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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Where are they coming from????

[UPDATE Aha! I think it is people searching for john locker spaceweather, as that post is number two in the list. Mr Locker is the chap who took the pictures. But why?]

Okay, I have mentioned before that I get hits from strange Google search terms but today I have a bigger conundrum.

I am getting lots of Google hits that go to this post about watching the ISS. The interesting thing is that they are from a Google image search and the image they seem to be after is actually on (and is here), which I link to in my post. I don't even have the image displayed (I was ill-educated in the ways of the web in those days).

The page that the hits are coming from is the selected result page that looks like this.

My problem is that I am desperate to know what search terms so many folk (including someone in the US House of Representatives) are using that bring them to my door? If anyone has a suggestion of how I can find out, please drop a comment; if you are someone who has come here via that google route, please drop a comment.

25% versus 10%

An interesting comment on the e-astronomer blog. I cannot speak to some of the things that our anonymous friend alludes to (though it's not the first time I have heard them) but the final paragraph really caught my eye:

Oh yes – I forgot – then when the heat gets a little intense and the natives start grumbling about 25% cuts to the grants line, let’s just change the statistics so that we count numbers of lost postdocs lost compared to 2005 figures rather than today – then, almost magically – golly - we turn the threatened cuts in numbers of postdocs from 25% to 10%. Great trick – wish I’d thought about doing that. Why not be even cleverer, and go back to 1905, and then tell us how many Postdocs we will have *increased* over the 108 years, that comes from the generous Government spun 13.6% increase in funding. I’m sure that this could lead to some ‘it’s even brighter than bright new future’ quotes based on this new viewpoint.

This is a point I know some colleagues have been grumbling about.

Spin, spin, spin. Some people must be getting dizzy there is so much spinning going on.

Let's not forget that those post-docs that have been filled since 2005 could still lose their jobs, why do they not count? This is like saying 'it is only because we have been successful in recruiting people that we are getting hurt. If we go to a time when we were less successful then we aren't being hurt as badly'.

Also if the CEO does not think that 10% is 'decimation' then he really needs to go and look that word up.

Cuts to STP - the never-ending fight

A news article on the BBC news website about the cuts to STP.

It pretty much speaks for itself.

It was the main story in the Science/Nature section until it was bumped by this completely irrelevant story about climate change. Sheesh, just because the US is now making moves to address this highly important topic, we get relegated. Boxing records

Also, a colleague just sent an email to the S3 mailing list with a report from the 21 Jan. 2008 MIST business meeting with Richard Wade. It brings on depression all over again.

The report shows very well how the meeting flowed but obviously cannot contain the emotion and everything that was said. RW seemed to contradict himself a couple of times and now there is a gulf between what he told us about knowledge exchange and what Science board have now suggested. He stated that STFC would not fund science that was considered lower scientific priority but had excellent KE opportunities. Interestingly Science Board have now said that a seperate process should be set up to deal with this issue. Obviously still some disconnects in the upper echelons of STFC.

This is encouraging from science board:
SB agreed that the disquiet within the community following the announcement of the CSR had been increased by the way in which the news had been broken, and by the accompanying perception of a lack of consultation. SB spent some time in discussion as to the best way forward in communicating with the community, so that similar problems could be avoided in the future. SB agreed that publication of timely digests of news from Committee, Board and Council meetings should be resumed as soon as practicable. A range of additional communication possibilities was also discussed, and will be investigated further. SB would welcome suggestions from the community on this issue.

At least they have recognised the problem, even though the chief executive is still running around saying that consultation occurred (or if it didn't it was because of sensitive negotiations - play drive the lorry through the holes in his argument, it's easy). I have even heard it said that the CEO has claimed that any failures in this regard are down to PALS and PPAN who should have set up advisory structures (though I think I remember RW said something about these not working very well under PPARC hence they were scrapped - must check that). He seems very good at saying 'it's your fault', as members of MIST who were at the meeting at Aberystwyth in 2005 will remember - he said it an awful lot.

He even blamed us for the reduction in funding to PPARC relative to other science councils since 1998. It seems that it is not his job to make the case for science funded by his research councils, I wonder if the other council heads think the same way. Perhaps we should ask.

Anyway the results of the programmatic review should be announced late Feb.

Some interesting things appeared on the list of programmes to be reviewed.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008


...was a good day. Do you want to know why? I'll tell you, for the first time in ages I felt like I was able to accomplish something. The final draft of a paper I have been working on went out to co-authors and should get submitted, probably on Thursday. I'm not lead author but I am the only native English speaker on the paper and so I have had significant input and unfortunately too many other distractions have been getting in the way.
Now I just have to get on with analyzing some more data and writing those papers. I gave a presentation in Italy last summer that proved somewhat popular and I still haven't finished writing the manuscript!

In addition Em, who has been working far too hard, is asleep on the couch and I am about to play some Halo.

Ah, the simple things in life. Boxing records

[UPDATE] Well who would have thought it, I got bored playing Halo...

Monday, January 28, 2008


I don't know about you but I have papers to write for a fast approaching deadline, so can we just put this whole STFC crisis thingy on hold for a little bit?

I promise I can pay attention again by the end of the week. OK?

Sunday, January 27, 2008

No immediate rescue for STP

Sadly I did not win the GBP 18m National Lottery jackpot last night and so I cannot guarantee the safety of STP science for the next 10 years (or more).

Gemini in the news - highlights the problems

The BBC 1 news just had a segment on the UK withdrawal from the Gemini telescopes. It was a nice piece and Prof. Paul Crowther made a special appearance. Paul has written a comment on the current appalling Gemini situation.

I just want to excerpt a couple of segments for my readers:

Having been thrown a lifeline by the STFC Executive apparent u-turn on retaining access to Gemini North, the news is doubly disappointing, although the apparently half-hearted nature of the UK proposal to Gemini Board - without consultation with any of the UK astronomers involved, not even the Gemini Board's UK astronomer from whom the proposal was kept secret - appears to reflect a decision made in great haste.

I would add that this reflects standard operating procedure for STFC: no transparency, no consultation and no respect for the scientists. I wonder whether this reflects an inability in STFC management to actually engage with its constituents, us scientists.

Top level Decision-making on Gemini seems beyond comprehension with an appalling lack of transparency, so readily wasting GBP 80m investment just at the point when this facility has reached its true potential.

This is not dissimilar to the situation that STP found itself in after the PPARC programmatic review when the brand new SPEAR facility was axed (came on-line September 2004, axed by 2006). This was a brand new type of instrument that combined the ability to 'heat' the ionosphere with a vertical radar that included the capability to probe beyond the ionosphere into the magnetosphere - unique in the world.

At this time there are few available documents (at least that I can find) on the PPARC website that discuss the result of the 1st programmatic review (regardless of what Richard Wade thinks should be there). I just use this to stress that the actions by STFC with regard to Gemini do not seem to be unusual.

At this stage I hope that any of my astronomy colleagues who thought otherwise are coming to the realization that relying on STFC to come to their aid in saving their science is a waste of time.

The STP community has broadly reached this conclusion; when a number of our instruments were set for closure in 2005, we thought we could rely on quiet negotiations to save as much as possible and for a time it looked as if it might work. It was suggested to Lancaster University, for example, that they should pitch the funding for SAMNET into their rolling grant application in 2007. Another piece of advice was to gather our proposals around EISCAT since it was not axed in the review. You can all see how that turned out.

You cannot deal with STFC as it stands. It is not interested in our views, "strategy is a top down process".

I suggest you consider the recent MIST resolutions (also see press release) and decide whether it is time to join us above the parapet (to quote one commenter).

Friday, January 25, 2008

MIST stands resolved

I mentioned the MIST (Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar Terrestrial) meeting I was at on Monday. Well, the most significant thing to come out of that meeting was the passing of three resolutions over the current funding crisis.

The text of these resolutions can be found on the MIST website and they have been sent to John Denham MP, Secretary of State for DIUS. Copies have also been sent to the STFC executive and other worthies.

Perhaps the most notable thing is that the MIST community passed a vote of...
no confidence in the financial, administrative, decision-making, and communication arrangements within the STFC as presently implemented
and proceeded to...
request a change of the structures, and individuals in the STFC council, responsible for the current failure.
This is quite damning but I think it accurately reflects the strong feelings within our community. I think many of us now hope that our colleagues in particle physics and astronomy will follow suit. I am sure that many who might have thought that Prof. Mason was 'on their side' have rapidly changed their minds having read the recent BBC article. It is not nice to be thought of as...

rocks on the road to a brighter future.

It is important to note that the current problem is two (or more) pronged. The settlement from DIUS was not good, even though the results of the FOI request from Prof. Ken Peach demonstrates that the officials who were briefed would have been fully aware of the consequence (unless they could not do simple maths). Of course, as one eminent scientist has commented, it is unknown whether STFC made it clear why it mattered that the science we do be allowed to continue. However, the MIST resolutions deal almost solely with the issue of how STFC handled the problem(i.e. with no transparency and no consultation). Both fronts must be fought!

For the uninitiated here is what MIST says about itself:

Wednesday, January 23, 2008


Someone who has been linking here quite often recently is this guy.

If you want to see how science is viewed by the passionate, educated lay-person you could do far, far worse than look at what Ryan has to say.

In addition he compiles daily lists of interesting science links out there on the internets. It makes a nice change from funding controversies and he is usually interesting and funny.

Just don't get him started on the merits of Sci-Fi vs. fantasy fiction; he really has no clue.

Campaigning for STP


The New Statesman has responded to my request to edit the text from the article to make sure that it reflects reality. The NS have changed the text to read: "Others set up a weblink with the grand title of..."

This certainly removes the most serious claim (i.e. that it was produced by 'senior' people and was some sort of sanctioned campaign). It does not say that it was a joke but I think I have made that clear for all those clicking through.


This post has been removed.

An offhand JOKE on this blog has been taken seriously by the news media. Consequently it has been removed to prevent that happening again. I know it has given a good laugh to many folks involved in this funding crisis but it has never been meant to represent a real campaign.

I'm not usually in the habit of removing posts, but since this is such an important issue I don't want mistakes by the media (especially honestly made) to undermine our real efforts by accident.

Just to be clear there is no official, STP sanctioned, campaign of the name suggested in a recent media report although STP scientists are fighting hard to save their discipline.

Also this should be abundantly clear but this website was NOT created by a 'group of senior solar physicists'. I am certainly not senior (nor a solar physicist), and the website was created by me. This is a personal blog that has recently been following the funding crisis and the joke that was here was one way of expressing our dissatisfaction.

Wading into the MIST

As I mentioned yesterday, Richard Wade came and addressed the MIST (Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar Terrestrial) community at our business meeting at the RAS on Monday.

I'll discuss more of the salient points at a later time but there were one or two comments worth mentioning now. The first was to do with the only time that he showed any real emotion in the meeting.

After taking questions for some time (and it must be noted he willingly stayed much longer than we had originally asked) one of my colleagues raised the point that it was madness to segregate ground based solar-terrestrial physics from space-based STP since to do the science properly you need both - they are not independent. Prof. Wade did not seem to get the point so another colleague offered an analogy - substitute astronomy for STP. One would not cut all ground based astronomy. When Prof. Wade agreed with this, without seeming to get the point, my colleague laughed to himself. It was then that Prof. Wade raised his voice and told the assembled scientists to:
"Wake up and smell the coffee"

He then informed us that hints had been dropped for quite some time. When pressed on where and when these hints were made he said they were on the STFC/PPARC website.

It is interesting to see that STFC seems to think that policy changes should be announced in the form of hints rather than through community consultation.

The underlying point was that STP was not welcome in STFC. He even said that (and I am quoting from memory so forgive me if I get something a little wrong):
"In an ideal world STFC would not fund ground-based STP"
This was in response to questions about whether STP would have appeared in the strategy if there had been better funding from DIUS. This also has implications for EISCAT that I will come to later. he also went to great pains to point out that STFC will support space-based STP since we have a commitment to ESA and as long as ESA has STP missions STFC must fund be involved. Essentially STP is only in there because ESA has a programme and we are signed up to ESA.

Even though we tried to tease direct statements out of him, Prof. Wade would not be drawn. He said at one point that he could not be clearer than that; however my immediate thought was that he could be clearer he could actually just tell us what he was dancing around. If he wants to say that STP is dead to STFC then he should bloody well come out and say it. Perhaps he could also give reasons backed up with evidence. Something it seems that Keith Mason was unable to do in front of the select committee later that same day.

With regards to EISCAT, statements that came out of the ad-hoc meeting at RAS and the SCAP meeting were clarified (and I use that word in the political sense). Although the news from colleagues at those meetings was that the EISCAT subscription would be honoured Prof. Wade made it very clear that this was only true so long as STFC could not find a cost-effective way of withdrawing from the agreement. So if they find a way tomorrow, we are out. To his credit he did say that if STFC was paying for an instrument it would be "stupid" not to fund science that utilised it. We shall see however.

All in all the meeting was somewhat depressing for the STP community and if the STFC executive get their way, a whole field of research in the UK will be wiped out. Let's just make sure that STFC does not get their way!

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

More to come [UPDATED]

[UPDATE I have been made aware of an excellent rebuttal to Prof. Mason's remarks as reported on the BBC website. More strength to Prof. Peach's arm.]

Sorry things have been quiet here, I have been trying to get work done that has necessitated using my 'free time'. This is not unusual for a science researcher.

Anyway, yesterday, myself and a number of esteemed colleagues from the solar-terrestrial physics community had a business meeting that included a Q and A session with Richard Wade, Keith Mason's number 2.

It was... interesting

Of course there was also the first evidence session in the inquiry into the crisis surrounding STFC funding.

I will hopefully pass on some of my thoughts on these topics very soon.

In the meantime I will link to this article at the BBC website where it is reported that:

The chief executive of the Science and Technology Facilities Council claims the likely fallout from its spending settlement has been exaggerated.
So we have been exaggerating.
I think this clearly adds to the growing mound of evidence that supports the thesis that Keith Mason is full of sh*t.

Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Debating the Issue

I just took a break to watch the private members debate on the science and technology research council that was called by Edward Vaizey. It was very interesting viewing.

The MPs concerned had clearly done their homework and made good statements. Amusingly the minister who responded on behalf of DIUS came across as very nervous - this may be his usual style. I imagine that he was a bit embarrassed since Edward Vaizey cut his knees out from under him by predicting the arguments that the minister would provide. He flagged that shouting about increases in budget (13.6% in case you have missed all the times that keeps getting repeated) was a complete red-herring and did not address the issue that programs are being cut with little warning and no community involvement. of course the minister started with exactly that.

The minister mentioned the Haldane principle (learning from his boss there) but failed to consider whether that is being properly applied by STFC.

The point was raised that although the Wakeham review is welcome there is little chance of it being finished before the cuts are implemented unless more money is provided or the review is brought forward. The minister dodged around this issue by saying that it is up to Prof. Wakeham (and his appointer) to determine how long the review should take.

At the end the minister expertly managed his time so that he was still speaking when the debate was closed. This meant no one was able (if indeed they were going to) to point out to the minister that saying that the scientists would have access to ISIS and Diamond was a complete red herring as the science disciplines that are being cut do not use those facilities in their research.

All in all the government are still saying that it is up to the STFC and they should get on with things. Not surprising really. On little gem that crept in might answer why there is advice circulating to stop 'pestering' DIUS. It seems that remarks have leaked out of the department to the effect that there is no way that they will bend to the will of whingeing scientists. If true this is an interesting attitude to take from a group that professes belief in the Haldane principle, no?

Once Hansard catches up I will post the link here

Monday, January 14, 2008

Showing resolve

A group of select astronomy professors met with Keith Mason and Richard Wade last week. According to one member of the group who was there it was held under Chatham House rules, which means that although we can find out some information from the meeting, we cannot find out what was said by whom. I am sure that whoever decided this had their reasons but it is a real shame as once again we have something of a screening layer between us and STFC decision making. Some transparency would really be nice.

On the plus side the group arrived at a number of resolutions that are available on the RAS website. I would tentatively suggest that these resolutions are positive but I am not sure they go far enough in some regards. To summarize:

Recommendation 1: All astronomy groups are urged to make sure that their Vice-Chancellor submits a strong case for astronomy and space science to the Wakeham review.

Recommendation 2: DIUS should remove international subscriptions from the STFC budget line and should handle fluctuations (which may be up or down) separately.

Recommendation 3: STFC needs to publicize the intrinsic value and indirect economic benefits of fundamental science and strengthen this element of its mission.

Recommendation 4: PPAN should without delay set up an advisory structure below it, so that a wider cross-section of community experts can be involved in discussions of the programme.

Two sentences from the meeting report are somewhat controversial:

The ad hoc group had a vigorous discussion with Keith Mason and Richard Wade on the issue of consultation and had previously taken advice from the chairs of the Science Board and PPAN. We accept that these bodies have been fully involved in the preparation of the Delivery Plan and in the ongoing Programmatic Review.

It is all well and good for that ad hoc group to say they accept that PPAN and Science Board were fully involved but statements from members of PPAN would suggest otherwise. When Prof. Rowan Robinson reported this to the community at the recent RAS meeting, one member of PPAN stood up and rejected the statement.

More traffic

A few days ago I mentioned that the site traffic for Living in the Real World had taken something of an upswing following my whingeing about STFC.

Although this is undoubtedly true there seems to be a regular trickle of visitors (not the same person - or at least not the same computer) who are coming here whilst searching for 'Real World nude'.

The mind boggles.

Friday, January 11, 2008

Haldane not all done?

This was a response to a question asked yesterday in the commons:

Mr. Denham: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that question. It is important to make a big statement of principle on this issue. The Haldane principle, established many years ago, says that Ministers should not intervene directly in the funding decisions of research councils. That is to protect the autonomy of research councils in deciding where research should take place. When the Science and Technology Facilities Council made its proposals, despite its above-inflation increase in grant, to reduce certain areas of physics expenditure, it would not have been appropriate to breach the Haldane principle, to step in and to take money away from the Medical Research Council and give it to the STFC. However, because of the concerns, I did my job by asking Professor Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton university, to produce a report on the health of physics as a discipline, which will consider our overall funding of physics, including those areas that have attracted controversy. As the Secretary of State, I have done what it is right for me to do and—
This is an interesting interpretation of the Haldane principle. I guess it depends on whether one views the STFC as essentially an extension of government or as a scientific body. I can tell you that I doubt many actual scientists view the STFC as a scientific body, they are an administrative centre. Science decisions made by STFC should all depend on the peer-review process. If we follow the Haldane principle then it is essential that any decision made by STFC should come from rigorous peer-review that is beyond reproach. Given all of the reproach floating around I guess that is not the case, no?

I humbly suggest that the secretary of state is asking the wrong questions of himself. He should not worry about whether it is right for him to intervene in what science is carried out under STFC and whether he would be breaching the Haldane principle. That is not the source of the problem. The secretary of state should rather consider whether the large amount of discontent flowing from the scientific community under the STFC umbrella indicates whether the Haldane principle is being properly applied by STFC itself.

Ping-pong goes the blame game

Yesterday (jan 10th, 2008) some questions were raised in parliament by MPs concerned over the loss of jobs and science following the £80 million shortfall in the STFC budget. It was hardly inspiring stuff:

Ann Winterton: Is the Minister aware of the potential damage that will be caused by the Government’s reduction in support for academic research in science and its impact on Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy, including Jodrell Bank observatory, one of the world’s leading astronomical centres, which last year celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Lovell telescope? Will he review urgently the £80 million shortfall in research funding to prevent damage to the United Kingdom’s research capacity and effectiveness in physical science, and to its international reputation?

Ian Pearson: It might help the House if I put a couple of facts on record. The budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council is going up over the next three years by 13.6 per cent.—an increase of £185 million over the budgetary period. The STFC will spend £1.9 billion during that three-year period, a significant proportion of which will be spent in the north-west. Like other research councils, the STFC has to make some difficult decisions, and it has to decide what its priorities should be. The Government are concerned about the health of all the disciplines, which is one of the reasons we have asked Research Councils UK to undertake a series of reviews of the health of the disciplines, starting with physics. Bill Wakeham will lead that review, and its terms and references have been scoped out.

First off, regional based questions are a red herring and easily dismissed, although some regions will be hit hardest (the north-west being one of them) the cuts are a UK-wide issue and should be dealt with as such.

Secondly giving the minister the opportunity to flag that actual 13.6% increase is a huge blunder. No one denies this is the case, the problem is that given the increased commitments that STFC has to make (increased subscriptions, FEC, running costs of new facilities and whatever else) a 13.6% increase translates to an £80 million decrease in real terms. That decrease is being heaped disproportionately on the researchers. If we give the government room to argue that it is an increase and then dismiss the actual shortfall then we are failing.

Thirdly, relying on the Wakeham review is a non-starter. By the time the review is over many areas of world class science will have disappeared and it will be too late to do anything about it.

I am not meaning to pick on Ann Winterton I am exceptionally grateful that she, and all the others who asked questions, are making a stand on this and trying to get to the root of the problem. However it is clear that DIUS is taking the attitude that the shortfall is STFC's problem and they should put their own house in order. That means we must learn from what happened yesterday and frame any further questions and inquiries in terms that cannot be danced around!

A later exchange was particularly interesting (emphasis mine):

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): Dr. Brian Cox of Manchester university’s school of physics and astronomy has said:

“Scientific research is not a luxury, it is a necessity”.

I am concerned that most of the cuts that will occur as a result of the £80 million shortfall will not be to major facilities, but to small grants going to physics and astrophysics departments, not only in the north-west, but throughout the country. What assurances can the Minister give that that bedrock of blue skies research in physics and astrophysics, which brought us things such as the MRI scanner, will be protected?

Ian Pearson: I agree with Dr. Brian Cox that scientific research is not a luxury, but an absolute necessity, and in the north-west, a great deal of world-class scientific research is conducted. During the past few weeks, the university of Liverpool have been developing a model that can predict the risk of any person developing lung cancer in a five-year period. The university of Manchester, to which the hon. Gentleman referred, has discovered a key process that may be involved in the spread of cancer, which could lead to new treatments to stop 80 to 90 per cent. of cancers in their tracks. A great deal of research into other matters, too, is being undertaken at north-west universities. As I said earlier, the budgets of all research councils have grown—for example, the STFC budget has increased by 13.6 per cent. and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s budget has increased significantly. However, it is up to research councils to determine their priorities, based on their best assessment of the science. There will be change because we live in a changing world and difficult decisions have to be taken, but it is best if those best placed to make the judgments(sic) are allowed to do so.

It is interesting to me that of all of the examples the minister could have chosen he picked on medical advances, the MRC having come out on top in the comprehensive spending review.

The last sentence is very interesting. I think it highlights that if the scientific community really wants to resolve this issue in a satisfactory manner we need to highlight the fact that the folks making the decisions in STFC are not best placed to do so. There are few STFC scientists who think that STFC has actually listened to what the community tells them and so the case can be made. Alternatively we start shouting our case more loudly than ever before at STFC so that we can show that their judgement is out of step with the scientific community they are supposed to represent.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

STP in the Times Higher

The second article in the new-look Times Higher Education revolves around comments made by one of my friends and colleagues:

As a space scientist at Lancaster University, Jim Wild is an expert in the field, and his enthusiasm for his research is clear.

But he is worried about the future following the announcement of funding cuts that affect all ground-based facilities for solar-terrestrial physics in the UK.

Jim goes on to get to the crux of the matter of why this is such a massive blow:

"Although satellites provide invaluable measurements, they are too few in number to provide complete coverage. It's like trying to forecast the weather here on Earth with only a handful of weather stations.

"To complement the satellite measurements, we need ground-based instruments such as imagers, radars and magnetic field sensors.

"This is an area in which the UK is world-leading, but the cuts and the closure of our facilities effectively means the withdrawal of the UK from this area of space research.

"They haven't said they're going to kill off any of the spacecraft, but there's really only one mission at the moment and it's within a year of the end of its life.

"When that dies naturally, they'll have killed all the ground-based facilities, and we will have no tools left and that will be it."

The satellite Jim is talking about is the highly successful Cluster mission which is already living on borrowed time.

I am sure that STFC will argue that there is a brand new STP satellite that has only just started: STEREO.

This is only partially true, STEREO is focused more on the sun and solar wind, it does not look at what happens when the solar wind hits the magnetosphere which is where most of the societal and economic impact of space weather is felt. It's great science but provides only one end of the process; if you really want to know what is going on you need the other end. That means many more satellites around the Earth and (even better) lots of ground based monitoring stations to get a global picture of what is going on.

To expand on Jim's quote about predicting the weather with with a handful of weather stations, I once heard an American colleague say that trying to study space weather with satellites alone is like trying to forecast the weather across the United States with a handful of thermometers, and you don't know exactly where they are!

The kicker to the piece arrives at the bottom and it is this point we need to get across (emphasis mine):

"The feeling is that this is the death of solar-terrestrial physics in the UK, at a time when the rest of the world is getting into it in a big way.

"We cover an awful lot of the Arctic and Scandinavian area with UK instruments, and we're effectively pulling out and thumbing our nose to our partners and saying we don't do this any more."

Sadly the on-line article does not have the very nice photo of the aurora that the hard-copy has with the article (THE, No. 1827, 10-16 January 2008, pg. 10).

STFC in the Times Higher

Two nice articles have appeared in the latest edition of the Times Higher Education.

The first (10500 sign petition to reverse cuts to science) is hung on the on-line petition and is already out of date! It does give a nice summary of the woes facing physics in the UK if something is not done to combat the shortfall and disastrous response of STFC. It adds a new twist by considering the possibilities of privatisation:

The protests continued to build as Prospect, the scientists' union, warned that the STFC's plans to deal with its £80 million funding shortfall meant that hundreds of public-sector scientists could lose their jobs and major public research facilities could be privatised.
It is also nice to see questions raised over the merger of PPARC and CCLRC:

Meanwhile, others question whether it was right to merge the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council with the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils to form the STFC given that the budget shortfall was in effect inherited from the CCLRC.

"I don't think the PPARC council would have gone along with the merger if it had realised this would be the outcome," said Roger Davies, head of physics at the University of Oxford and a former PPARC council member.

I had serious misgivings at the time (as did many, many others that I have spoken to) but was willing to be led by older and wiser heads. Especially since it was strongly implied that in reality there would not be much in the way of other options. Of course one could also say that it is too late to be crying over spilt milk; the chance to object has passed and we are where we are in regards to funding councils. Of course this could change depending on the results of the Wakeham review; sadly I fear that will be far too late to save Solar-Terrestrial-Physics which seems completely doomed at the moment. It would be nice, if it does survive, to see solar systems science (solar, solar-terrestrial and planetary physics) have more say in its funding decisions.

We should all take heart

As of 10:03 am on the 10 January 2008 there are 11,148 signatures on the on-line petition to combat the cuts to UK physics.

The news is better than that:
Take heart colleagues!

As you can see to the right Gordon Brown has signed the petition and this can only mean good things.

I am sure he will definitely pay attention to a petition that he himself has signed.

Yes I know that it's not really that Gordon Brown. Look I found it funny, okay?

Monday, January 07, 2008

New logo for STFC

In case you have not seen this I recommend looking at the new logo for STFC designed by Mike Watson and proudly displayed by the e-Astronomer.

I agree with Rob in the comments over there who says:

and change facilities to fatalities?

More space for space

Well isn't this just fine and dandy:

A proposal for the UK to join the International Space Station (ISS) project has been put forward by a group of scientists and engineers.

In general I am in favour of manned space-flight; the romantic in me demands it. However, I have misgivings over where the money would come from. Diverting money from science research is the obvious route and the dangerous precedent is now set (see the amount of space technology -let's not pretend it is space science- in the STFC delivery plan). Alternatively would it not be better to see if industrial partners could provide the capitol involved in such an undertaking? That is the New Labour way is it not?

"This is a contribution to the debate on how the UK can get involved in human spaceflight," said Mark Hempsell, of Bristol University's aerospace engineering department.
It would allow UK scientists to use the space station for experiments, pave the way for British astronauts, and bring significant development and investment to the country's industry," he said.

Well, I could be in favour after all, and I have the perfect candidate for the very first mission.

Sunday, January 06, 2008

Teaching in the UK

From the BBC:
Ministers want Britain's top IT and science companies to encourage "career switchers" to go into teaching. Ministers want professional scientists, mathematicians, information technology experts and engineers to help fill the skills gaps in classrooms.

Now we have been hearing for some time that the government wants more science teachers, notably in the area of physics. If I was a conspiracy theorist I would say that the current devastation of UK physics research plays into the governments plans brilliantly.

Many of England's science teachers have not studied science to degree level.

But many future ones might just have PhDs!

Hundreds of physicists and technicians will lose their jobs at the stroke of an STFC pencil leaving them available to sculpt future minds. Of course since some of the best research groups and training grounds for future PhDs are about to get decimated there isn't much to inspire those young minds with.

On the other hand, some folks, such as the current set of ministers at DUIS, the PM and of course the executive of STFC will have a hell of a legacy: they will have killed some of the best science in the world.

Friday, January 04, 2008

STFC funding crisis update

It is quite difficult to piece together what is going on with regards to the £80 million shortfall in funding and STFC's atrocious handling of the problem. Partly this is due to the overflow of information mingled with rumour but partly it is due to the massively vague nature of the statements that have come from STFC; there is no clear line of information. Yet another example of why the community has no trust in them.

However there is a website maintained by Paul Crowther at the University of Sheffield that is very useful in summarising what we know and what has happened so far. I highly recommend it as a source of information at this somewhat confusing time.

I particularly like the quote from Lord Rees:
` I hope that there can be a pause while these budgets can be reconsidered and as a result of that I hope very much that we can avoid the worst effects.'

Sadly with the news from RAL that STFC is pushing ahead looking for redundancies and that they have begun trying to negotiate their way out of commitments to international consortia (some that they only signed up to last year!) it would appear that no pause will occur. This of course makes sense if one buys into the hypothesis that some of these cuts serve an agenda from the STFC executive with the shortfall providing ideal cover. Must not hesitate too long in case money is supplied and the feeble excuse for cutting world-leading science without adequate peer review and transparency disappear. Of course I would hate to suggest that this is truly the case.

In other news the online petition at the Number 10 website has passed 10000 names. Hurrah.

see related posts:
New Logo for STFC
More Space for Space
Teaching in the UK
Save Astronomy
STFC in Private Eye
Petition the Governments
Parliament Probing STFC
Haldane all Done
STFC cuts update
What is Solar terrestrial Physics?
Facilities vs. Science - an historical perspective
A definite 'huh?' moment

Big Science Questions

More on the STFC meeting of doom
The STFC town meeting - delivery strategy
Diamond comments on recent press reports
Update to STFC post
STFC - we decide, you do as you're told
The STFC - Danger to UK Astronomy Physics

Thursday, January 03, 2008

Sun Earth Plan

On the back of my post that attempted (though probably rather poorly) to briefly explain what solar-terrestrial physics is (and isn't) I thought I should flag a site that is quite popular already.

2007-2009 is the International Heliophysical Year (and the International Polar Year), a successor to the great International Geophysical Year of 1959 which essentially kick-started the drive to study the near-Earth space environment, especially with ground based instrumentation which proved to be both relatively cheap and of massive benefit.

The timing was right to launch a website to highlight the great work that is done by UK scientists in the field of solar system science (solar, planetary and solar-terrestrial). A colleague of mine did this and we have the fantastic:

If you want to know about solar system science in the UK this is the place to go. Articles are written for a general audience and are very accessible. There is also the opportunity to put your questions to scientists currently working in the field as many have done already. Linking in with the IHY there are also useful resources for schools and science clubs.

The site made the Times Online 20 best space websites this year and contrary to reports from the woefully ignorant it has about 8000 unique visits per month and is far from limited only to the science community.

Of course the closure of UK ground-based STP facilities in the UK right in the middle of the huge international polar year (and IHY) just showcases the ignorance and stupidity of the new STFC strategy.

Save Astronomy

There is a website that has been set up to highlight the plight of astronomy in the UK in the face of the cuts made by STFC due to their £80m shortfall. This includes the UK solar-terrestrial ground-based facilities that are being axed. This way you can see exactly what is being lost due to the incompetence of the STFC. The site also highlights ways you can help to fight this.

Save Astronomy


The past month has seen a significant upswing in visitor traffic to this illustrious blog (see figure). It has been some time since I last saw the numbers reach quite as high and that was when I was posting prolifically.

I wish that I could say that it is my erudite writing that has ensnared this new audience, unfortunately it is due to the inadequacies of the STFC.

Most of my hits have come from people interested in learning about the STFC cuts via Google. Shove some combination of 'STFC' with 'funding', 'crisis' or 'cuts' into Google and you come up with a link to one of my posts on said topic. Hopefully I have been useful to the people who come looking.

One new viewer pops up from a machine with a 'PPARC' IP address in Swindon. Hello whoever that is, I hope you are taking notes.

Happy New Year 2008

First post of the new year ended up being about the bloody STFC again. Oh well, just a quick happy new year to all five of our readers :-)

Let us hope that 2008 is a significantly better year than 2007 turned into.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

STFC in Private Eye

I have just seen the article about the STFC executives and Diamond in Private Eye ('Diamond Geezers', issue 1120, 21 Dec -11 Jan 2008).

On the one hand it is nice that the current funding crisis is being flagged to the wider community. On the other hand I am not sure how useful the article actually is.

It tells us that Prof. Keith Burnett, Mr Marshall Davies and Prof. Richard Wade (STFC council members all) are also non-executive directors of Diamond Light Source Ltd. This is information that can be gleaned from a trip to the Diamond web site. The article does point out that overlap is understandable since STFC is the major shareholder in the joint venture. In fact I would be worried if STFC council members were not directors!

All that as it is, the main thrust of the Private Eye piece is that none of the three lists Diamond in the STFC register of interests which requires the: "declaration of any personal or business interest, direct or indirect, monetary or non-monetary, that may conceivably conflict with the interest of the STFC".

This is an oversight given that involvement in other STFC funded projects are declared by council members but I am not sure that it is particularly damning. The argument seems to hinge on the £80m shortfall being due to Diamond overspends, something that has been strenuously denied, not just by Diamond but also by the STFC.

Yet this just raises that all important question again; since Keith Mason has told us that the government is very generous and has increased our allocation of money and there are no overspends in the budget, how could STFC have got its sums so very, very badly wrong?

A friend of mine wondered whether they went in expecting a much greater increase in the budget and likened this to the stupidity of buying a bigger house with a massive mortgage on the basis that one might have a better job in 6 months time.

How could they not see it coming and work earlier to mitigate the incredible damage to physics in the UK? Is it sheer arrogant incompetence or did they see it coming and see it as a way to cut those things that they wanted to close down anyway?