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Monday, April 14, 2008

STFC at the NAM

Over a week has passed since the end of NAM 2008 and the STFC forum.

Obviously at that meeting it was requested that we cease criticising the STFC management and this blog took that to heart hence the lack of posting here.

Naw, not really. I have just been busy working and relaxing. For those who were not able to attend the forum and want to hear what was said then you can listen to the mp3 (one of several) recording of the event. My impression was that the panel got something of an easy ride, yet still managed to put people's back's up. A number of things bothered me about the forum and I'll try to articulate them here (not in chronological order).

Keith started with a 5 minute tutorial on DIUS accounting as it applies to STFC. Amusingly he later said that to understand the STFC figures a week's course is needed. His argument that he is sparing us having to look at the minutia in hordes of spreadsheets is illogical. By making them available there is no demand that anyone has to look at them; we are requesting that they are made available so those who want to look at them can look at them. Keith pointed to a problem himself by commenting that when STFC provide summary information someone jumps up and says that does not add up and hence the merry-go-round continues. Of course if it doesn't add up then someone will complain. That is the best argument for making it all available on-line Much kudos to Prof. Rowan Robinson for taking up Keith's offer to inspect the books (or should that be calling his bluff?).

Keith's answer to Andy Fabian regarding fEC does not seem to have settled much based upon the discussions I overheard outside of the forum. There is real worry that this is an issue of government giving with one hand whilst withholding with the other. Keith may be sure that this is new money going into the system but others seems just as convinced that money is going to be drained from elsewhere. To be fair to Keith this may be a question for DIUS and the Treasury.

Of course a colleague has posited that STFC are using fEC as 'smoke and mirrors'. There was some emphasis that we should be lobbying hard to get hold of this money within our universities. But this will not really help with the shortfall in grant funding. No grant = no fEC.

John Womersley needs to work on his comic timing as he seriously mis-judged the audience. As Chris Lintott said in his commentary he seemed to be the 'attack dog', and he came across as immensely patronising (as Andy Fabian pointed out) - an image that goes against the one that I had formed from the positive comments people had made about him. I understand that the vice chair of science board, Jenny Thomas, had this role at the HEP meeting in the same week.

If I remember correctly Womersley led the charge about us stopping criticising the STFC folks. Warned us that government is less likely to give us money if we make STFC management look bad. This bothers me a great deal and I think that this guy has it right:

The take home message from the leaders of the STFC? "Don't point out that we've messed things up or the Government will take even more money away." What was that Bill Clinton said about the politics of fear?

This came straight out of the Bush-Blair PR handbook. You see our criticism has a point - there is mistrust in the current management of STFC from a wide portion of the community (and a few members of the select committee have signed the EDM calling for Mason's resignation) and real anger at the way things have been done thus far. And nothing STFC has said has mollified that. Yes we can see some changes for the better though these have been offset with knee-jerk reactions such as the whole copyright cockup (STFC have, to their credit, now released those documents on line). The management reshuffle did little to assuage fears, same people are still in at the top though their titles have changed a bit. If Womersley is correct that by making the current STFC management look bad we risk cutting our future funding even further perhaps the simplest solution is to consider that word 'current'. Better that than a self-imposed gag and blind-eye to the problems we perceive.

Yes, as a community we can be more constructive and offer suggestions on how to do things better but we also have the right to voice our displeasure in the actions of the management. I happen to know that the consultation exercise resulted in some suggestions on how to do things better, such as the peer review process.

Oh yes peer review. The infamous Times article was mentioned and the anonymous sources came in for heavy fire. I don't think I blogged about it at the time (too lazy to check my archives) and nor did I have anything to do with it. Paul Crowther has a nice summary in his FAQ section where he offers a plausible explanation for how the high correlation between PPAN members and the PR rankings came about. I would suggest that the additional familiarity with those projects would potentially also have a subconscious effect. Conflicts of interest are properly dealt with in the process but the minutes of PPAN meetings tell us that they all give presentations on their work to each other; this could have the unintended consequence of boosting those projects in the eyes of their peers - an opportunity that I do not think others have. Something for them to consider before the next PR.

Also we were charged with attacking peer review and warned off.

This was a gigantic red herring!

People have not been complaining about peer review, we have been complaining about what passes for acceptable peer review in STFC. And STFC knows this so it is disingenuous to suggest otherwise. Without the advisory panels and only a small number of people from a limited portion of the STFC science portfolio it is understandable that the community does not trust the system. PPAN are not miracle workers and their tough job was made tougher without those panels. I thought Keith was playing a neat game of pass the buck there. He told us that it was PPAN's fault that there were no advisory panels though at least threw them a bone that the limited time frame made it difficult (sounded like a concern troll).

I wonder who dissolved the old PPARC panels? Surely with some foresight it would have been obvious that given the upcoming CSR and programmatic review (which they knew was happening) it made sense to keep those panels in place until a new system was devised. That was a major oversight. But Keith has made it clear that the buck stops well short of his office.

The only people who came out of that panel looking halfway decent were Walter Gear and Mike Bode. Monica Grady has the potential to be great strict school mistress given her telling off of the community for wanting PPAR back PPARC is gone!. Of course then we heard from her that although PPARC is dead STFC still has PPARC's research strategy and the current strategy has followed on from PPARC's strategy.

Listening again now I am not sure how a lot of what the panel said really does hang together in a logical and consistent fashion.

Oh well.

There have been a number of interesting reports from the BBC on this.
Susan Watts presented a piece on Newsnight that summed things up beautifully in terms of capturing some of the anger and emotion in the community (when watching the interview with Keith my dad commented that he would not buy a used car from him).
Paul Rincon has had a number of pieces reporting on the science at NAM and the forum. Two interesting articles gave an opportunity for Keith to have his say as well as for a typical astronomer (Paul Crowther in this case).

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