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Monday, February 04, 2008


As wonderful as it might be, we cannot have Journey at the top of the blog for too long, and so...

The e-astronomer said something particularly interesting in a recent post:

One of the victims of the STFC funding crisis is ground-based solar-terrestrial physics : STFC decided to pull out of ground-based radar systems. A few years back, many mainstream astronomers would have quietly let it slip, as it seemed rather dull compared to cosmology, solar physics, or planet hunting : good stuff but not top priority

This is a view that most STP scientists long recognise from our astronomy colleagues, and in general I can understand it, but coming from the other direction (I don't care how many spiral galaxies there are - it's dull).

Let me throw another quote at you. From a meeting between three early-career scientists (who formed S3) and Prof. Keith Mason, then head of PPARC, the following was reported:
Negative feeling in PPARC towards STP has built up over the last decade or so. Often when presented with our science all people hear is "Blah blah blah reconnection blah blah". We were told that STP scientists have not done a good job of relating our science and the relevance of our science to the wider scientific community. However, it has to be said that when many an STP scientist is presented with cutting-edge astronomy all we hear is "Blah blah blah Active Galactic Nuclei blah blah".

The last illustrates the problem. 'Astronomy' covers a wide field of different topics under one blanket, and Solar-Terrestrial Physics has long been placed in there, but do we really belong? There is a common bond between much of the astronomy disciplines that I am not sure exists with astronomy and STP. In fact STP contains sub-disciplines, though since we work in a joined-up fashion to understand the system that could be less of an issue now than it once was.

STP might be considered dull by an astronomer but I think cosmology is boring - they have certainly failed to make the case with me as to why I should be interested. But here is the thing: I don't hold the purse strings so they are not required to make the case to me - that is the way it works. STP is a smaller field than astronomy and it is the astronomers who hold the purse strings. In the past things seem to have moved along and although there have been tight times and grumbles that astronomers don't get it, STP has muddled through.

This is not a gripe at astronomers; I am pointing to a terrible flaw in the system, exacerbated when the people in charge of the edifice responsible for the funding fail to recognise the problem. [Emphasised for those who fail to actually read things.]

We have been told that representation on the decision making bodies is not important, that it doesn't help. But then we have also been told that if you have a committee made up of two different groups you can get very different answers; which suggests that any real power in a situation would lie in the hands of the people who dictate the make-up of the committees. Well, I think this needs some testing and so I propose an experiment:

For the next 5 years, all boards and committees should be populated by solar, planetary and STP scientists. If representation is not important then STFC should have no problem sanctioning such a move and they surely wouldn't expect the astronomers to complain since it would make no difference.

Let's turn things around a bit more.

How many astronomers here have made the effort to interact with the STP community to see whether our science holds any interest for them? It could be many, it could be few, I really don't know.

Anecdotal reports from the NAM held in Leicester a few years back are that the sessions that included some planetary magnetosphere work were poorly attended. Last year MIST acted upon the suggestion that we needed to engage more with our astronomy colleagues and folded our annual spring meeting into the 2007 NAM meeting. I enjoyed it very much, but how much cross-pollination actually occurred? I don't recall seeing unfamiliar faces in the MIST/UKSP talks. Perhaps I just missed them, and I doubt that many MIST/Solar people went to astronomy sessions (non-plenary).

Our community was told to dance to a certain tune in terms of engagement and that is what we have been doing. Was anyone told to join the dance with us, or were we expected to make the moves on our own? One could argue that since we were the ones who had 'failed' to make our case, it was all on us, but then had we failed or was no one really listening to our case because it didn't fit with their world view? It is a two way street.

This year at MIST and NAM we have some joint MIST-NAM sessions and I am going to be watching closely to see how many from each community attend.


andyxl said...

The problem with suggesting that solar/STP must be represented on all committees and panels is that this sets a presumption that STP per se MUST be funded. Where do you stop ? The stellar people can (and do !) complain that the committees are dominated by extragalactic types, and insist on more representation; and surely the planetary science community must always be represented; oh and hang on, what about gravitational wave astronomy ? And surely its unfair if there isn't an X-ray astronomer.. etc etc. Pretty soon there's thirty people on every committee, no decisions get taken, and everybody's pet project goes on forever.. I don't know the solution, but I do know the problem ...

oh and by the way when you quoted me you missed out the bit where I followed on to say that actually these days STP is thought of as dead trendy and important, because of climate change ...

iainsteele said...

I think at Events like NAM, its unlikely that people from other disciplines will go along to sessions outside their own area. There are 2 reasons for this:

1. The talks in the parallel sessions are often short and therefore must assume a level of expert knowledge that someone from outside that area does not have.

2. There is often a parallel session at the same time that is closer to what you do which you naturally go to.

The solutions I see therefore are:

1. Aim to get some plenary talks at forthcoming NAMs where one can give general, review type talks that are more likely to be of the level appropriate to the average astronomer.

2. Offer to give seminars at astro departments. We have never had an STP seminar I can remember in the 10 years or so I have been at my current department. Again in a seminar the level can be pitched to the non-experts. This does not mean one can not talk about the latest exiting results, just that one has the time to explain to us dumbo-astronomers why its important!



Kav said...

Sorry for not continuing quoting you, but I wanted to emphasize the part related to past attitudes. I figured that anyone who read this would click through on the link. I shall make amends.

My comment about filling all boards and committees with solar and STP people (and I mean filling) was a nonsense to test the idea that has been repeated to us that representation (at all) does not matter (and can even hurt you according to one senior figure). No one in any branch of astronomy would be happy with that.

Kav said...

Ian, last year we did have two plenary talks. Unfortunately, due to internal changes within MIST, we missed out on the option to have any speakers this time.

Your words of wisdom are well taken though.