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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

New Year Honours

Well the New Year Honours list is out.

Sorry Keith, I had a really good look but it seems you didn't make the cut this year.

Maybe next time.

Sir PTerry

This put a big smile on my face.

I have been reading Pratchett's books for years now having started with Mort before reading the three earlier books and it has remained a favorite of mine. I was lucky that when I met my wife, she was as big a fan of Pratchett as I am.

I collect each new book in hard back; no chance that I would wait for the trade paperback anymore. I also read all of his books for kids/young adults and will encourage my daughter to read them as she grows up; in fact for Christmas we bought an illustrated version of the Wee Free Men for her - she'll grow into it along with the beautiful copy of Wind in the Willows we found.

When I was younger there was a distinctly sneering attitude to fantasy (and science fiction); I don't notice it now, possibly because I care less about what my peer group thinks of me. The thing about Pratchett's Discworld novels is that they are less about fantasy and more about people.

The man himself has said this:
Discworld started as an antidote to bad fantasy, because there was a big explosion of fantasy in the late '70s, an awful lot of it was highly derivative, and people weren't bringing new things to it. The first couple of books quite deliberately pastiched bits of other writers and things – good writers, because it's the good ones most people can spot: 'Ah, here's the Anne McCaffrey bit.' I was rapidly stitching together a kind of consensus fantasy universe, and the one trick was, 'Let's make people act.'
and more recently his US publisher's website has this to say about Discworld:

The world travels through space on the backs of four elephants that stand on the back of a giant turtle. Don't worry about it. People don't talk about it, any more than we say, "wow, we're standing a few thousand miles above a ball of molten iron!" Besides, it seldom has anything to do with the plots, which mostly concern real people trying to get by in a fantasy world. There are wizards, witches, trolls, dwarfs, zombies, werewolves, vampires . . . but Discworld starts where classic heroic fantasy stops, and none of those people is doing business as usual. A lot of them have moved into the big city and are trying to turn an honest dollar, just like everyone else.
That is the beauty of his books, it doesn't actually matter that they are on the Discworld, they are massively character-driven, and the characters react in a very modern fashion. Much of the magic, and strange creatures and wonderful window dressing. I think the aim of Pratchett' novels are to
  1. hold a mirror up to society
  2. and mock us for our silly attitudes, ideas and prejudices
  3. and make us think about why things are as they are
  4. and to entertain us.

I suspect that the last is the most important of his aims. Setting them in a fantasy universe provides a certain amount of latitude; the author can say things without stirring the great "moral majority" (also known as Daily Mail or Guardian readers, depending on the target). Over time there has been an evolution in the style of Pratchett's writing, the latter books have a different tone to the earlier, a little more consistently darker, perhaps even world wearier. That said I don't think that the latter books are better than the earlier, or vice-versa, they are just different and you can still tell that they are by Pratchett because there is still a warmth and affection that flows through them.

However the most recent Pratchett novel, Nation (a book for young-adults) is not set on the Discworld at all, rather it is in an alternative Earth. It's very good by the way, you should go and buy a copy.

He has an enduring fan-base, one that defies the stereotypes wished upon it by more sensible people who know that books with trolls and dwarfs in them are not for serious people. He has been called the Dickens du jour, a comparison he has shied away from in the past, claiming that he is not sure that he actually writes literature. Personally I think that he is somewhat unique, he is not like the much missed Douglas Adams, he is not similar to Tom Holt and nor does he resemble Robert Rankin; he is a one off and I am well chuffed that he has been honoured for his services to literature (which is what he does).

So what is my favourite Pratchett book?

Not an easy question, but if I were you I'd start with Good Omens, a beautiful take on the end of the world and the coming of the antichrist, co-written with Neil Gaiman (of Sandman and Neverwhere fame).

Nation is a cracking read as well. Good place to delve in.

As for the Discworld, well Mort was a good start for me and it might well be for you. I'd also go for Small Gods if you want something uplifting. If you like Shakespeare and are fed up with how wonderful Tolkien's Elves were than have a go at Lords and Ladies. Otherwise I'm at a loss: I love the Witches books, I love the Watch books, I love the Rincewind books, I love the Death books, I just love them all.

I will give you my favourite quote from Terry, given with regard to whether he kept multiple drafts of his novels:

"I save about twenty drafts -- that's ten meg of disc space -- and the last one contains all the final alterations. Once it has been printed out and received by the publishers, there's a cry here of 'Tough shit, literary researchers of the future, try getting a proper job!' and the rest are wiped."

By the way, bonus no-points towards the big no-prize if you understand the title of the post. Easy for a Pratchett fan.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Thank you scientists

Well now it seems that skimping on sleep can lead to the hardening of arteries:

People who scrimp on sleep are more likely to develop hardening of their arteries, a precursor to heart disease, research suggests.

Calcified arteries were found in nearly a third of people who slept fewer than five hours a night.

As the proud father of a 3-week old who is already overweight and out of shape I can't tell you how happy this makes me.


Well, I suppose it can just pile onto the stress caused by the STFC crisis and knock a couple of extra years off. Least it saves me worrying about a pension.

What is interesting in the article is the bit near the bottom, unhinted at in the lede:

Firstly, there may be some factor not yet identified that can both reduce sleep duration and increase calcification.

Or it might be down to blood pressure - high blood pressure increases the likelihood of calcification and blood pressure goes down during sleep.

Alternatively, stress or a stress hormone like cortisol, which has been tied to decreased sleep and increased calcification, may play a role.

So in fact it it could be nothing at all to do with whether you are not getting enough sleep, rather it could be that lack of sleep is another symptom of what is causing the calcification.

The money quote:
"Although this single study does not prove that short sleep leads to coronary artery disease, it is safe to recommend at least six hours of sleep a night."

It's funny, I wonder how many people who read the headline without following though the article would have realized that the scare quotes meant that it is just a hypothesis?

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

ESFRI roadmap

Some good news for STP for a change as reported on the MIST website

EISCAT 3-D has been identified in the updated ESFRI roadmap. What is ESFRI?

ESFRI, the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructures, is a strategic instrument to develop the scientific integration of Europe and to strengthen its international outreach. The competitive and open access to high quality Research Infrastructures supports and benchmarks the quality of the activities of European scientists, and attracts the best researchers from around the world.

The mission of ESFRI is to support a coherent and strategy-led approach to policy-making on research infrastructures in Europe, and to facilitate multilateral initiatives leading to the better use and development of research infrastructures, at EU and international level.

Obviously this is very good news.

No word on this development from STFC yet, missing out on a nice bit of PR there considering the UK is a member of the EISCAT association - more STFC science shown to be worthy yet they don't seem to be trumpeting it like they do other areas. Is that because it could be seen to be at odds with their own assesment of EISCAT?

MIST notes that EISCAT 3-D has been placed in the
Environmental Sciences section of the Roadmap, reflecting the growing recognition that the solar-terrestrial environment is a significant part of the environment in which human activities must take place.

Of equal importance is the inclusion of SIAEOS, the Svalbard Integrated Arctic Earth Observing System.
which will focus and enhance the already extensive research infrastructure in Svalbard, including those relevant to STP.

A little ray of sunshine for us...

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Em and I are now proud parents!

Our daughter seems to enjoy her new freedom of movement and likes to squirm more than she did in the womb!

Thursday, November 27, 2008

D-day has arrived

...and by 'D' I mean 'due'.

According to advanced medical science (best guess from scans) today is the day that my son/daughter is due to be born. Em is now at home on maternity leave but so far there is no sign of mini-Kav arriving.

This is good as I still need to assemble some furniture in the new master bedroom and I have a grant proposal to submit!

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The end of an era?

Woolworths is going into administration!

Where the hell am I going to get my Easter eggs last thing on Holy Saturday????

Monday, November 17, 2008

Inquiring after Science

(Warning: long post!)
There have been a number of developments in recent days regarding science in the UK.

Paul Crowther points to Why Science is Important; "a collection of thoughts from leading scientists, public figures, ...and you." Paul himself, has a post on there as does John Womersley.

Another, more important development is that the IUSS parliamentary select committee has initiated another inquiry:


As the name implies, this is a potentially important subject and one that all UK scientists should pay very special attention to.

The deadline for written evidence submission is Monday the 12th January 2009. Although that seems some time away with the Christmas break coming up it is sooner than one might think in terms of working days. This is something that academics need to get involved in and we should pressure our representative bodies to respond to this ASAP; whether that be the RAS, IoP or whoever

Evidence is being invited on the following issues and I add my thoughts (under-developed as they are) after each section:


whether the Cabinet Sub-Committee on Science and Innovation and the Council for Science and Technology put science and engineering at the heart of policy-making and whether there should be a Department for Science


Obviously we are moving into interesting times regarding economic growth (or lack thereof) and under 'normal' circumstances one could argue that spending on science is a low priority. However I think it is time for a major rethink by government - relying on the city to drive the economy has not proved as reliable as this and the previous Conservative government might have thought.

Current speculation is that borrowing is going to shoot up in order to provide tax-cuts and government spending to further stimulate the economy. Whether this is the right approach I will leave for the economists to argue over but I would suggest that government seriously consider the need for a strong plank upon which to place the economy; a service industry seems to be undesirable at the moment and our industrial base is pretty much spent in real terms.

Our best hope is to keep moving in a direction that the government had at least been looking at: science and innovation. Most of the biggest problems facing the UK (and the world) today need science and technology solutions - investing in the infrastructure to drive more research and science now is one way in which the government can look ahead to the post recession future.

The best way to do this is to have a Department for Science, this would liaise with DIUS (or its successor) and education so as to maximise our ability to attract young minds to science. It also sends the message that government is serious about science and recognises the essential role it needs to play in the future of the UK. Remember, science is something that we are good at and have a reputation (however tarnished it might have been recently in certain quarters) for being good at. Extracting science from the same department as universities, or higher education, or business may seem an odd step but by separating it out it no longer competes for attention in an internal miasma ; rather it is in a position to work hand-in-hand with those departments on an equal footing and can contribute effectively to other departments (transport, environment, etc). Science is at the heart of most things, if only in the way that scientists are trained to approach problems; we need to recognise that and step up our commitment to science.

how Government formulates science and engineering policy (strengths and weaknesses of the current system)

This is something I need to get into in more depth before properly providing an answer but I can sketch out some thoughts.

In principle Government decides how much it is going to give each area of science and then leaves it to the Research councils to sub-divide further; that is their interpretation of the Haldane principle. Recently they have invested in the environment (NERC) and health (MRC) whilst downplayed basic physics and engineering (STFC and EPSRC). This effectively sets policy and encourages 'losing' councils to look towards areas where they might attract more funding. This is not completely unreasonable since the government always has to have an eye to the economic and social problems facing the UK and marshall its forces (spending) where it perceives that it can do the most good.

Unfortunately government can sometimes maneuver itself into a position where it ends up doing more harm than good (cf. recent STFC debacle). Another example is David King, someone who has championed directed research at the expense of basic science - in my opinion a dangerous and short-sighted approach. Clearly government needs broader advice structures and ideally not people who play the games of politics; co-opted working scientists of mid-to high level career stages are the best people. The worst thing is for science to be directed by a narrow group (or even one person) as it provides no balance or checks. This is an issue for the research councils to consider as well; councils that try to interpret government policy rather than develop their own view with their user-base are in danger of limiting advancement.

whether the views of the science and engineering community are, or should be, central to the formulation of government policy, and how the success of any consultation is assessed

Hell yes! See above.

But with a careful caveat. The temptation will always be there to champion for our own areas. Balance must be maintained and this means that we must normalise for the size of community. For example, it would be ridiculous to have a review of research that contained at least two different areas, one of which was much larger than the other. In a situation like that any metric would need to include a measure of normalization otherwise the larger community would simply swallow the resources of the smaller. This is a patently absurd state of affairs.

the case for a regional science policy (versus national science policy) and whether the Haldane principle needs updating

An interesting question and not one I have thought too much about. A regional policy could be a way to offset the feedback loop that can damage science thoughout the country.

What do I mean? Good science and scientists are attracted to places where science is seen to flourish and attract funding [cough]golden triangle[cough]. Of course this means that funding shrinks from other places and without the resources to compete they will eventually fade away. The implementation of a robust regional policy would help to smooth this out by ensuring that competing areas remain and would solve some of the problems surrounding Harwell and Daresbury.

I think Haldane needs to be reviewed. As it stands I am concerned that it is broken since there seems to be a feeling that research councils are de facto arms of government rather than independent bodies.

engaging the public and increasing public confidence in science and engineering policy
An important topic, without it, number 1 is moot.

the role of GO-Science, DIUS and other Government departments, charities, learned societies, Regional Development Agencies, industry and other stakeholders in determining UK science and engineering policy

I think there is something to be said for learned bodies leading the way in policy formulation. At a lower level I have some concerns over research councils developing their own strategies; it makes more sense to me that relevant bodies should be funded to develop the strategy for them - this removes the onus from the council who can then move to the business of administering funds and facilities to fulfill that strategy. It also blocks the possibility that strategy is formulated by a select few who may or may not have an agenda. The same can be said for larger policy - steering is obviously required but by including all stakeholders in the decision making process we boost confidence in UK science policy and create transparency. It also provides the science and wider community (who are tax payers) the opportunity to feel invested in the process.


how government science and engineering policy should be scrutinised
Heavily! Often! Carefully!

Obviously my comments are just random thoughts that I have bashed out on the fly. The science community as a whole needs to think carefully about these issues and contribute to the debate. We also need to rally the public behind us so that we can develop the scientists of tomorrow and build an science-economic model that is robust and enduring.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

STFC being strategic

The long awaited consultation on STFC's strategy is due in early December (h/t Paul). In the meantime they have issued their strategic framework which sets out:

where we are now, our vision and the principles under which we operate. This Framework has been distributed and discussed with our staff, and we are publishing it for the information of all stakeholder groups.

I have had a quick glance at the framework and noticed a few errors and so in the spirit of cooperation I have edited the first part of their introduction for them a little:

STFC has been in existence for 18 months, during which time it has successfully struggled to merged the two previous Councils,just about won wide grudging tolerance from stakeholders endorsement of a detailed Programmatic Review despite tough and often impenetrable funding decisions and significant initial ongoing and highly justified external criticism and internal discontent, and delivered through its staff and funded researchers an excellent and often world class science and technology programme, that could have been much better if we had worked with our community properly.

There you go, no need to thank me. It was my pleasure.

Friday, October 31, 2008

IoP meeting

So did anyone go to the IoP meeting about the Wakeham review?

I was interested but was unfortunately too busy to make the journey, plus with Em being at 36 weeks gone I am getting reluctant to go galavanting off down half the country.

I did try to view the presentation on-line but one needed to log in to view it - something I had not seen mentioned anywhere. I assumed that this would be an IoP log-in and since I am not a member (long and dull story involving Ade, a belt and my enduring laziness) I asked Em to have a look. She had no success and by then it wasn't worth getting in touch to find out what I needed to do to view it.

I did find that if I kept hitting refresh I could see the slides, but that only gave half a show. Plus I was more interested in what was said in the discussion session.

So anything interesting happen?

Thursday, October 30, 2008

Physics in danger of becoming male, white and upper middle class

...says white, upper-middle class man.

Actually the article in the Times Higher Education says a bit more than that.

A recent informal survey of the UK STP community produced the following data:

As you can see the gender split shows some variation between grades and the numbers are not great but they are not as bad as one might think. On the whole STP seemed to be attracting women physicists such that the total percentage was about a third of all STP scientists in the UK last year were women.

This chart was taken from this report, which was submitted by MIST to the Wakeham review. Well worth a read if you are not sure why STP is worth doing in the UK.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Bailout? I think not.

We all heard about the £9 million that STFC found down the back of their sofa. On the face of it its very nice and should alleviate some of the 'pain' yet we still have to see how the money gets spent.

However, I think a number of our colleagues in the wider astronomy community might secretly be hoping that additional cash will be found to plug the still gaping blackhole.

I think they are waiting in vain...

from the BBC:

Grants for pupils in England starting university next year will be cut because the government overestimated how many would be eligible for support.

The Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills has admitted it has a funding shortfall of £200m, after improving financial support this year.

Oh dear, oh dear. Poor old DIUS seems to be having a bad year.

John Denham must be pulling his hair out after the past year of bad headlines. First they underestimate the amount of money needed to support STFC and now they underestimate the amount needed to support student grants.

The upshot is that DIUS are now looking to save money, first by reducing the income floor for studnet eligability and secondly via 'departmental savings'.

As far as research goes, there certainly won't be extra money to supplement STFC's budget just as most of us always thought.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

A step up

Well it seems that our friend Ian Pearson has not been punished for his tenure as science minister in DIUS, rather Gordon Brown has decided to promote him.

According to the BBC, Pearson is now the economic secretary to the Treasury.

Well, following the last CSR it is quite clear that Pearson know how to make economies so I am sure he will relish his appointment. Of course now he is in another ideal position to screw with us next time if he so desires, but without the visibility and chance of backlash.

His promotion make me feel quite confident that my opinion of the Prime Minister is correct.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Pearson gone, Drayson in

The BBC is reporting that Lord Paul Drayson has been made science minister.

Drayson holds a PhD in robotics and is a successful businessman. This makes him ideal for pushing the government agenda of converting our science into economic payback.

This is not just a straight shoehorn in to replace the former minister, it seems to go hand in hand with an upgrading of the position:

Lord Drayson said his appointment represented an upgrading of the science minister's role. He is to attend cabinet and will chair a new Cabinet Committee for Science and Innovation. The committee's task will be to ensure integration across government.

Some endorsements have already come from the movers and shakers:

"We welcome this appointment and look forward to working with Lord Drayson, whose proven interest in technology can only benefit the UK engineering community," said Dr Scott Steedman, vice president of the Royal Academy of Engineering.

And Professor Colin Blakemore, former head of the Medical Research Council, added: "There's no doubt he's been very creative in recognising opportunities to move from basic research into innovation in his own career, so he chimes very much with the government's current focus on translational research.

"However, I do think he can be trusted to defend the investment needed for the basic research which is essential for innovation in the future."

Phil Willis has welcomed his appointment:

The Liberal Democrat MP Phil Willis, who is also chairman of the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, said Lord Drayson could make an excellent advocate for science.

"We desperately need a champion like him in the run-up to the next spending review," he commented.

"At both the graduate and post-doctoral level there is a very serious shortage of scientists and engineers. Given that 70% of the 20:20 workforce have already left school, we need to convert people already in work to science and engineering skills.

"I hope Paul Drayson will grasp the seriousness of this and make it his priority."

Finally, the new minister's first words in the job seem to be encouraging, particularly the final quoted sentence:

"Young people need to be inspired into opting for science and engineering careers.

"Look at me - I have had a blast. I am out here racing cars because I was a successful biotech entrepreneur. That depended on me studying for a PhD, and that depended on me studying maths, physics and chemistry at A-Level.

"I was also inspired by cool projects in the 60s and 70s like the space programme, and we now need to inspire the next generation with similar cool projects."

At time of writing I cannot find information on the fate of Ian Pearson and I doubt we will ever know why he was shuffled out.

We can always speculate of course, perhaps the Prime Minister was less than impressed with the mighty clusterf*ck that occurred with STFC on his watch. Maybe he has been moved onto bigger and better things.

Who knows?

Thursday, October 02, 2008

The Quiescent Sun

By sheer coincidence there is an article in today's Financial Times regarding the current inactivity of the Sun. It is a nice article minus the hyperbole that seems to often surround discussion of this current solar minimum.

Back on Earth, the Sun’s inactivity ought to represent good news for the companies that operate satellites, run power grids or make terrestrial radio systems, which are all vulnerable to damage and disruption from solar storms. In one interpretation of its long-term implications, however, the effects could be far from benign.

True enough. The article does make the point that big storms can still happen at solar minimum and so complacency should be avoided. It reminds us of the Carrington event:

What astronomers believe was the most intense eruption from the Sun for several centuries took place in August 1859 during an otherwise fairly tranquil solar cycle. The aurora borealis or Northern Lights – the vivid photoelectric display triggered when solar particles hit Earth’s upper atmosphere – moved down from its normal polar haunts to put on a spectacular show as far as the tropics. Other effects included putting the world’s nascent telegraph network out of action for several hours.

If such a solar superstorm occurred now, it would cause tens of billions of dollars of damage to communications and navigational satellites and cause continent-wide electrical blackouts that might last for weeks, say Sten Odenwald and James Green, Nasa scientists who have analysed the 1859 event.

Nothing like this has happened in the Space Age, the closest was a big storm in October 1989. Of course knowing that events like these occur is no part of a justification for funding into investigating this highly important and societally relevant topic.

The CEO of STFC is on record as saying that if we lived in a world where a big storm had occurred STP would be properly regarded, but we don't live in that world so cutting funding is justified. Indeed others think that we STPers argue that the October 1989 storm is our main excuse for studying STP, a claim so asinine and moronic that it stunned a scientific audience into silence.

Anyway, climate popped up in the FT article:
Experts are reluctant to predict the consequences for Earth and its inhabitants because there are so many complex interactions between the Sun’s output, the planet’s atmosphere and magnetic field, and cosmic radiation from outer space. Some climatologists say that, over a period of decades, a quieter Sun means a cooler Earth, although the relationship between solar activity and climate is particularly controversial.

Controversial is not a word I would use. Rather I would suggest that the relationship is poorly understood.

There is a clear link between the Sun's activity and climate and contrary to what some believe this is accounted for by climatologists. There have been some recent hypotheses that suggest that recent climate change can be placed totally (or nearly so) on the Sun (the article mentions this near the end) but the evidence has been far from compelling unless you have the 'eye-of-faith*'.

What is needed is a better understanding of the mechanisms by which the Sun affects the Earth environment so that we can put proper numbers and limits on the effect. By wanting to study the link most scientists have no agenda; we aren't trying to 'prove' that the global warming sceptics are right, nor are we trying to prove the manmade CO2 hypothesis correct. Rather we just want to know what affect there is and how it works, maybe it is huge and dominates over anthropogenic effects (I doubt it) or maybe it is quite small but important for staving off the worst effects of CG during a solar-quiet period.

Of course, one side product of the quiet sun is that we have had lots of nice, sustained, coronal holes that lead to high speed solar wind streams and high latitude auroral displays. This is nice for my research as I am looking at energy input to the magnetosphere during these events and how it is distributed throughout the system.

Another interesting aspect of the solar minimum mentioned in the FT article is the hazards to manned space travel:

This quiet period would not be a good time to launch a manned space mission beyond Earth orbit, to the Moon or Mars, adds Prof Crooker. Astronauts would face the harmful impact of increased cosmic radiation, which would outweigh the reduced likelihood of solar storms.
It is easy to think that now is the best time to launch manned missions out beyond the protective magnetosphere but the truth is that the issue is more complex than that. At solar maximum the solar wind affords better protection from the constant, though relatively weak, bombardment of cosmic rays. Huge flares and CMEs at solar maximum can cause severe damage and are incredibly dangerous, but the sustained exposure to cosmic rays during minimum is arguably the more serious problem.

During transient flares and CMEs astronauts can hide behind appropriate shielding; with a constant bombardment of cosmic rays the astronauts would have to be hiding all the time or risk death (or aquiring super-powers).

The article was nice timing with the release of the Wakeham review, but totally unconnected. I have some thoughts on the Wakeham review report but they can wait until later.

*'eye-of-faith' refers to the ability to look at a scatter plot of data and draw a nice straight line through it representing where you think it should be.

Image of blank solar disc taken by SOHO/MDI, image of coronal hole from the Hinode X-ray Telescope; both hosted by

Wednesday, October 01, 2008

Wakeham review released at 5pm....

...along with the joint RCUK-Government response.

And I have to go to an antenatal class.

Bloody hell this government is clever, timing the release of the report so as to bury my response in tomorrow's news cycle when any snark I have will be stale and old hat.


I suggest that the keen amongst you keep an eye on the relevant website.

Where have I been???

Not so much on the blogging front in recent weeks. This is mostly because I have been pretty busy doing the research I am paid to do as well as a spot of travelling.

I went to the Space 08 meeting in London a few weeks back. That was, in my opinion, something of a mixed bag; some interesting things, some pointless things. The panel session was interesting, especially the chap who had an entertaining rant at the government. Also space weather got a big mention as an essential component of any endeavour to increase our presence in space.

Then I went to China for a week, a counry I have never had a huge desire to see. The meeting was something of a mixed bad (deja vu?), but I learned a thing or three and managed to scrape a few ideas into my head.

China itself was... interesting. Not a country I could fall in love with, though Shanghai was impressive. Of course I was a bit biased against as I spent my 32nd birthday travelling (and lost hours due to time zones). The best bit that made up for it was that I got to see my friend David who has been living in China for a couple of years now. Big Highlight.

Also, did you know that there is a Hooters in Shanghai?

I have, of course been keeping up with all things 'STFC-crisis'; sadly it has not been fixed or gone away, rather it has been bubbling away under the surface. You can see an example of this in Andy's blog; he starts on one topic and it rapidly skews around to STFC. I think some people still underestimate the strength of feeling out in the community about this. Some give the impression (intentional or not) that we should shut up and get on with our research; which is a wee bit rich coming from someone busily engaging in the discussion.

Anyway rumour has it that the Wakeham review of Physics will be made public today. That would be nice given it was presented to RCUK and DIUS a couple of weeks ago.

Lots of whispers and scuttlebut about that; particularly suggesting that recommendations were stronger but have since been watered down. Of course, there is little in the way of solid substantiation so who knows. We shall just have to wait and see what aria the fat lady chooses to sing and any other comments the Wakeham review panel might make.

A new start

Well it's that time of year again.

Freshers Week is upon us here and following a few days of truly lovely weather it has been pissing down with some enthusiasm.

To be fair, it's only right that new students should really get a feel for the normal weather up here.

What is a little depressing is the mess that has already accumulated. I took a stroll to the centre of campus yesterday and was disappointed to see that the reams of cellotape are already being employed to hold up tatty posters on walls and columns. This ignores the swanky new notice-boards that have been put up for just such a purpose. Plus the hoardes of students handing out flyers are not a million miles away from the piles of discarded fliers, thrown almost as soon as they are taken.

On the plus side, I clearly don't yet project the world-weary look of most academics and researchers as I had to keep refusing the student-offer handouts.

Oh, and I am going to be teaching again. Only for a couple of days in February (plus mini-projects) though.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Well done Prof. Brian Cox

I have just watched a short segment on Newsnight where Brian Cox rightfully gave Sir David King a well deserved spanking (to his face) for his recent comments.

King thinks that we should stop curiosity driven research and only look at solving specific problems in the world today. A reasonable argument at first glance with the difficulties that face us in the world.

But as Brian pointed out (and Sir Martin Reece pointed out in the Guardian) that argument could have been made at any point in history and we would be without much of the technological advances and knowledge that we have gained as a side product of curiosity driven science.

And on this day, actually, the day when for once physics is part of culture, and the headlines of every newspaper, every news broadcast in the world I don't think the President of the British Association of the Advancement of Science should be pouring cold water on that on this day of all days
Very well done Brian.

LHC switch on?

Apparently some big experiment ins Switzerland was switched on today.

You would have thought there would have been at least some press attention or news about it.

Monday, September 08, 2008

EISCAT on the TV with Joanna Lumley

Whilst perusing the Radio Times yesterday* I was pleasantly surprised to come across an article on "Joanna Lumley in the Land of the Northern Lights". This show was broadcast last night on BBC 1 at 9pm (it can be seen on iPlayer for a week).

It tells of how it has long been an ambition of Ms. Lumley's to see the Aurora and shows her achieving said ambition in the frozen Norwegian north.

Along the way she got to see reindeer herding, fish drying, fjords, the ice hotel and sunrise at the Svalbard Archipelago. All in all it was highly enjoyable as a bit of Sunday night entertainment.

Just to be clear over one point. When talking to the chap who pretty much owns Å in the Lofoten islands (16:10 into the show) he says that to see the Aurora it must be colder than it is.

Just to be clear whether the aurora occurs or not has absolutely nothing to do with how cold it is on the ground.

Nothing at all.

However, there is a good reason why it being cold helps to see the Aurora: clouds.

Norway is a country prone to rain and snow and with rain and snow come clouds. These are not helpful if you want to see the aurora flashing away well above them. However without the warming cloud layer, the temperature can plummet. I have been in Norway where one day it is 2° and pissing down and the next day the clouds move on and the temperatire drops to a pleasant -10° or less (it feels warmer as the humidity disappears).

Thus the colder it is the more chance you will actually see aurora if it is occurring.

I was particularly pleased to see the EISCAT radars (43:10 into the show)! They were not mentioned by name but the crew obviously payed a visit to the site in Tromsø and took some brief footage:

The city of Tromsø boasts unrivalled credentials in studying the aurora
This is true but remember that those radars also belong to us (at least until 2013). love smileys

Prof. Truls Hanson of the Tromsø Geophysical Observatory had a brief go at explaining exactly what causes the aurora. He made a small booboo by drawing the magnetosphere aligned with the Earth's rotational axis rather than the magnetic axis but we shall forgive him. love smileys

Ms. Lumley, after professing that she was starting to panic about the complexity of the explanation then summed it up thus:

...but I do now understand that the Earth is a giant magnet and its North and South poles attract the electrically charged particles towards them with spectacular results

which I guess is close enough for a show that was about the beauty and grandeur of the visible phenomenon and not a delve into the science.

Joanna got to see quite a spectacular display and was quite overcome. I have been upto Tromø a number of times on experimental campaigns and I can honestly say I never tire of watching the aurora.

It is quite fantastic.

I have stood in just a T-shirt in -10 degrees and watched, hesitating to dive inside for warmer clothes in case I miss something.

There is nothing quite like it and it really is indescribable.

We can talk about ribbons and curtains, we can show photos and movies that give a glimpse but that does nothing to truly convey the experience.

Until you are there, breathing in the cold air, feeling the hairs in your nostrils freeze yet not caring because you are confronted with a shifting, dazzling display that silently and majestically fills the sky, well, only then will you really get it.

Knowing how they work and what is really going on does not diminish the beauty, for me it intensifies it!

Understanding this process and the related effects has direct influence on our lives. I can make the case for how important this work is in terms of the economy and our daily lives (and indeed this case has been well articulated recently) but in reality I care about it because I want to know how it works!

It is the demand of wanting to know, to understand, that drives science forward, not spin-off technologies - they are just bonuses. If you think they are the important thing then you are not a scientist and you lack understanding of how the bulk of scientific discovery has progressed.

For me, in this age of tenuous funding and poorly thought through decisions it boils down to a simple point. As a civilized race how do we justify our ignorance of the things that go on all around us and are such an important part of our home? How can we ever hope to understand what goes on with other planets if we leave the job here on Earth half done?

I love what I do and it really excites me and it has the capability to excite many others. I just feel a little sad that some people fail to see this and that my time working with this wonderful phenomenon may soon be drawing to a close.

*That would be the one where Brian Cox suggested that if you thought the LHC was going to end the world then you were a twat.

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Letter from DIUS

I received a letter from DIUS today in response to a letter I sent back in January I think.

Whatever else it did, it mostly put me in a wee bad mood. Not because it wasn't polite, not because it didn't address the issues in my letter (though it didn't really do that).

No it put me in a bad mood because before getting to the meat of the issue it 'brought to my attention' some things that I 'might not have been aware of'.

Can you guess what they were? I'll give you a clue, it involved the figure 13.6%.

I know that the government feels the need to push its 'accomplishments' (scare quotes included deliberately) but do they really think that there is anyone interested in the physics funding issue who is not familiar with their talking points by now?

In addition, do they think we don't understand how those number truly translate into real terms?

Are they morons or do they think we are?

Monday, August 04, 2008

Oh. Dear. God

Presented without comment.

hat tip Ryan

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Peer review

Peer review has been mentioned a lot within the discussions surrounding the STFC funding crisis. Notably it was mentioned during the House of Commons debate a few weeks ago, though much of the discussion came across to me as somewhat fuzzy in its logic.

In the debate there was much talk of whether peer review is the best way to go, how no system is ever perfect and how dangerous it could be for the select committee or anyone else to attack peer review.

I think this missed the point completely; the underlying assumption throughout the debate was that peer review describes a single process, whereas we all know that peer review is something of an umbrella.

This bothered me before when there were admonishments from some that the community should be careful when attacking peer review. It is a false answer; who in the community has really attacked the concept of peer review? Anyone? I have heard plenty of people attack how STFC implemented a process that they claimed was peer review. You see this is just more spin to deflect a real question and it bothers me that we have not heard more about this. So what is the real problem with 'peer review'?

In my view the issue with peer review in the STFC was not that 'peer review' as a concept was fatally flawed, rather that the practical implementation of peer review was rubbish in the eyes of many of us.

With the best will in the world a small panel with no advisory structure could not be considered to be effective peer review for the wide-ranging programme that STFC was responsible for. PPAN did the best they could but let's face it they are only human.

Arguments that these are intelligent people and so they were perfectly capable don't hold water; yes they are intelligent but that is not enough in a situation where community confidence is essential and where people's livlihoods may be impacted. You need intelligence and breadth of experience and familiarity; a proper balance.

When someone argues that smaller committees are better because they are efficient and don't try to please everyone you know they have not really thought through the implications of what they are saying with regard to a smaller panel. Yes, a smaller panel might reach a decision quickly but one lacks the confidence that they might reach the correct decision.

I note that peer review came up again in the letter from Phil Willis MP to John Denham:

It is not clear why the Government goes on to discuss peer review in this section, since peer review was not mentioned in recommendation 6 or its preceding text and was discussed later in the report. Be that as it may, the Government’s assertion that we criticised “the outcome of STFC’s peer review process” and “those researchers who have undertaken it” is an inaccurate paraphrasing of the serious concerns we raised in relation to STFC’s peer review system and decisions made by STFC. We did not criticise the outcomes of STFC’s peer review. Specifically:
(a) on the International Linear Collider, we did not comment on the scientific justification for withdrawal, but raised some concerns that had been put to us during the inquiry;
(b) on Gemini, we did not consider the merits of STFC’s decision, but the way it went about making its decision, or as it turned out, indecision, public;
(c) on solar-terrestrial physics, we questioned Professor Mason’s explanation for the withdrawal of funding, and suggested that STFC renege on that decision until its community had been properly consulted.
Neither did we criticise the members of the peer review panels. On the contrary, we acknowledged that STFC’s peer review committees “have a difficult job to do” and that “we do not doubt the integrity of the individuals who make up those Committees” (p 32 of our report).
Sadly the Secretary of State's reply is less than promising and seems to boil down to a game of statement of 'I'm not going to debate this with you, game over'.

I suppose he has been too busy running around letting everyone know that Gordon Brown is still great and we should stop attacking him because the conservatives are much worse.

The letter is worth reading in full as is the one to Prof. Keith Mason, who to his credit (though not much) gave a more fulsome response to the points raised.

Recognising service

The Royal Astronomical Society has called for nominations for its 2009 awards. Today is the last chance to send in a nomination.

The award that stuck out to me was the RAS service Award. This is intended to:

honour individuals who, through outstanding or exceptional work, have promoted, facilitated or encouraged the sciences of astronomy or geophysics and developed their role in the life of the nation but whose achievement does not fall within the criteria of the Society's other awards.

I was thinking of nominating both Prof. Keith Mason and Prof. Richard Wade as I don't think anyone else has done quite so much in terms of uniting the astronomy and space science community.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Substorms solved - or are they?

The THEMIS team has announced that the primary mystery of substorms has been resolved:

"We have discovered what makes the Northern Lights dance," declares UCLA physicist Vassilis Angelopoulos, principal investigator of the THEMIS mission. The findings appear online in the July 24 issue of Science Express and in print August 14 in the journal Science.

What is a substorm?

Well, broadly speaking they are massive bursts of energy from the night-side part of the Earth's magnetic field; here the field is stretched back into space, almost like a comet tail. Energy from the solar wind gets carried into this magnetotail in the form of increased magnetic field strength and energetic charged particles until at some point the energy is released, a good portion of it carried Earthward.

Some of those particles dive along the Earth's magnetic field and produce the bright and dynamic auroral displays (e.g. see the pretty picture) that can be seen off to the north. Some of them hang around a big longer in the inner magnetosphere and drift around to the dayside. Some even get accelerated and add to the population of relativistic electrons in the radiation belts; these are the really dangerous ones.

The primary question about substorms (though only one of many) is: 'how is the energy release initiated?'

There are two principle competing theories* and the big difference between them is the order in which physical processes occur in the magnetotail. It has been known for a long time that magnetic reconnection** plays a significant role (sorry to my astronomy colleagues as I have been reliably informed that you get bored hearing about this). What was not clear was whether this initiated the substorm process (or more accurately the substorm expansion phase) or whether it occurred after some other process had already started the ball rolling.

Over the years the different physics that occurs within the substorm have pretty much all been observed (well, as far as we know...), but knowing in which order they occur has always been tricky. To find that out we would need probes along the magnetotail recording simultaneously as the substorm occured, plus a whole network of ground based observatories so that we can interpret the satellite data in proper context.***

That's what THEMIS is: five satellites spread out along the tail with a huge and impressive network of ground instrumentation across North America (and a couple in Europe for good measure - one of them operated by a UK scientist). Now, it seems, this ground and space based mission has come good.

The discovery came on what began as a quiet day, Feb 26, 2008. Arctic skies were dark and Earth's magnetic field was still. High above the planet, the five THEMIS satellites had just arranged themselves in a line down the middle of Earth’s magnetotail—a million kilometer long tail of magnetism pulled into space by the action of the solar wind.

That's when the explosion occurred. A little more than midway up the THEMIS line, magnetic fields erupted, "releasing about 1015 Joules of energy," says Angelopoulos. "For comparison, that's about as much energy as a magnitude 5 earthquake."
And the satellites and ground-based cameras saw it from start to finish:

"For the first time, THEMIS has shown us the whole process in action—from magnetic reconnection to aurora borealis," says Sibeck. "We are finally solving the puzzle of substorms."

So it looks as if we can tick a box: magnetic reconnection is the first step in the process. Or at least that is my interpretation of this press release. This could be the answer to a question that has been around for over 30 years.

However, I would bet that this is far from the definitive answer.

I saw talks in the special Substorms in the Age of THEMIS session that we held at NAM that suggested that the story is actually a whole lot more complicated. One in particular hinted very strongly that two different mechanisms occurred in two substorms that quickly followed one another. I'm keen to see if THEMIS also sees another substorm; one that doesn't follow the same pattern as the February 2008 example. There is time yet.

Plus the substorm debate is far from over; there are many other unanswered questions surrounding the substorm: What triggers the reconnection and why does it happen when it does? What determines the location of the aurora? Why do periodic substorms have such large particle injection regions? etc.

For a look at a some recent work that addresses a different aspect of the substorm issue grab a copy of August's Astronomy and Geophysics, where one of the Rishbeth prize winners was looking at many substorms at Earth. The other prize winner was looking at a product of auroral substorms -kilometric radiation- but on Saturn, rather than Earth. This could be a very useful tool for identifying extra-solar planets that have a magnetic field, something that might well be a prerequisite for complex life.

*A primer on potential candidates

**Reconnection is the process by which two different magnetic fields (pointing in opposite direction) merge to produce a new configuration. In the Earth's magnetotail this means that the field close to the equatorial plane gets pinched together causing a change in shape that propels some of the charged particles Earthward. Essentially the field goes from being stretched out in a long tail, to looking more like a dipole field. This animation demonstrates the basic concept nicely.

***I hereby resist the urge to point out to STFC the stupidity of withdrawing from ground-based STP facilities. Except for this footnote...

Wednesday, July 16, 2008

What was that about STFC and Haldane?

In an earlier post I mentioned that one of the most interesting things to come out of the Estimates Day debate on the Science Budget in the House of Commons was how they referred to STFC in the context of the Haldane principle.

Let me explain.

A question I have heard since this shortfall debacle began is over whether STFC is effectively just a branch of the government, representatives of the science community, or some mixture of both.

If the answer is that they are a branch of the government then it is assumed that they are responsible for exercising government policy, if not then they are beholden, somewhat, to the wishes of the community. Now of course even if they are not part of government they would be foolish to ignore government when they outline science priorities in the context of a spending review.

I think that discussion of the Haldane principle during that debate answered the question.

Since the government believes it is up to STFC to determine what it should spend its money on once the money is handed over it is quite clear that the government takes the view that STFC is a representative of the science community. Any suggestion that they are a de facto branch of government and responsible for executing government policy (outside of earmarked funds) is wide of the mark.

Now again there is the caveat that it would be an unwise research council that ignored government science policy in deciding how to spend its money; however ultimately the views of the scientists are pre-eminent in formulating how the money should be spent.

Of course one then gets into an argument over whether the research councils are truly representative or are we in the territory of a select few deciding what science to do. And who is to say which is the right way to go about its?

But that is another issue completely.

The ongoing struggle

I've been a bit quiet lately but i thought it was about time I discussed a few things STFC related.

I want to point to a couple of very interesting pieces that have appeared in the media recently.

First is a letter to the Times from Prof. Andy Fabian the new president of the RAS. This follows the more positive stories that were appearing in the media concerning the £80m shortfall and the resolution of the programmatic review that seemed to save Jodrell bank.

Whether the folks at Jodrell liked it or not they had become a focal point for this struggle, a fact that highlights the high regard that excellent institution has in UK society.*
Andy highlights that although there is more money to keep Jodrell afloat (though the University of Manchester still has to find a lot of the cash to keep it running) there are plenty of things that are screwed.

Sir, Jodrell Bank undoubtedly now has a more promising future than seemed possible a few months ago (report, July 9) but the crisis for science funding is not over.

Andy also flagged the coming storm; not that the shortfall has not already caused a reduction in grant awarding:

At the same time a £33 million cut to university research groups’ grant funding will mean a steep cut in the number of postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers, so the facilities we still have will not be exploited in the way they should be.
Overall, an excellent letter.

More recently Prof. Steve Schwarz penned an excellent article for Research Fortnight called A lingering sense of struggle in the slog to learn physics lessons.

As chairman of one of the 10 specialist advisory panels that the STFC hurriedly set up in March after its own efforts at ranking projects had been roundly condemned by researchers, I left the meeting still stunned by the events that have unfolded since the council revealed an £80 million hole in its budget last November. And I remain fearful for the future of the UK’s physics and astronomy research.

Once more this looks to the future and wonders whether as well as identifying the lessons to be learnt from the recent balls up, STFC will actually learn thos lessons. Steve is not sure:

But has the STFC really learned these lessons, or does it merely now know what they are? The omens are not good.

Steve wonders about the upcoming strategy and how much input the community will have, and asks sensible questions about the way the new advisory panels will be set up:

Specialist advisory panels are being re-established; in fact, we have heard this for a while now, but implementation does indeed seem to be getting closer. We are told that these panels will be subject-based rather than facility-driven. This is a welcome sign—and a lesson learned. But will there be enough panels? Enough members? Enough influence to be seen as an effective route through which the community can channel its talents and aspirations?

Wise words about the need for adequate expertise in tensioning projects and facilities in the new STFC. The idea for a new model council with as few a people as possible to expediate decision making looks to have been shown to be a dud. You may get decisions made efficiently and quickly but it hardly inspires confidence that the right difficult choices are made.

Effective decision-making needs more than a small set of advisers to cover the enormous breadth of the programme, from running large facilities costing hundreds of millions of pounds at one end, through major international collaborations on fundamental science, to individual research grants at the other.
Prof. Schwarz also takes aim at the much lauded consultation process that followed the rankings in the programmatic review. I have mentioned some issues with this before but Steve was a chair of one of the panels and so has greater insight than most:

In fact, the process was much less effective than it could have been because the community was provided with scant feedback to indicate why projects were ranked where they were. The panels themselves also found information difficult to obtain.

Not surprisingly, community responses often merely re-iterated project objectives or successes. The few responses from projects initially ranked high generally praised the wisdom of that ranking; while the flood of responses from projects ranked low often vented obvious frustration and anger.

One gets the sense that there is less satisfaction with the process than has been aired recently. Let's face it, it did not help that the consultation came after the rankings. Better to have had an initial consultation - or at least solict advice from the wider community, followed by a consultation after the ranking. We have heard that prior discussion has been mooted for next time by STFC.

Steve's article concludes with something for us all to think about in this time of post-programmatic review, as things seem to be calming down:

This is not to smear the integrity of the small team of undoubtedly stressed-out advisers within the present structure. It is to condemn a top-down management style that is trying to operate a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach for the funding of both science and facilities within a financial straitjacket.

Will the promised Specialist Advisory Panels make a difference? Will they be given the influence to enable the scientific community to work with the STFC? As usual, we can only wait to be told.

It is essential that we have our say on how the advisory panels are set up and not least who goes on them. We must work to ensure that there is adequate representation enshrined within their formation and not just lip-service to the notion. To their credit STFC executives have said that they are only a phonecall or an email away.

*Amusingly I am Cheshire born and bred and have tremendous affection for my home county yet I have never visited Jodrell bank. My year missed out on that school trip.

Friday, July 11, 2008

The nuclear option

Since Andy is now on sabbatical in the States he was not able to attend the town meeting on Tuesday. I was not able to attend either - mostly because I have work to do and it costs a bit to high-tail it to London for meetings; what remains of the funding that supports me can be better spent!

Anyway Andy points to a new furore that is bubbling away as the Nuclear scientists start to get vocal in the media over their loss of funding:

Hang on a tick though, the Telegraph seems to have a story about STFC destroying the country’s nuclear power capability !!! Naturally, STFC have put out a statement explaining that they are reponsible for the nation’s power stations.

Having read the STFC statement I think they have scored quite an own goal here. I can understand why they would want to nip more negative stories in the bud; just as they were probably hoping that this would all start to go away (especially given the positive press regarding Jodrell Bank that has appeared in the press). However they have gone the wrong way about it.

The branch of nuclear physics that STFC supports is the investigation of the internal structure of the nucleus and the nuclear processes that take place in stars (nuclear astrophysics) and does not concern nuclear power or nuclear engineering, or the building or decommissioning of power stations.
At a time when community morale is at an all time low the statement does little to bolster the nuclear community spirit. It won't win awards for attracting students and researchers who might be interested in nuclear physics.

More importantly it undermines any arguments for relevence to society and UK PLC. This is incredibly unwise in a period when we are told that we must demonstrate our worth to justify the funding that we receive.

This could have been handled much better.

Quote of the day

The debate in the House of Commons on Monday night held some little gems but this was the best quote by far:

I was concerned that the STFC may have misinterpreted one of our recommendations, which was to improve communications. I do not think that that meant that it should improve its spin.

The discussion on the Haldane principle and how it applies was actualluy quite fascinating, not for whether Haldane was breached but rather for the context of STFC within that discussion. Very interesting to hear the government and political view.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

Beatles Day

Liverpool is celebrating its most famous sons with its first Beatles Day.

Look, at the risk of going all 'Boris Johnson', this is one thing that really bothers me*. Let's face it, every day in Liverpool is Beatles day. It is hard to escape it as it seems to be the default setting.

Liverpool has a long and interesting history, some of it not great, but there is a lot to be proud of in that city. Yet for years now it always comes back to the Beatles and it is getting really, really dull.

*Disclaimer: I was born near Liverpool and my parents were both born in Liverpool and grew up there.

Thursday, July 03, 2008

An 'ambitious' programme...

The results of the programmatic review and how it will be implemented have been released; the BBC already has a story about it. I am sure STFC will be unhappy that the Beeb has focussed on the negatives given that:

STFC has balanced its budget and agreed on a very ambitious and scientifically sound programme of funding,
according to embattled STFC CEO Keith Mason.

Hmmm, 'ambitious', thanks to a certain 1980s political sitcom doesn't that word have some different connotations? It's right up there with courageous.

So what is my take of this document?

I think that one of the most controversial lines will be this:

In the case of the ILC related projects and BaBar, where support will be withdrawn, it is expected that any existing specific project grants will be phased out and the level of the existing rolling grants reduced accordingly.

This points to the threat of clawing back money on awarded grants - a controversial measure and a dangerous precedent. Depending on the levels of clawback this could result in a showdown with the university VCs who won't like the idea of this sort of instability in funding.

In the general comments:
We emphasise again that all the projects in the programmatic review represent good science. Given the need to introduce high priority new projects into the programme, we have had to reallocate funding.

As always this is welcome and works against the not-quite-a-whisper campaign against how 'good' certain science was as a non-public explanation for its non-funding.

The consultation panels expressed some strongly felt views on the programmatic review process that was carried out in 2007-8. We believe that the end result of the process is a very reasonable one... There are however lessons to be learned
I am not sure everyone will agree with the sentiments about the end result but the next bit is promising.

Advisory panels for PPAN and PALS will be set up as soon as practicable, and call for nominations for panel members in the PPAN areas is being made. We note the recommendation of Science Board that future programmatic reviews should be conducted with some kind of consultation process as the first step; this could perhaps be done by using the advisory panel inputs.
This is a step in the right direction and whoever decided to scrap the old PPARC advisory panels just before a CSR bid and the second programmatic review ought to have considered their position. Frankly, to think that new structures could be set up in time and to blame PPAN and PALS for not having done it is both ludicous and unworthy.

Kudos to science board for suggesting a first step consultation in the next review. Perhaps someone could also suggest tieing the review to the CSR timetable. Why review every two years on a a CSR cycle of three years? It seems silly to me and I am at a loss to understand why 2 years was chosen.

So what about STP?

Well in short Solar-Orbiter is okay (and PPAN considered it higher priority over other missions contrary to the advice of the solar and STP community as represented by the ad-hoc panel) subject to ESA still wanting to do it. But S-O is in the far future and there is a gap to fill until then and that is where the current stuff comes in.

STEREO PLS and HINODE PLS will continue as agreed having moved up the scale.

Cluster, SOHO PLS and the UKSSDC will all aslo continue as before. This is good news as Cluster is the only magnetospheric mission that we have at the moment.

STFC are now wondering how to take the issue of data-curation forward. They need to develop a strategy for dealing with long-term data sets so that they don't just vanish in the future. It seems to be left to chance at the moment.

BiSON is gone and STFC, like PPAN, have failed to address the weird double standard that has been applied here. There are plenty of small instruments and projects funded through the grants-line that were not included in the programmatic review; hence many projects escaped the review that otherwise should have been included if we take STFC at their word:

We note that while the consultation panel recommended that BiSON should not have been considered in the Programmatic Review, PPAN could not accept this recommendation, believing all projects should be evaluated. That is correct: the Programmatic Review is intended to cover all projects and facilities in the STFC science programme.
STFC need to deal with this major discrepancy and very soon. If smaller instruments funded by the grants line should be in the PR then put them in the PR otherwise, rely on the rolling nature of the grants line (and I don't mean rolling grants) to determine whether an instrument is still worth funding. As it stands, the current model means that some instruments have to jump two hurdles whereas others only have one. Bold and broad statements such as the one above, fail to adress this.

There is a hint of good news for ground-based STP. Although the vast majority of our infrastructure has been condemned to history this actually puts in words the issue that future ground-based STP proposals should be judged on merit and not based on a throwaway line in a strategy delivery document.

We intend to follow the panel’s recommendations. EISCAT is supported until 2011 and until this time proposals for its exploitation will be considered on their merits. Proposals for the support of ground-based STP will also be considered on their merits.

The key thing here is to ensure that we are mentioned in the upcoming strategy document as otherwise the key 'fit to strategy' criterion will always drop us down the rankings in the future. As for EISCAT, I think STFC has put itself into a very sticky situation with asserting its right to withdraw in 2011 based on a non-withdrawal letter. Their interpretation of the ad-hoc panel's view on this has caused upset:

The consultation panel accepted the inevitability of UK withdrawal from the EISCAT subscription in 2011,
I am told that the panel has sent a letter to Walter Gear (chair of PPAN) challenging this (amongst other points) and copied it to Peter Knight and John Womersley. What STFC do about this is up to them but if they just ignore it then I am concerned what that says about their methods of consultation at a time when they are finally making steps in the right direction.

It is still unclear to me how PPAN could have reached that conclusion and that erroneous interpretation has propagated to STFC. I hope that a correction and a public apology to the panel will be forthcoming otherwise it is yet another body-blow to community confidence.

Finally on a sligtly different note:

Looking ahead, many of the arguments made for the topicality of this area of research because of its links to climate and the environment suggest that it would be appropriate to involve additional funding partners. (It is interesting to note that ESFRI has classified the EISCAT-3D upgrade project as an environmental, rather than a physical sciences, facility.) We encourage the community to pursue other sources of funds, including the cross-council Living with Environmental Change programme, and we will seek to play an enabling role in any such discussions.
This is an interesting and promising statement. The STP community is already investigating avenues of cross-council funding as it is such a cross-disciplinary effort. However, this means that the community has to push this and not become apathetic about the whole thing. Past experience tells us that cross-council initiatives tend to fail as one council pushes things off to another with no one wanting responsibility.

This state of affairs will not change unless there is a tremendous push from the community. Pressue and constructive engagement needs to be maintained.

I'm back and with a bone to pick

...but not about the holiday, which was very nice. Found it harder to relax on this holiday than on previous, which is unsurprising given the current goings-on.

Anyway, the bone I wish to pick is with all those critics of the latest Indiana Jones film. Not necessarily the official critics (like Roger Ebert) who often quite liked it, but all those whiny people on the street and the internet who have been complaining how awful it is and how typical of Lucas. These are probably the same people who hated the Star Wars prequels to an irrational level (Yes I concede Jar Jar Binks is an annoying character but have you considered how irritating the droids actually are without the haze of nostalgia blurring your vision?).

For the casual reader beware, there are large spoilers ahead.

I saw Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skulls on Tuesday night, long after most folks who care saw it.

I enjoyed it, perhaps not the same level of enjoyment as from Raiders or Last Crusade, but about as much as Temple of Doom (my least favourite).

It was very boys-own, pulp action story. I didn't even mind Indy surviving a nuclear explosion in a refridgerator. I got a little lump in my throat with the exceptionally affectionate references to Marcus Brody (the late, great Denholm Elliot) and Henry Jones Senior. I enjoyed the in-jokes that kept creeping in. I even remarked to my wife that Karen Allen still has a very nice bottom (assuming it wasn't a stunt woman in that scene).

I did not even mind about the McGuffin and the final reveal; it was faithful to the aura of the 1950s B-movie and action adventure story that it was trying to capture.

However, many so-called fans, have taken massive exception to this movie. There have been cries of too much CGI which might be justified. Although the prairie dogs and monkeys are clearly quite cool, they are hardly integral to the story.

What has really gotten my goat is the unbelievable amount of whining about the ending and the fact it involves aliens (or rather inter-dimensional beings) and that one of the characters claims to be psychic People are complaining that this is just silly and far-fetched.

That's right, the idea of aliens and psychics in an Indy film is silly and far-fetched.

Next thing you know they will have a man capable of pulling the beating heart from your chest while you can only watch in horror, and magical stones that lead to drought and starvation when removed from their place in a village.

Or, and imagine how silly this would be, there could be a 700 year old knight of the crusades guarding a magical cup that can heal mortal wounds and help you to live for ever as long as you stay hidden in a cave in the desert.

Better yet, what about a big box full of dust that can call down the power of God and melt people's faces? How stupid would that be?

So I have to wonder why none of these plit devices was considered silly, yet aliens hidden in a mysterious city of gold are? Is it just that we like our mythical mcguffins to be familiar to our culture? Is it an example that people are still wired to accept religious 'miracles' on some level even if they personally might scoff at the existence of a deity?

Who knows, but I wish they would just stop whining about it because I bloody well enjoyed it and I hope they make another one.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

PPAN response to ad hoc panels

Em and I are going on holiday tomorrow and as such we are busy packing today. Last holiday for 18 years that doesn't involve a caravan in North Wales!

I will be off-line for the next two weeks and so won't catch up with the government response to the IUSS committee until after the fires have started burning. Have fun with that, my prediction is here.

However I thought that I should say a couple of things about the PPAN response to the ad-hoc panel reports. Of course anything I say can be dismissed as a biased view but then that has to be applied to everyone across the science playing field.

First of all PPAN has had a tough job to do, they have to look across the whole programme and come up with recommendations on how best to balance it. This was done in the absence of complete expertise in the breadth of STFC funded science and without adequate (any real?) advice or input from the community until this exercise - they could only draw upon the limited information supplied by the PR process and their own experience. An oversight which we are assured will be addressed in the future.

Bully for the future, tough shit for the present.

Secondly this consultation exercise was taking place at the wrong time. There should have been something like it (for longer duration) before PPAN was forced to issue its prioritisation list. The community engaged in this exercise but I know that many of us were concerned that it was still deeply, deeply flawed. This is not a good thing considering the damage that can (will) be done to the science programme. My concerns deepen when one considers that the panels were told not to re-do the programmatic review; community input is already curtailed in its effectiveness.

Obviously my experience is somewhat limited to the Solar and STP report and, as a casual observer, a few things leap out at me:

1) The opening sentence is a curious beast

PPAN was pleased to note that the consultation panel broadly confirmed the prioritisation order of Solar Physics & Solar Terrestrial Physics projects within the overall programme.
I am not sure this is the case, perhaps someone else who has read it can point out where this interpretation came from. It is also curious that the first sentence was very similar to sentences in the other responses: e.g. particle physics, astrophysical plasmas, space science and exploration. Sometimes there is only one way to say the same thing. Does it hold true in those cases? Is 'broadly' broader than I thought?

2) I am pleased to see that PPAN have boosted STEREO up the rankings. Quite frankly given that both Hinode and STEREO had only just started operations when the review began it was a ludicrous decision to include them. If the programmatic review is to continue to be a thorn in our side on a two-yearly basis (rather than tied to the same cycle as the CSR, for example) then I suggest that some method is formalised to exclude brand new missions. To PPAN's credit they had attached caveats to their original rankings. Sadly with the removal of ground-based STP we could have an excellent opportunity to view incoming space weather events and almost nothing to see what effect they have on Earth. That, ladies and gentlemen, is joined up thinking.

3) The issue of BiSON is a curious one. The panel pointed out that it is an instrument (like several others I am aware of) that is funded through the rolling grant process. This explained why its user stats were low in comparison to other instruments (question for PPAN - what method did you use to normalize user stats between communities? STFC won't tell us). The panel argued that it should be removed from the review on that basis otherwise why hadn't other projects been reviewed. PPAN's response:

PPAN could not accept this recommendation as it believes all projects should be considered in the Programmatic Review.
Huh? But clearly PPAN is not considering all projects. I want to make this clear, this is either a massive oversight somewhere in the process or else there is a crazy double standard in place that has not been thought through. This must be clarified immediately because as things stand this makes no sense at all and just reinforces the very wide (and believe me it is wide) community view that the process is fundamentally flawed.

4) The real kicker in the PPAN response:

The consultation panel accepted the inevitability of UK withdrawal from the EISCAT subscription in 2011,...
They did what??? I have read that report and can find no evidence to back this assertion. In fact if we inspect the recommendations from section 4.3.3 which dealt with EISCAT we see the following:

1. STFC clarifies with EISCAT the legal status of its option to withdraw on 31 December 2011.
2. STFC conducts a more complete and accountable review of EISCAT involving consultation with other stakeholders including NERC, Government (DEFRA, MoD, FCO), the international STP community, and EISCAT itself to consider wider national interests and alternative options for support.
3. For whatever the duration of the EISCAT subscription, existing grants should continue to be fully supported and assessment of new proposals associated with EISCAT should not be disadvantaged in the STFC review process by a low priority label.
Nowhere in that little lot is the 'inevitability of EISCAT closure mentioned. Whoever put that comment in the PPAN response needs to consider their reading comprehension skills or explain where they drew their conclusion from, because at the moment it looks as if they are just making shit up.

Point one is the continuing saga of the non-withdrawal withdrawal. The terms of the EISCAT agreement that the UK signed were a rolling 5 year commitment - you have 5 years left to pay as a member after you issue a notice of withdrawal. After signing this PPARC sent a letter saying that they wished to retain the right to withdraw but that letter also stated that it should not be considered as a withdrawal letter. By my understanding this has no legal standing, it is an attempt to circumvent signed agreements outside of the framework of said agreement.

The first sentence of point three indicates that the panel has not accepted the inevitability of withdrawal by 2011 since it clearly describes the duration as ambiguous by the context.

This is big booboo.

5) On the other hand the following is most welcome and we must thank PPAN for adding this level of clarity that has been sorely lacking so far in the process:
...but wanted the AGP to be advised that this did not imply ALL ground-based STP research should not be funded. PPAN accepted this comment and agreed to advise the AGP that ground-based STP grants should be considered on their individual scientific merits
How many people were put off putting in proposals in this round that would have used ground-based techniques? We might never know. We do know that decisions have been made in the past that included a consideration that the UK no longer did ground-based STP.

So to sum up, I am less than impressed with this process. It is much as I feared.

But now I am going away and when I come back I look forward to seeing how much shit has hit the fan.

More commentary here.