Archive for Science and Technology Facilities Council

Remembering Clover

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on April 10, 2018 by telescoper

I was tidying up some papers in my desk yesterday and came across a clipping dated April 9th 2009, i.e. exactly nine years ago to the day. Amazed by this coincidence, I resolved to post it on here but was unable to work out how to use the new-fangled scanner in the Data Innovation Institute office so had to wait until I could get expert assistance this morning:

Sorry it’s a bit crumpled, but I guess that demonstrates the authenticity of its provenance.

The full story, as it appeared in the print edition of the Western Mail, can also be found online here. By the way it’s me on the stepladder, pretending to know something about astronomical instrumentation.

I wrote at some length about the background to the cancellation of the Clover experiment here. In a nutshell, however, Clover involved the Universities of Cardiff, Oxford, Cambridge and Manchester and was designed to detect the primordial B-mode signal from its vantage point in Chile. The chance to get involved in a high-profile cosmological experiment was one of the reasons I moved to Cardiff from Nottingham almost a decade ago, and I was looking forward to seeing the data arriving for analysis. Although I’m primarily a theorist, I have some experience in advanced statistical methods that might have been useful in analysing the output. It would have been fun blogging about it too.

Unfortunately, however, none of that happened. Because of its budget crisis, and despite the fact that it had already spent a large amount (£4.5M) on Clover, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) decided to withdraw the funding needed to complete it (£2.5M) and cancel the experiment. I was very disappointed, but that’s nothing compared to Paolo (shown in the picture) who lost his job as a result of the decision and took his considerable skills and knowledge abroad.

We will never know for sure, but if Clover had gone ahead it might well have detected the same signal found five years later by BICEP2, which was announced in 2014. Working at three different frequencies (95, 150 and 225GHz) Clover would have had a better capability than BICEP2 in distinguishing the primordial signal from contamination from Galactic dust emission (which, as we now know, is the dominant contribution to the BICEP2 result; see thread here), although that still wouldn’t have been easy because of sensitivity issues. As it turned out, the BICEP2 signal turned out to be a false alarm so, looking on the bright side, perhaps at least the members of the Clover team avoided making fools of themselves on TV!

P.S. Note also that I moved to Cardiff in mid-2007, so I had not spent 5 years working on the Clover project by the time it was cancelled as discussed in the newspaper article, but many of my Cardiff colleagues had.


National STFC Data-Intensive Science Launch Event

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 27, 2017 by telescoper

It’s been a very busy week here in Cardiff, as we have been hosting a National Event to launch the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC)’s new Centres for Doctoral Training in Data-Intensive Science. There are eight new CDTs involving 19 institutions across the country (including the local one that involved the Universities of Cardiff, Bristol and Swansea). We were delighted to be chosen to host this event, which has had a tremendous buzz about it, as 120 new PhD students met with academics from all the CDTs, STFC staff, and representatives of industry partners, for a mixture of training and networking activities. I took part in a panel discussion this morning about careers, which was very interesting.

Last night we had a dinner at the Mercure Hotel in Cardiff (where the Real Madrid team stayed just before this summer’s UEFA Champions League Final in Cardiff). The dinner was preceded by a welcome from Professor Karen Holford (Deputy Vice-Chancellor of Cardiff University), a talk by Brian Bowsher (Chief Executive of STFC) and Prof. Patrick Sutton of the Gravitional Physics group at Cardiff who gave an outstanding talk about the latest developments in gravitational waves. There was then a `showcase’ event to allow students and staff to talk about their work over a few drinks.

Here are some pictures of yesterday’s activities.

Prof. Karen Holford giving her welcome speech.

Dr Bian Bowsher, STFC Chief Executive

I noticed in Dr Bowsher’s talk that STFC has apparently moved the Boulby Mine from North Yorkshire (near Whitby) to Northumberland:

STFC sites (some of them in the correct geographical location).

Professor Mark Walport was unable to attend the event in person but did at least appear on a slide about the new UK Research and Innovation entity, which formally comes into existence in April 2018!

Professor Sir Mark Walport

Patrick Sutton doing his gravitational waves talk…

The Showcase Event

Showcase Event

And here are some of the members of the team from STFC who did most of the organization for this very successful and enjoyable event.

Some members of the STFC team!

The event finishes this afternoon, after which I think I’ll have a lie down!

Update: there’s a Cardiff University News item about this here.

The Anomaly of Research England

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on August 16, 2017 by telescoper

The other day I was surprised to see this tweet announcing the impending formation of a new council under the umbrella of the new organisation UK Research & Innovation (UKRI):

These changes are consequences of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) which was passed at the end of the last Parliament before the Prime Minister decided to reduce the Government’s majority by calling a General Election.

It seems to me that it’s very strange indeed to have a new council called Research England sitting inside an organisation that purports to be a UK-wide outfit without having a corresponding Research Wales, Research Scotland and Research Northern Ireland. The seven existing research councils which will henceforth sit alongside Research England within UKRI are all UK-wide.

This anomaly stems from the fact that Higher Education policy is ostensibly a devolved matter, meaning that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have separate bodies to oversee their universities. Included in the functions of these bodies is the so-called QR funding which is allocated on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework. This used to be administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), but each devolved council distributed its own funds in its own way. The new Higher Education and Research Act however abolishes HEFCE and replaces some of its functions into an organisation called the Office for Students, but not those connected with research. Hence the creation of the new `Research England’. This will not only distribute QR funding among English universities but also administer a number of interdisciplinary research programmes.

The dual support system of government funding consists of block grants of QR funding allocated as above alongside targeted at specific projects by the Research Councils (such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is responsible for astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics research). There is nervousness in England that the new structure will put both elements of the dual support system inside the same organisation, but my greatest concern is that by exlcuding Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, English universities will be given an unfair advantage when it comes to interdisciplinary research. Surely there should be representation within UKRI for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too?

Incidentally, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has started the process of recruiting a new Executive Chair. If you’re interested in this position you can find the advertisement here. Ominously, the only thing mentioned under `Skills Required’ is `Change Management’.

The STFC ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2017 by telescoper

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.



The Supreme Leader of STFC Departs…

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on May 12, 2016 by telescoper


In case you haven’t heard yet, news has just broken that Professor John Womersley (above), currently Chief Executive of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has been appointed Director-General of the new European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, and will therefore be stepping down from his post as Chief Executive of STFC in the autumn.

John has been Supreme Leader at STFC for five years now and, in my opinion, has done an excellent job in circumstances that have not always been easy. He will be a hard act to follow. I know he’s an occasional reader of this blog, so let me take this opportunity to wish him well in his new role.

Now, perhaps I should open a book on the likely contenders for the post of next Chief Executive of STFC?


STFC Consolidated Grants Review

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by telescoper

It’s been quite a while since I last put my community service hat on while writing a blog post, but here’s an opportunity. Last week the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) published a Review of the Implementation of Consolidated Grants, which can be found in its entirety here (PDF). I encourage all concerned to read it.

Once upon a time I served on the Astronomy Grants Panel whose job it was to make recommendations on funding for Astronomy through the Consolidated Grant Scheme, though this review covers the implementation across the entire STFC remit, including Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics (Theory), Particle Physics (Experiment) and Astronomy (which includes solar-terrestrial physics and space science). It’s quite interesting to see differences in how the scheme has been implemented across these various disciplines, but I’ll just include here a couple of comments on the Astronomy side of things.

First, here is a table showing the number of academic staff for whom support was requested over the three years for which the consolidated grant system has been in existence (2011, 2012 and 2013 for rounds 1, 2 and 3 respectively).  You can see that the overall success rate was slightly better in round 3, possibly due to applicants learning more about the process over the cycle, but otherwise the outcomes seem reasonably consistent:


The last three rows of this table  on the other hand show quite clearly the impact of the “flat cash” settlement for STFC science funding on Postdoctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) support:

Constant cash means ongoing cuts in real terms; there were 11.6% fewer Astronomy PDRAs supported in 2013 than in 2011. Job prospects for the next generation of astronomers continue to dwindle…

Any other comments, either on these tables or on the report as a whole, are welcome through the comments box.


Yesterday in Parliament

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in a rather muggy Westminster to attend a reception at the Houses of Parliament associated with an exhibition called Unveiling the Universe in all its Light which is currently set up inside the Palace of Westminster but will later go on tour around the UK.


It took me a while to find the way in. I lived in London for the best part of 9 years but never bothered to visit the Houses of Parliament (at least not the interior), so I was quite excited as, clutching my invitation in a rather sweaty hand, I eventually joined the queue to go through the security checks. That didn’t take very long, so despite getting lost in the corridors of power en route – it’s a bit of a maze inside – I had plenty of time to see the exhibition before joining the assembled throng in the Strangers’ Dining Room. There, surrounded by walls covered in expensive but tasteless flock wallpaper, I had a couple of couples of glasses of wine and ate some posh sandwiches while chatting to various astronomers, particle physicists and others, including a contingent of familiar faces from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It was a coincidence, of course, that this event took place on the day that the Nobel Prize for Physics was announced; it was impressive that posters were already there celebrating the award to Peter Higgs. General opinion was delight that Higgs had won a share of the prize, but sadness that Tom Kibble had been left out.

There were upbeat speeches by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts (who isn’t as tall as he looks on telly), Andrew Miller (Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology), John Womersley (Chief Executive of STFC) and Lord Rees (Astronomer Royal). I think everyone present came away with a strong sense that astronomy and particle physics had strong political backing. Martin Rees in particular said that he thought we were living in a “golden age” for fundamental science, involving an exciting interplay between the inner space of subatomic particles and the outer space of cosmology. I couldn’t agree more.