Archive for Royal Astronomical Society

Making a Statement about Ukraine

Posted in Maynooth, Politics with tags , , , , , , on March 2, 2022 by telescoper

A Ukrainian student here in Maynooth gave out some ribbons for staff and students to show support by making a visible statement of solidarity. I’m proud to be wearing one:

Public statements made by institutions such as universities and research organizations aren’t going to end the war in Ukraine, but they can at least offer solidarity with the victims of war and sometimes even offer practical support.

I was very pleased to see on Friday, dust a day after the Russian invasion of Ukraine, that my own University, Maynooth, issued a statement on the conflict:

Maynooth University condemns the invasion of Ukraine and we extend our deepest sympathy at this dark hour to all our Ukrainian colleagues, students and graduates as they anxiously await word from friends and family fleeing their homes.

Also in our thoughts are members of the MU community from the entire region, whose families, lives and livelihoods are affected by the escalating tension and violence.

Maynooth University stands in solidarity with those who cherish democracy and peace, and we will undertake a process of engagement with colleagues from this region to discuss and explore ways to activate our support.  

It doesn’t say much, but it was at least timely and thoughtful. Far better than remaining silent.

The Royal Irish Academy issued a statement on Monday:

The Royal Irish Academy, as Ireland’s national academy for science, the humanities, and social sciences, is shocked and deeply concerned at the military invasion by Russia of Ukraine. The Academy notes with grave concern the damage this represents to educational and scientific institutions, academics, and international research collaboration, and to the social, economic and cultural foundations of Ukraine. The Academy expresses support and solidarity with the National Academy of Sciences of Ukraine. The Academy also wishes to salute the courageous position taken by many members of the Russian Academy of Sciences, who associated their signature with that of several hundred researchers and scientific journalists from their country in an open letter denouncing the aggression against Ukraine by the Russian Federation and calling for its immediate end.

In my own field, I saw a statement issued by various learned societies and organizations in the field of astronomy. It’s not as strong but at least does offer some practical supports for Ukrainian academics fleeing the war:

The European Astronomical Society (EAS), the International Astronomical Union (IAU), the American Astronomical Society (AAS), and African Astronomical Society (AfAS), the Astronomical Society of Australia (ASA), and the Korean Astronomical Society (KAS) have been observing with great concern the events unfolding in Ukraine and fear the adverse consequences for the scientific community, our colleagues, and their families. We have been receiving reports of the dire circumstances they are experiencing: their freedom, safety and even their lives are under threat.

The mission of our societies is to promote and safeguard the science of astronomy in all its aspects, including research, communication, education and development through international cooperation. We believe in free expression and free exchange of scientific ideas and in peaceful collaboration at a global level. The current events jeopardise the scientific cooperation within our European community and with the rest of the world.

We are deeply concerned for the Ukrainian community as well as for the entire region. Triggered by the life-threatening situation in which our Ukrainian colleagues find themselves, we wish to encourage members to help wherever possible in this difficult time for Ukraine. Ukrainian astronomers seeking support should contact the Institute of International Education (IIE) scholar rescue fund, which supports refugee scholars and is activating an Ukraine-specific student emergency fund.

Notice that the Royal Astronomical Society is absent from the list of signatories. Indeed it has not made any public statement whatsoever about the invasion of Ukraine. Their silence is deafening. From where I sit, as a Fellow, their policy of ignoring the conflict just looks spineless and contemptible.

UPDATE: The Royal Astronomical Society has now posted a statement (dated 2nd March):

The Royal Astronomical Society deeply regrets the illegal military invasion of Ukraine, a sovereign democratic nation, by Russia. Our thoughts and hopes go out to our fellow scientists and all the citizens of Ukraine for their safety and well-being. We will be exploring avenues for supporting our fellow scientists who are fleeing the war zone with government agencies and our sister societies.

There are a number of non-governmental organisations working to provide humanitarian relief in Ukraine itself and in neighbouring countries, including the following, who welcome donations:

British Red Cross

United Help Ukraine

Sunflower of Peace

Voices of Children

As far I know the Institute of Physics has so far refused to address the Ukraine crisis.

The Institute of Physics has also now issued a (brief) statement (dated 3rd March):

The Institute of Physics condemns Russia’s actions against Ukraine which are a violation of one of the most fundamental norms of international law that prohibits the use or threat of force by one state against another. As a member of the European Physical Society we support the statement of the Executive Committee.

Physics is a global endeavour, and we continue to support academic freedom of scientists everywhere.

We hope for a quick resolution of the crisis to bring an end to its devastating impacts on the people of Ukraine.

My regard for both these organizations has fallen considerably in the last week, to the point that I now seriously doubt whether I wish to remain a Fellow of either. If there are good reason why I should change my mind, or if either organization has made public statements that I’ve missed, I’d love to hear them, either through the comments box or privately.

P.S. The Royal Society of London is also yet to make a statement on Ukraine. I find this regrettable. Obviously, though, I am not a Fellow of that organization so am not able to resign.

UPDATE: The Royal Society has now joined with the National Academies of all the G7 Nations in making a strong statement against the Russian invasion of Ukraine:

I don’t know why it took a full week to get there, but I am pleased at last that the RAS, IOP and Royal Society have now at least said something. Every little helps.

Congratulations to the 2022 RAS Award Winners!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 15, 2022 by telescoper

Given all the doom and gloom going around I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some good news and also offer my public congratulations to the all the winners of medals and awards announced yesterday by the Royal Astronomical Society. Let me draw particular attention to the following subset, purely on the grounds that I know them and their work personally (and because they’ve all either been mentioned on this blog recently and/or been known to read it from time to time and/or have recently published in the Open Journal of Astrophysics and/or are on the Editorial Board thereof).

First, the Gold Medal goes to Professor George Efstathiou of Cambridge University a true giant of cosmology (metaphorically speaking of course – I’m actually taller than him):

I’m looking forward to George receiving his medal so he can tell us what kind of chocolate is inside.

Second, Professor Alan Heavens of South Kensington Technical College Imperial College London who gets the Eddington Medal:

I should mention that among many other things Alan has worked extensively on the application of Bayesian methods to cosmological data.

Third, Professor Catherine Heymans of Edinburgh, Astronomer Royal for Scotland, wins the Herschel medal;

Catherine was actually a PhD student supervised by Alan Heavens back in the day. I wonder if this is the first time that a PhD student/supervisor combination has won RAS medals in the same year?

Correction: I’m now told that Catherine actually did her PhD in Oxford supervised by Lance Miller so I withdraw the question.

And last but by no means least we have Professor Pedro Gil Ferreira who will give this year’s Gerald Whitrow lecture:

Two interesting facts about Pedro: (i) a direct English translation of “Pedro Ferreira” would be “Peter Smith”; and (ii) he is a member of the Editorial Board of the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

Congratulations to them and indeed to all the winners of awards and medals, a complete list of whom may be found here.

P.S. It suddenly struck me when I saw the announcements yesterday evening that it’s now two years since I last attended the RAS Ordinary Meeting in person or the RAS Club Dinner. Let’s hope these can start again reasonably soon.

Another Year, Another Diary…

Posted in Biographical with tags on January 2, 2022 by telescoper

Lacking the energy to do anything more exciting I spent a bit of time this afternoon copying information into the latest Royal Astronomical Society diary from the old one. The forthcoming Semester is going to be very heavy with teaching (again) so it took quite a while to write in the dates and times of all my lectures. It usually takes a few weeks of term before I get into the routine, but I also need to pack in a lot of meetings around the teaching sessions – often at short notice – so it is useful to have the lectures there to form the skeleton of my schedule.

The diary part of the RAS diary, being I suppose intended for academics, actually runs from October to December the following year. In previous years it has arrived in time to use it for Semester 1 but for the last two years, probably owing to a combination of Covid-19 and Brexit, it hasn’t arrived in the post until December meaning that I couldn’t use the first three months in the new diary but they were covered by the old one. The heavy delay of the diary is matched by that of the RAS house journal Astronomy & Geophysics which usually takes a couple of months to reach Ireland.

I’m not sure I like the colour of this year’s diary very much. Last year’s (2021) was black, the one before that brown and before that red. The 2018 was a racing green as opposed to this year’s which is more of a chartreuse…

Digging these old diaries out reminds me that it was almost two years ago that I attended the RAS Club’s 200th anniversary dinner. The Club has effectively been in abeyance since February 2020. I wonder if it will be among the many venerable institutions that does not survive the pandemic?

Although many of my colleagues seem not to use them, I like old-fashioned diaries like the one above. I do run an electronic calendar for work-related events, meetings etc, but I use the paper one to scribble down extra-curricular activities such as concerts and sporting fixtures, as I find the smartphone version of my electronic calendar a bit fiddly. I’m interested to know the extent to which I am an old fogey so here’s a little poll on the subject of diaries:

Learned Societies, Equity, and Open Access

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , on November 8, 2021 by telescoper

I’m not getting much time these days to think about new ideas for blog posts so yet again I’m going to rehash an old one, but at least it is somewhat topical because of an interesting blog post I saw recently about the American Sociological Association. Referring to the inequity of the way this particular society is funded the author says

The greatest source of income for the association is publications, which is mostly subscriptions to journals paid by academic libraries, which are being bled dry by profit-making publishers that ASA organizes academic labor to subsidize with free content and editorial services. This is a wealth transfer from poorer, teaching-intensive libraries to richer, research-intensive libraries.

I tthink it’s relevant to raise some points about the extent that such organizations (including, in my field,  the Royal Astronomical Society and the Institute of Physics) rely for their financial security upon the revenues generated by publishing traditional journals and why this is not in the best interests of their disciplines.

Take IOP Publishing, for example. This is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the Institute of Physics that has an annual turnover of around £60M generated from books and journals. This revenue is the largest contribution to the income that the IoP needs to run its numerous activities relating to the promotion of physics.  A similar situation pertains to the Royal Astronomical Society, although on a smaller scale, as it relies for much of its income from Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, in which as a matter of fact I have published quite a few papers.

Not surprisingly, these and other learned societies are keen to protect their main source of cash. When I criticized the exploitative behaviour of IoP Publishing some time ago in a recent blog post, I drew a stern response from the Chief Executive of the Institute of Physics, Paul Hardaker. That comment seems to admit that the high prices charged by IOP Publishing for access to  its journals is nothing to do with the real cost of disseminating scientific knowledge but is instead a means of generating income to allow the IoP to pursue its noble aim of  “promoting Physics”.

This is the case for other learned societies too, and it explains why such organizations have lobbied very hard for the “Gold” Open Access some authorities are attempting to foist on the research community, rather than the far more sensible and sustainable approaches to Open Access employed, for example, by the Open Journal of Astrophysics.

Some time ago I came across another blog post, pointing out that other learned societies around the world are also opposing anything other than the most expensive forms of Open Access:

There is also great incentive for the people who manage and run these organisations to defend their cartel. For example, the American Chemical Society, a huge opponent to open access, pays many of its employees, as reported in their 990 tax return, over six figures. These salaries ranged from $304,528 to $1,084,417 in 2010.

The problem with the learned societies behaving this way is twofold.

First, I consider it to be inevitable that the traditional journal industry will very soon be completely bypassed in favour of  other forms of Open Access publishing. The internet has changed the entire landscape of scientific publication. It’s now so cheap and so easy to disseminate knowledge that traditional journals are already virtually redundant, especially in my field of astrophysics where we have been using the arXiv for so long that many of us hardly ever look at journals.

The comfortable income stream that has been used by the IoP to “promote Physics”, as well as to furnish its brand new building in King’s Cross, will dry up unless these organizations find a way of defending it. The “Gold” OA favoured by such organizations their attempt to stem the tide. I think this move into Gold `Open Access’, paid for by ruinously expensive Article Processing Charges paid by authors (or their organizations) is unsustainable because the research community will see through it and refuse to pay.

The other problematic aspect of the approach of these learned societies is that I think it is fundamentally dishonest. University and other institutional libraries are provided with funds to provide access to published research, not to provide a backdoor subsidy for a range of extraneous activities that have nothing to do with that purpose. The learned societies do many good things – and some are indeed outstandingly good – but that does not give them the right to siphon off funds from their constituents in this way.  Institutional affiliation, paid for by fee, would be a much fairer way of funding these activities.

I should point out that, as a FRAS and a FInstP, I pay annual subscriptions to both the RAS and the IoP. I am happy to do so, as I feel reasonably comfortable spending some of my own money supporting astronomy and physics. What I don’t agree with is my department having to fork out huge amounts of money from an ever-dwindling budget for access to scientific research that should be in the public domain because it has already been funded by the taxpayer.

Some time ago I had occasion to visit the London offices of a well-known charitable organization which shall remain nameless. The property they occupied was glitzy, palatial, and obviously very expensive. I couldn’t help wondering how they could square the opulence of their headquarters with the quoted desire to spend as much as possible on their good works. Being old and cynical, I came to the conclusion that, although charities might start out with the noblest intentions, there is a grave danger that they simply become self-serving, viewing their own existence in itself as more important than what they do for others.

The commercial academic publishing industry has definitely gone that way. It arose because of the need to review, edit, collate, publish and disseminate the fruits of academic labour. Then the ease with which profits could be made led it astray. It now fulfills little or no useful purpose, but simply consumes financial resources that could be put to much better effect actually doing science. Fortunately, I think the scientific community knows this and the parasite will die a natural death.

The question for learned societies is whether they can find a sustainable funding model that isn’t reliant upon effectively purloining funds from university library budgets. If their revenue from publishing does fall, can they replace it? And, if not, in what form can they survive?

Congratulations to the RAS Medallists!

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , on January 9, 2021 by telescoper

Given all the doom and gloom going around I thought I’d take the opportunity to share some good news and also offer my public congratulations to the all the winners of medals and awards announced yesterday by the Royal Astronomical Society. Let me draw particular attention to the three, purely on the grounds that I know them and their work personally.

First, Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell who receives the Gold Medal. For some reason the citation doesn’t mention that she should have won a share of the Nobel Prize in 1974.

Second, star cosmologist Hiranya Peiris who gets the Eddington Medal.

And third, Steven Smartt of Queen’s University Belfast, who gets the Herschel Medal.

Congratulations to them and indeed to all the winners of awards and medals, a complete list of whom may be found here.

Late in the Year

Posted in Biographical, Covid-19 with tags , on December 12, 2020 by telescoper

I’ve noticed over the last few months that things coming from the UK to Ireland are getting heavily delayed en route, which is probably a sign of things to come. Last year my Royal Astronomical Society diary arrived in October. This year’s – complete with new logo – arrived yesterday (Friday 11th December):

The subscription to Physics World that comes with my IOP membership has suffered even worse disruption. Since I moved to Ireland I noticed that copies of this magazine take at least 6 weeks to arrive. After the pandemic started however, they stopped coming altogether until I contacted the Institute of Physics last month. They sent a package of replacement issues, which arrived promptly. The December issue arrived last week, in a white paper envelope instead of the usual plastic covering. Why that would make a difference to its speed of delivery I don’t know, but it seems to.

Usually I get an IOP wall planner every year, but the 2021 version hasn’t arrived yet. I’m not too worried about that, however, as the 2020 planner in my office is probably the item that proved of least use for me in 2020. Come to think of it, I haven’t had much call to use the RAS diary, either…

Some weeks ago I ordered a couple of chairs through a website with a “.ie” address. The chairs were actually made in Spain though and had to make the journey to Ireland through the UK. This process took much longer than I thought it would but when I queried with the supplier I was eventually given a delivery date of last Sunday (6th December). They didn’t show up. Using the tracking facility supplied by the company, the two packages seemed to have been lost. The customer service people had no information either. I was about to cancel the order and asked for a refund, but they showed up in Ireland on Thursday night; I received delivery this morning and am very happy with them. All’s well that ends well, I suppose, though the disruption to shipments coming through the UK is obviously not going to stop anytime soon.

My strong preference in shopping online is to buy from local (i.e. Irish) companies. Sometimes, though, businesses based elsewhere have a website in Ireland but nothing else. A lesson from this episode is to check carefully where the goods are actually going to be sent from before you order. Those that have to travel through England will probably arrive very late.

Eye on Burlington House

Posted in The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on October 27, 2020 by telescoper

Having been forewarned of this story as soon as my copy of Private Eye arrived (this morning, owing to the Bank Holiday weekend) I headed straight to this:

It sounds rather alarming for the Royal Astronomical Society, which is currently accommodated in Burlington House in Piccadilly, but I do remember something similar being in the air not too long ago when I was a Member of RAS Council. The Government of the time threatened to increased rents and everyone involved with the RAS, including its Fellows, was a bit worried but an agreement was struck. Presumably now the leases are up for negotiation again?

It’s worth pointing out a few inaccuracies in the Eye piece.

  1.  “..the six Learned Societies complacently assumed they would continue to pay a peppercorn rent forever”. This is untrue as the rents have been renegotiated before (see above).
  2.  “The Royal Academy is still relatively flush….but the other five are effectively broke”. I don’t know anything about the others but I’d be very surprised if the Royal Society of Chemistry is “effectively broke” given the income from its academic publishing wing. It also has sizeable industrial income, as does the Geological Society. The Royal Astronomical Society has sizeable reserves in the form of a portfolio of long-term investments built up over the 200 years of its existence but it tends not to use them to fund expenditure; its main cash flow is provided again by academic publishing, especially Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society. This year – the bicentenary of its foundation – is a bit of an exception because it has dipped into reserves to fund a series of celebratory outreach activities.
  3. The description of “vast clubbable tearooms” is inaccurate too. The RAS occupies rather cramped accommodation in one corner of Burlington house. There is a Fellows’ Room but it is rather small. There are staff offices, a (small) lecture theatre and an important historical library. There are also the President’s Apartments (which I have of course never seen).

I wouldn’t put it past this particular Government to kick out the Learned Societies and outsource Burlington House to Serco but even if this does happen, it wouldn’t be the end of the world.  In my view the RAS needs to shake off the fusty image that its current accommodation in what looks like an old museum tends to perpetuate.  It has always been the case that most of the regulars at the monthly Open Meetings in Burlington House are based in or near London, which means many Fellows don’t get the chance to be involved. Would it really be all that bad for the Royal Astronomical Society had to move? They may have to overhaul their finances anyway if their publishing revenues dry up…

Why not use the opportunity to move the Society out of London altogether to a place with a strong astronomical connection, Bath for example, although that would admittedly make it difficult to get to the Athenaeum in time for dinner…

And if “commercial rates” are going to be the thing for Government-owned buildings, shouldn’t the occupant of 10 Downing Street be charged for his accommodation?

 

 

Monthly Notices goes Online-only

Posted in Open Access with tags , , on June 14, 2020 by telescoper

I just heard that the journal Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society which has been publishing astronomy research since 1859, is no longer producing a print edition and instead will be publishing online.

The decision is in response to falling demand for the printed version which has made it no longer economically viable profitable to continue producing it. I choose the ‘profitable’ because the prime purpose of MNRAS is no longer the dissemination of scientific results but the generation of income to fund other activities of the Royal Astronomical Society. Despite the move to the much cheaper digital-only publishing mode, the annual cost of an institutional subscription to this journal is over $10,000. Most of that is goes as profit to Oxford University Press (the actual publisher) and to the Royal Astronomical Society.

Much of what the RAS does with this income is laudible of course, but I don’t think it is fair to inflate institutional subscription costs in order to fund it. University libraries are meant to provide access to research, not to act as cash cows to be milked by learned societies. The Royal Astronomical Society society isn’t the only learned society to use its journals this way, nor is it the most exploitative of those that do, but I believe the approach is indefensible.

My very first research paper was published in MNRAS way back in 1986 and I’ve published many others there over the years, so it’s with a certain amount of nostalgia that I look back on the old style journal. As. Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society I used to get my own copy in the post at a discounted rate but had to stop and dispose of the old ones when I moved to Nottingham as they took up too much room.

My own belief is that it’s not only the print edition that has had its day but the whole idea of a traditional academic journal.

I’ll just take this opportunity to remind you that The Open Journal of Astrophysics publishes papers (online only) in all the areas of Astrophysics covered by MNRAS, and more, but is entirely free both for authors and readers.

An Astronomical Anniversary

Posted in Biographical, History, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on March 10, 2020 by telescoper

I was reminded via Twitter that today is the 200th anniversary of the first formal meeting of the Astronomical Society of London which took place on 10th March 1820. This society turned into the Royal Astronomical Society when it was given a Royal Charter in 1831. Here is the first page of the the Minutes of that first meeting:

Those of you who have been paying attention will recall that the decision to form the Society was taken at a dinner in January 1820 and the bicentenary of this event was celebrated in January by the RAS Dining Club (of which I am a member).

Club Dinners usually take place after the Open Meetings of the Royal Astronomical Society on the second Friday of the month. Sadly, however, there won’t be a Club Dinner this Friday as it has been cancelled owing to the Coronavirus emergency. I’ll have to make do with beans on toast again then.

Incidentally, I thought I’d share this list of the first 200(ish) members of the Royal Astronomical Society (PDF) kindly sent to me by former Cardiff colleague Mike Edmunds. There are some illustrious names among the early members, including Laplace and Bessel, as well as some oddities, such as His Excellency Alexis Greig (Vice Admiral of the Imperial Russian Navy) and Edward Riddle, Esq. (First Mathematical Master, the Royal Naval Asylum).