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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.

Friday, June 13, 2008

site stats and reports

Following the release of the reports and PPAN response more folk are popping over here to see what I have to say.

That's nice but once again I am caught on the off-foot as I ahve many other things to do rather than provide a substantial analysis. I will say that I am less than impressed with the PPAN response to the ad-hoc panel report.

One sentence takes some stretching to make it fit as an interpretation of what the panel said. More later if I get the chance (which I doubt).

Thursday, June 12, 2008

The wait is almost over...

[UPDATE 2: 01;30 13/06/2008

And is if by magic... the shopkeeper appeared]

[UPDATE: Still Waiting - 12:45 13/06/2008

Apparantly my source sucked.

Well, that's not fair, rather, the source of my source sucked and that is a bit worrying considering who that was. So much for 'best authority'.

I wonder if said documents are already on the STFC server but with no links yet. We could all have a game of "guess the exact URL"; it does occur to me that for all their failings in so many aspects, STFC manage to do security and secrecy really well. Considering the track record of other government agencies on that score, perhaps they should give themselves a pat on the back.]

Following the announcement that STFC would make public the reports from the ad hoc panels regarding the consultation to the programmatic review things have been somewhat quiet.

Initial rumours were that they would be released after they were presented to PPAN/PALS. However they failed to materialise and we then heard that the release was delayed until "factual errors" had been corrected. They would still be released before the 1 July Council meeting.

It is not clear what these factual errors were but it would seem they have now been corrected.

I now have it on the best authority that the panel reports will be published on the STFC website tomorrow morning, along with the PPAN/PALS responses to the reports.

Releasing early can only be good. By providing the community with the same material that Council and Science Board are given we can judge their final programme decisions with confidence that we had all the information.

Keeping anything totally secret at this stage would be monumentally stupid.

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Government response to IUSS

I see that the government response to the IUSS select committee report will be published at 11 am on Tuesday 17 June 2008.

I suspect that it will say something along the lines of:

  • we gave STFC a 13.6% increase in funding, blah, blah, blah,
  • we stand by the Haldane principal, STFC must decide how to spend its money, blah, blah, blah,
  • life is good and everything is rosy, blah,blah,blah,
  • Government has responded by instigating a review, blah, blah, blah,
  • complete confidence in STFC and its management, blah, blah, blah

Have I missed anything out?

Friday, June 06, 2008


Well, here we go! We are on the eve of the start of this great footballing competiti....

Who am I kidding?

I just don't care.

Really, seriously, I don't care.

And why should I?

England aren't in it; neither are Wales or Scotland. Northern Ireland isn't in it. None of the home countries are taking part in this competition and as such I couldn't give a toss about it. There is no hook there to reel me and the thousands others into watching it. We have no reason to care about the result (except perhaps that old desire to see Germany lose).

However, the BBC seems to think we should care.

Of course they want us to watch the matches they are spending money on and have come up with an advertising campaign hinged around the question of 'who will we support?'

Well, no one.

Because no country I care about supporting is in it.

Now there will still be lots of interest from many football fans out there who just love the beautiful game, but seriously, how are we supposed to get excited about a competition we have no chance of winning because we are not even in it? Don't get me wrong, I like football (though I support Everton), I used to enjoy playing it at school, I like watching my team play and I really enjoy watching my national squad playing (did I say enjoy? I must be a masochist). But I find it difficult to get behind a team that I have no sense of involvement with and as such I don't watch every televised match going (unlike certain friends of mine). I don't religiously watch Sky SportsNews to find out every detail of every player who farted within the last 10 minutes*.

I don't mind that quite a few folk will watch and enjoy Euro 2008 (though due to circumstances I had not thought through I am going to end up watching the opening games tomorrow) but the advertising campaign has been somewhat relentless and there are quite a few of us fair weather fans who couldn't give a stuff because our team is not playing.

It's not just the TV and radio adverts though, the campaign is being waged on all media fronts.

Here is what Gill Hudson, editor of the Radio Times, had to say:

With our national squads firmly on the sidelines, you might think that no-one is going to be witness... ...But you might well be wrong. Given the number of European players currently in British teams, there's more national interest tied up in the European squads than at any other time in footballing history...

What complete rot. Who cares?

When England play (as one example) there is a massive increase in interest from people who at other times would not watch football if you paid them. This sense of national pride can be a huge driver (see Tim Henman/Andrew Murray at Wimbledon).

This year without that I will bet that there will be less folks watching matches in pubs than there were at the last championships; there will be less sick days taken by folk desperate to get home and watch the matches during the day.

I know I won't be watching religiously. In fact I am off on holiday for two weeks next week. Perfect timing I say.

* I think it was Terry Pratchett who once observed that if a child enjoys reading fantasy and/or sci-fi, has posters of Lord of the Rings festooned throughout his bedroom and plays Dungeons and Dragons they tend to get branded as nerdy and a bit worrisome. However if a kid has a bedroom decorated in all shades of Manchester United and sleeps under a Manchester United duvet and only reads fan-zines and game programs society seems to think that is healthy.

Thursday, June 05, 2008

Well I have been a day out all week.

It was Tuesday that was funny, not Monday. This has now been corrected.

On the plus side, for me the weekend comes sooner...


Wednesday, June 04, 2008

Over. At. Last!

So here I am pulling a late-nighter and attempting to get some extra-curricular sciencey support work done and I have one eye on the news out of America:

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Barack Obama has clinched the Democratic nomination for president, according to CNN estimates, making him the first African-American in U.S. history to lead a major-party ticket.

Sen. Barack Obama on Tuesday will tell supporters he is the Democratic nominee, according to his campaign. Obama picked up a slew of superdelegate endorsements on Tuesday. Those endorsements, combined with the delegates he's projected to receive from South Dakota's primary, will put him past the 2,118 threshold, according to CNN estimates.
Thank God for that. I thought this primary season would never, ever end. And in some ways it hasn't yet:

His remaining rival, Sen. Hillary Clinton, does not plan to concede the race Tuesday night, campaign chairman Terry McAuliffe told CNN -- but one of her leading supporters said "a moment of truth" was at hand.

Truth be told, Hillary has not had a chance of winning for some time now, but she has doggedly stayed in the race. To what end? Well there have been all sorts of rumours of a bombshell that would destroy the Obama campaign but none of them panned out. Plus there was the whole fiasco with Michigan and Florida, which was quite unbelievable; the way Clinton turned about face over agreeing that Michigan did not count, to insisting that it must was incredible to behold.

Now it would seem that Hillary has managed to high-jack Obama's turn in the spotlight with the media concentrating on whether she will be VP or not.

Of course between now and November we can enjoy all the mud thrown between the Republicans and the Democrats.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Laugh out loud MondayTuesday

The comment section over at Andy Lawrence's e-astronomer blog can be a mixed bag of entertainment and annoyance (just like most blogs where people comment). However, today I discovered a little gem courtesy of 'Chas'.

Sadly I was too late to view it first hand but the idea of it just made me laugh.

So I offer it for you to enjoy:

Comment 1:

Chas Says:

Here is biography of Richard Wade on the STFC website:

Try clicking on his photo. Is this a plea for help?

Comment 2:

Chas Says:

Someone at STFC is clearly monitoring this blog far too closely!

Clicking on Richard’s photo previously went to an image that read “Replace Me”:

Within minutes of posting the last item the link was changed…

Too funny.

As an aside, I know that I occasionally have bods from STFC wandering over to my site. No idea who they are but they must have been somewhat disappointed with the content recently.

Monday, June 02, 2008


It has been some time since I last posted and for that I apologise. My mind has been other things, somewhat more important than the STFC debacle. I was in Finland doing some proper science and have been attempting to keep that trend going. Plus I find that the urge to blog comes in peaks and troughs, and recently I have been in one of the troughs.

However there is another reason why I have not been caring about current science affairs. Some of you will know already but for those that do not I am happy to announce that Em is pregnant.

Come late November, all things going well, we will be welcoming a tiny new addition to our family. This came as something of a surprise but a very welcome one. Em and I are really happy.

Life style changes lie ahead, I feel. Probably have to play less Halo.Almighty Cleanse