E-ELT is the European Extremely Large Telescope, in case you didn’t know.

Another one that caught my eye is this:

I’ve never really understood why gravitational-wave research came under ‘Particle Astrophysics’ anyway, but given their recent discovery by Advanced LIGO there is a clear case for further investment in future developments, especially because the UK community is currently rather small.

Anyway, do read the document and, should you be minded to do so, please feel free to comment on it below through the comments box.

 

 

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2 Responses to “The STFC ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise”

  1. The inclusion of GW within the particle astrophysics grouping indicates several things, mainly I think that it is not sufficiently close to either the A or PP parts of the programme for the individual A or PP parts themselves to claim ownership. The other areas of the PA programme, direct dark matter, VHEG-rays, astrophysical neutrinos and HECRs (which, with our withdrawal from Auger is pretty much dead, despite an illustrious UK history in the field) might also be described as such. Hence particle astrophysics seems to include the topics that straddle the boundaries. For straddle the boundaries, I of course mean fall between the funding pots. Such ‘silo’ mentality is damaging, and unfair. This is doubly counterproductive as highly interdisciplinary areas are often stated as being of the highest strategic priority, yet that doesn’t seem to translate in to an advantage within the present funding council structures.

    With the GW discovery, maybe things will change. As stated in the Review, PA needs to expand (it’s presently about 3% of the programme I believe), but this is far from easy, especially if one also wishes to remove artificial boundaries. Developing a PA grants line will no doubt be considered, but ring fencing potentially prevents growth. If GW grows, must it be at the expense of the other PA areas? Are programmatic reviews sufficiently strong to moderate this? Dissolution of the PA banner might also be considered, moving areas explicitly within either the A or PP lines, but this is counter to international thinking where PA is a strong independent area, and ignores the lessons of history that led to the creation of the PA theme in the first place.

    It is encouraging that STFC are willing to explore the options, and despite the above, I’m optimistic.

  2. The impression I’ve had is that Gravitational Wave research has been treated somewhat differently from other science areas by the research council, being afforded a bit of protection. If that is fair, then it’s probably because as a very long-term programme, it might have been vulnerable to cuts had it been tensioned more directly against other programmes when times were tough (as is the norm these days). If so, then the strategy has been a resounding success and whoever took the decision should be congratulated. In the future, though, a new science case has to be made, much like with the discovery of the Higgs boson. The goal is no longer discovery, but to learn some new physics/astrophysics and the case for injection of new resources needs to be made on that basis – what can we learn beyond the fact that they exist? Clearly though a major risk can be retired…

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