At the moment the petition at the No. 10 site stands at 6668 signatories (and is growing).
Friday, December 21, 2007
At the moment the petition at the No. 10 site stands at 6668 signatories (and is growing).
Wednesday, December 19, 2007
As part of the effort to combat the swingeing cuts that threaten fundamental physics research in the UK an online petition has been set up at
Please pass this information on to anyone who might care about Britain's place at the leading edge of scientific research and keeping it there.
This from the FAQ:
- What will happen to my petition once it is finished?
Once your petition has closed, usually provided there are 200 signatures or more, it will be passed to officials who work for the Prime Minister in Downing Street, or sent to the relevant Government department for a response.
Every person who signs such a petition will receive an email detailing the Government's response to the issues raised.
Tuesday, December 18, 2007
This is welcome news:
INNOVATION, UNIVERSITIES & SKILLS
Select Committee Announcement
Science Budget Allocations
The Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee is holding a short inquiry into the Science Budget allocations. The first evidence session will be on Monday 21 January 2008 when evidence will be heard from:
Institute of Physics; and Royal Astronomical Society
Panel 2 (at 5.00pm)
Science and Technology Facilities Council; and Research Councils UK
The session will take place in Committee Room 6 at 4.15pm.
The session will be open to the public on a first come, first served basis.
Of course this does not mean anything in real terms of restoring funding but perhaps it might go some way to starting the process and addressing the major concerns that physicists have with STFC. I expect weasel words but hope the committee cuts through it.
For the interested you can watch it online at www.parliamentlive.tv
Monday, December 17, 2007
On a whim I went and had a look at the Wikipedia entry for the Haldane principle. The final sentence made me laugh:
There is currently a debate about the extent to which the principle is still applied in practice.Well I would say that that debate is pretty much over, wouldn't you?
The fast stream can be observed in data from the ACE satellite (I provide a snapshot since the on-line plots always update). See the high density (orange) that occurs at the same time that the magnetic field increases (white)? This is an example of a co-rotating interaction region, where the fast solar wind catches up with the slow wind compressing the interplanetary magnetic field. You can see the tail end of the last stream (yellow) that provided so much nice data for us last week (after the noise!).
So plenty of nice radar data tonight as those electrons and protons dive into the atmosphere, ionising as they go. No optics to look at unfortunately. It has been raining persistently for the past few days (wiping out much of the snow). Coupled with the time of year, we have been pretty much in the dark all day; that's generally how we feel when understanding decisions made by STFC come to think of it.
Anyway, STFC and the British government should love us; with the dark and the rain there has been absolutely no blues-skies research going on here for the past few days. Just how they seem to like it.
The news from Keith Mason and from Diamond itself is that overspend on the facilities is not to blame for the shortfall. So what is? This blog has updates on the problems.
I see that a number of rumours have started swirling about the rationale behind theses cuts.
[UPDATE] second link changed to the one I intended. This is what happens when you get distracted by menial things such as work when writing blog posts...
Sunday, December 16, 2007
So I thought it worth talking about what STP actually is. It is not really astronomy though it has long been grouped with it; it is not even space science in the sense of the words that STFC seems to use (which is more like space technology).
Solar Terrestrial Physics deals with the processes that drive the connection between the Sun and the Earth and the way in which the different regions of near-Earth space couple together. This makes it part meteorology (sort of) and part fundamental physics. The fundamentals arise in trying to understand the actual processes that underlie the sun-Earth interaction and the meteorology is our trying to understand what happens, when and where and the consequences for society.
On the fundamental level there are two big questions (I think):
- How does magnetic reconnection work?
- How are charged particles accelerated to relativistic energies?
Other questions include understanding how energy and momentum travel through the vertical atmosphere and ionosphere? what roles do turbulence play in space plasmas? does the magnetosphere exhibit emergent behaviour? etc.
Then we move into the meteorology aspects. We want to determine, exactly where and when electrons are accelerated. This is important both for protecting our technology in space, which is vulnerable to high energy charged particles and for applications on the ground. In particular in the polar regions where some communication systems can be wiped out by space weather effects. These could be vital safety-for-life applications!
We want to know where and how energy is deposited in our atmosphere and how it is transported. Why does reconnection occur at some points and times and not at others in the magnetosphere? This doesn't even cover the plasma experiments that can be performed in the ionosphere where boundaries are much less important than in plasma chambers.
Basically it comes down to expanding our knowledge of our near environment. Knowing how the world works and what effect that might have on us.
Where STP really differs from astronomy is the way in which we do it. Instead of relying on a couple of instruments (or even one) to study from afar. We use remote techniques as well as getting up close and personal, and we often use many instruments in conjunction to diagnose the plasma environment and put small scale observations into the larger context of the Earth's space environment. We use cameras with radars, magnetometers and riometers to look at the ionosphere and then link that with direct observations of the magnetospheric plasma from insitu satellite measurements. We use a large suite of instruments to do our science rather than single or a couple of measurements.
You may think that sounds expensive, but you can consider ground-based STP instruments as multiple instruments on a satellite with added advantages: they have a much longer lifetime, they are cheaper to build, they provide more than a snapshot in space. The soon-to-be closed ground-based facilities were UK led and gave us buy-in to other data sets around the world though collaborative agreements and membership (often leading) of international consortia. UK STP is world leading science. To make clear, this does not mean that satellites are unimportant, far from it, just that through combining the satellite measurements with the ground based observations we can build a clearer picture of what is happening and what we are seeing. Satellites alone can provide excellent science, but their worth is multiplied in conjunction with ground based facilities.
For considering costs let's take an example. The SAMNET magnetometer chain is run by Lancaster university to provide important information on the location and timing of large releases of energy into the ionosphere (amongst other things such as studies of high energy electron loss and mass loading of the inner magnetosphere). It is also the provider of data for AuroraWatch, an outreach programme that lets subscribers know when there is likely to be an auroral display that they can see. The cost of running SAMNET (with associated technicians) for one year is under £47,000. Whereas operations of a single satellite instrument can be over £450,000 per year.
However they are all going to go. Some of our facilities were cut a while back because "we did not make the case that our science was important". I wonder now whether it was less us not making the case and more an inability on other's part to comprehend the interdisciplinary and fundamentally different work that we do when compared to astronomy.
Note I am not blaming the astronomers here, if anything it is a system that fails to allow adequate representation on major decisions for a distinct field of physics, and that has been the way for quite some time.
During the course of our ongoing inquiry into UK space policy, we received evidence suggesting that there could be tension within the STFC between funding for large facilities and funding for basic science within other programmes. Professor Keith Mason assured us that "there is no conflict": he averred "I am comfortable that we already have mechanisms in place that can handle this transparently and achieve an appropriate balance". Sir Keith O'Nions also assured us in January 2007 that "I think you will be quite impressed with sort of advisory structure that is being put together for STFC" and that "It is going to be a very distinctive and exciting council". He had previously described it as "a significant prize in innovation".
We will monitor the operations of the STFC once it has come into being and will look for an opportunity to discuss its progress, work and administration with Professor Mason once a reasonable period has elapsed.
Saturday, December 15, 2007
So I notice the "Big Science Questions" post and for the first time I really notice what the first question is:
• Why is there a Universe?
Let that sink in for a moment.
Read it again and note that it does not say 'How?', it says 'Why?'
Is this truly a questions for science to answer? To me it sounds more like a philosophical (or perhaps even religious) question. I understand the necessity of thinking big and not shying away from the big questions but we also have to work within the constraints of science. Big targets are wonderful but realism is neccessary as well. I am intrigued to know how we are expected to answer this question.
Now however plans are afoot for a more insidious attack right at the heart of the Iranian people:
Lady In Red star Chris De Burgh will be the first Western artist to play a concert in Iran since the country's 1979 revolution, according to reports.
How low can they sink? What evil really dwells within the hearts of men that something like this can even be conceived?
DISCLAIMER: I actually own some Chris de Burgh music. But not Lady in Red. that was bloody awful!
• Why is there a Universe?
• How did galaxies form?
• Was there ever life on Mars?
• How do planetary systems evolve?
• How are the chemical elements created?
• How does our climate work?
• How can we create new materials to store energy?
• How can we meet mankind’s need for abundant clean energy?
• How can we design smart materials?
• How do cells work?
• How do degenerative diseases develop?
• How can we design better treatments for cancer?
There is no obvious questions that include the Sun or STP, effectively pushing both solar and STP out into the cold. But perhaps even more importantly than that where did these questions come from?
This is a point raised by another colleague via email; the process seems to be opaque. He comments that in the past PPARC (STFC forerunner) had town meetings and hard effort by advisory panels, including the now defunct solar system advisory panel). I cannot recall heaing about the formulation of these questions and it seems I am not alone. Something to find out, I think.
Apparently one of my colleagues asked about STFC's interest in climate change. This was in direct response to the one of the new nine 'big science questions' described in the strategy delivery document: "How does our climate work?"
My colleague commented that studies of solar physics and the sun-earth connection are rather important here and made the point that ground-based STP is an important element of that.
Keith Mason's alleged response was to suggest that NERC ought to fund ground-based STP in that case.
Hold on a minute. STFC declares that they want to know how our climate works and yet thinks that NERC should fund instruments that can play a role in answering that question??? If I am interpreting his answer correctly Mason believes that climate change is in the purview of NERC, yet in his own strategy delivery document he has climate change as one of the fundamental questions STFC should answer. As this stands it makes absolutely no sense unless one concludes that Mason just thinks that ground-based STP should be eliminated.
What am I missing here? What sort of answer was that? Is the man not aware of his own research council's strategy?
Friday, December 14, 2007
Obviously due to my location I was not able to attend the meeting yesterday but some of my colleagues have passed on information on some of what was said.
Grant money will be reduced significantly. Grants currently under consideration will take a 25% cut with the figure to be reviewed each year. Existing grants may also be withdrawn in areas where STFC is withdrawing from facilities. This is massive. This amounts to a very large number of jobs going across physics (probably my own included). This issue must not be underestimated, this includes physicists and support staff across the country who will become unemployed.
Apparently, Keith Mason assured everyone that DIUS officials were fully aware of the impact the cuts would make. He declined to answer when questioned what ministers knew.
Regarding solar terrestrial physics, Keith said that the cuts in the field were due to the UK not being world-leading in that area. This is absolute nonsense and if Mason does not know this he is too ignorant to be in charge of any funding decisions at STFC. In 2005 there was an international review of physics conducted throughout the UK. To quote:
Emphasis mine. Now let us look at what the report said:
The Review was organised by a Steering Group comprising: Professor Sir John Enderby (Chair; President, the Institute of Physics), Professor John O'Reilly (Chief Executive, EPSRC), Professor Keith Mason (Chief Executive, PPARC) and Professor Kathryn Whaler (President, the Royal Astronomical Society).
The UK has a world-leading role in helioseismology, dynamo theory, coronal activity, magnetic reconnection, and shock physics, thus covering many of the important aspects of the Sun-Earth connection.This is just one of the many, many positive things said about STP in that report that Keith Mason seems blissfully unaware of. I recommend reading the report in full, in some places it is now quite funny to see the recommendations given by our esteemed international colleagues and how they have been ignored (through necessity of course) by STFC.
The cuts to STP only affect ground based science - according to Keith Mason. The problem is that the UK has excelled at ground-based for years and have a limited satellite programme through ESA. Cluster is the only truly magnetospheric mission currently being flown and that is now getting old. I will bet that Cluster will be revealed to be on the chopping block within the next month or so. I would be very surprised to learn that decisions regarding its fate have not already been taken.
It is worth emphasising this point, whereas astronomy and particle physics are going to be hit massively, and unfairly by these cuts, the affect on solar terrestrial physics is essentially (though it does not say so in the document) to wipe out a whole area of scientific expertise in which Britain has excelled since 1950s. It is particularly ironic that this should happen in the middle of IPY and IHY
More to come
Thursday, December 13, 2007
With regards to the running costs within operation, Diamond Light Source Ltd submitted the operational budget in the framework of the 5 years financial planning in 2003. Since the start of operations in January 2007, the company has been, and remains, committed to delivering within its negotiated budgets.
Add this to the mix of information.
The key reason was to address my ignorance over what ISIS and Diamond are actually for and to clarify that particle physics is not unscathed by this debacle. They are going to be hit just as badly in the research stakes as the rest of us and have lost the International Linear Collider.
It is particularly galling now to recognise that STFC has overspent on facilities that seem to be primarily for research into materials science; a discipline that is not funded through STFC. Clearly those of us who were worried about the ability of a new council to balance funding facilities with funding research were prescient. If only we had been more vocal and strident in our concerns.
Author Terry Pratchett is suffering from a rare form of early Alzheimer's disease, it has been revealed.
He said: "I would have liked to keep this one quiet for a little while, but because of upcoming conventions and of course the need to keep my publishers informed, it seems to me unfair to withhold the news.
"I have been diagnosed with a very rare form of early onset Alzheimer's, which lay behind this year's 'phantom stroke'."
Perhaps unsurprisingly the great man himself is still upbeat:
PS I would just like to draw attention to everyone reading the above that this should be interpreted as 'I am not dead'. I will, of course, be dead at some future point, as will everybody else. For me, this maybe further off than you think - it's too soon to tell. I know it's a very human thing to say "Is there anything I can do", but in this case I would only entertain offers from very high-end experts in brain chemistry.
Posted by Kav at 04:48
I started the experiment this morning working on the assumption that the bad weather might get pushed off by a region of high pressure. So far not so good. So we can rule out optics for tonight. Yesterday I took some very nice data with the radar and the cloud was patchy such that we should have some usable optics results. This is very nice as it provides both context and a method for estimating electron energy flux to compare against the radar derived results.
Why all this effort? Well I am trying to quantify additional energy input to the atmosphere via electron precipitation modulated by ultra-low frequency hydromagnetic waves in the magnetosphere. This is not easily done with a satellite since they pass through a region relatively quickly and although Cluster can help distinguish spatial features from temporal effects it can't be in the right place all the time. By using the ionospheric radar in conjunction with a ground array of magnetometers and an instrument known as an imaging riometer I can get a good estimate of the power input during the wave cycles across a range of local times. Through application of a little theory we can extract the electron energy flux that is due solely to the influence of the ULF wave and there you go. Of course, STFC is not interested in ground based data and now isn't interested in how the Sun affects the Earth (which used to be one of their 'big questions') except in terms of 'How does our climate work?'
Yesterday's carting of equipment around was fairly successful. We managed to move most of the bulky items out of the basement and back to the crate at the radar site. The next challenge is the stuff that we want to store in the hut; there is limited space and we know that not everything will fit. Tough decisions will have to be made.
Wednesday, December 12, 2007
And now after letting off steam I am going to go and do some more work.
Things to do, equipment to carry. Sleep to try and get...
Since my experiment depends on early local times I have shifted my day to start at 2LT. This means I am available during the day to help out with other tasks. The only problem at the moment is that I am yet to perfect the art of getting to sleep at 19 LT. Not helped yesterday after reading the new strategy document.
Posted by Kav at 10:18
Council also reaffirmed that a major restructuring of its activities is necessary to provide a sound foundation for the next decade and to create headroom for new opportunities, crucial to the continued vibrancy and competitiveness of its research community.
Headroom for new opportunities. Okay that sounds reasonable, we cannot become fixed in our ways and need to allow for potential future developments. Interesting though, I had not realised that the way we were working was stymieing opportunities. I thought that there were lots of new things such as Diamond (ooh, overspend!) and the LHC for example. New cutting edge astronomy telescopes like LoSKA. Exciting satellite missions like the recently launched STEREO and future plans like Bepi Colombo and Solar Orbiter. There are lots of new things in the pipeline, just as there have always been.
It is not clear to this scientist exactly how we have been failing up to now in our ability to develop new opportunities as the sentence above implies.
Given the settlement this process of restructuring will now be accelerated. Some tough decisions will have to be made and in some cases relatively quickly. The Council has asked the executive to come forward with detailed plans in consultation with its Science Board and the PALS and PPAN Committees.
Some tough decisions. Well actually some very easy decisions, if the chief executive does not like it then the plug will get pulled. If not this time around then definitely in the next 'programmatic review'. Remember boys and girls, 'peer review is a blunt tool'.
The Council has asked the executive to come forward with detailed plans. I am afraid that too many scientists have become jaded in the past couple of years. I bet that this sentence will be interpreted to mean that the chief executive will essentially pick whatever he fancies to be the future science direction though he will discuss it with some committees, the details of which may or may not be passed onto the wider community. Don't bet on any wider consultation though. I hope that my cynicism is unfounded.
Council recognises that the restructuring of our activities will impact on both our research community and our staff but believes it will put us on a stronger footing for the future. We will aim to reach decisions and remove uncertainty as soon as is possible.So many of you will lose your jobs, and those that don't won't have much say in what they can research anyway. But don't worry because we will be stronger for it. Well those of us who still have jobs will be.
Remove uncertainty. Good we don't like uncertainty. Much better to know for certain that it is time to bend over and get screwed. Essentially we will do as we are told because what we want does not matter; that is my interpretation based not just on the words but also the climate under which we have been operating for the past couple of years. Context is the key and if STFC disagrees with my assessment perhaps they should consider why I came to it and the environment of distrust they have fostered that has led us here.
Someone in comments has made the point that particle physics is hardly unscathed in this. This is very true, my emphasis on astronomy and especially STP came from the RAS response and my own 'bias'. In fact my post could be read as this being an astronomy vs. particle physics issue when it most certainly isn't. As STFC have said there will be cuts across the entire programme and that includes particle physics.
This seems to me to be more about science vs. facilities. This is the thing we worried about before the creation of STFC as I mentioned below. How do we keep the science grants protected from the vagaries of managing and maintaining large scale facilities and the associated costs? It seems we don't. Colleagues have commented to me that they think the new strategy strongly emphasizes the technology rather than the science. Be your own judge.
Well here I am sat way up in the north of Norway running an experiment on the ionospheric radars here. Anyway it is pleasant enough but with funding shortages it is a bit like a ghost town during the day as many of the staff have gone.
The government is to review its funding for physics after scientists warned of an £80m research shortfall.
Leading physicists criticised the threatened cutbacks which they said could"damage" physics research.
This is actually an update to the story as I read it yesterday morning. So what is this all about?
An excerpt from a letter by the President of the Royal Astronomical Society on their website:
STFC has been grappling with a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement for 2008-11 which, while slightly above the rate of inflation, amounts to a 7% cut of their budget when Full Economic Costs and the running costs of new facilities like the Diamond Light Source are taken into account. This has left the STFC some £80m short of the funding it needs to maintain research at its current level.
The STFC (Science and Technology Facilities Council) is a relatively new research council that was formed through combining PPARC (Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) with CCLRC (Central Laboratory of the Research Councils) and taking on responsibility for nuclear physics from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). It was formed on April 1st 2007; make of that what you will.
Not only do they fund particle and nuclear physics, astronomy and space science as well as various facilities but they also cover solar terrestrial physics. This is my field. STFC consider it a part of astronomy.
In the run up to the formation of STFC worries were raised over the way in which funding for large instruments would be balanced against actual research. I know this was a hot topic of conversation amongst scientists, I was one of them. I recall that assurances were given that the research would be safe. Though funnily enough I don't think we had anything written down. Hmm. our first mistake there.
Now lets look at what has now happened, from the BBC:
The STFC claims it was aware(sic) of higher than planned running costs of new prestige research facilities, such as the Diamond Synchrotron, near Oxford.One can only assume that should be 'unaware' otherwise this is hardly a defence for not budgeting correctly.
Come to think of it it is hardly a defence anyway. It is their job to be aware of the costs and to budget for them properly. Do you know what they would say to my boss if she told them that she had misbudgeted on the grant they gave her? They would tell her that it was tough. Thus one can understand the government might be less than pleased with this.
What it comes down to is that in one of their fundamental roles - assessing the needs of the community and then obtaining the necessary funding from the government the STFC has failed at the earliest opportunity. Perhaps they took their eye off the ball, that might explain such a failure at the most basic level. I know they were very concerned with creating a brand new master science strategy and that probably took up all the time they would normally spend on making sure they asked for the correct amount of money. More on that later.
Back to the BBC:
The council asked for additional funding to cover these costs but it is understood that officials within the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) were reluctant to make more funding available.The STFC was told no extra money would be forthcoming and that they would have to find savings within the agreed budget.Hah. No surprise there. At least they have now had the decency to say that they are reviewing the earlier decision. I doubt extra money will appear; remember this does not seem to be a government cock-up, appearances suggest that this is a cock-up by the STFC and something that the top-level of management should do well to consider.
I cannot blame local MPs for lobbying to keep the synchrotron at Daresbury open. They are looking after their local constituents. It is due to close next year anyway. I would be interested to know how much savings could have been made through early closure.
It initially suggested that the least worst option was to close the synchrotron radiation source in Daresbury, near Manchester, earlier than planned.
But this option was vetoed by ministers after representations from Labour MPs in north-west England.
This is the killer though:
As a result, there are likely to be cuts the across the council's entire research programme, including particle physics, astronomy and laser physics.So since in the past (and again more recently) it was decided that Astronomy and Particle Physics would be funded by the same body it now seems that due to overspends on behalf of the latter discipline (but as far as we can tell, not their fault) astronomy is going to be badly hit as well. If we are safeguarding Diamond and ISIS, I can hardly see them reducing our contribution to the Large Hadron Collider at CERN. It is even more worrying:
It is also feared that several hundred highly qualified scientists could lose their jobs.
One researcher told BBC News he feared the UK could end up with some of the finest facilities in the world, but without enough scientists and funding to fully exploit them.
Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said astronomy faced its worst financial settlement for decades, with many research programmes facing the axe.
"I have it from a very reliable source that we are looking at a 25% cut in grants over the next three years," he said."Programme cuts could even result in some existing research grants being cancelled. Both of these are truly awful for universities."
That is huge. My selfish side has to wonder that since the overspend seem to have come as a result of building certain facilities, perhaps the disciplines associated with those facilities should bear the brunt. But then how sensible is it to have new facilities if they cannot afford to fund anyone to use them?
The burn has already started. The UK pulled out of the Gemini telescopes in mid-November which caused a massive stir amongst UK astronomers.
Now for a little secret, the heads of STFC have made it quite clear what they think of solar-terrestrial physics (they don't think we have made our case over the worth of our science - none of them are solar or solar terrestrial physicists) and so I know exactly who is going to be cut deepest. Most of our ground-based instrumentation was cleared out last year by PPARC (same top management as STFC) and a new strategy delivery document has appeared which says that we are going to disinvest from all UK STP ground-based facilities (including this big radar I am sitting by).
This affects me personally since the announcement of whether we are funded for the next five years is about to be made. I fully expect that my job is about to disappear.
But reading about what is going on and how STFC failed in their first duty I have to wonder whether the right person could be losing their job?