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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.

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