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Thursday, July 03, 2008

An 'ambitious' programme...

The results of the programmatic review and how it will be implemented have been released; the BBC already has a story about it. I am sure STFC will be unhappy that the Beeb has focussed on the negatives given that:

STFC has balanced its budget and agreed on a very ambitious and scientifically sound programme of funding,
according to embattled STFC CEO Keith Mason.

Hmmm, 'ambitious', thanks to a certain 1980s political sitcom doesn't that word have some different connotations? It's right up there with courageous.

So what is my take of this document?

I think that one of the most controversial lines will be this:

In the case of the ILC related projects and BaBar, where support will be withdrawn, it is expected that any existing specific project grants will be phased out and the level of the existing rolling grants reduced accordingly.

This points to the threat of clawing back money on awarded grants - a controversial measure and a dangerous precedent. Depending on the levels of clawback this could result in a showdown with the university VCs who won't like the idea of this sort of instability in funding.

In the general comments:
We emphasise again that all the projects in the programmatic review represent good science. Given the need to introduce high priority new projects into the programme, we have had to reallocate funding.

As always this is welcome and works against the not-quite-a-whisper campaign against how 'good' certain science was as a non-public explanation for its non-funding.

The consultation panels expressed some strongly felt views on the programmatic review process that was carried out in 2007-8. We believe that the end result of the process is a very reasonable one... There are however lessons to be learned
I am not sure everyone will agree with the sentiments about the end result but the next bit is promising.

Advisory panels for PPAN and PALS will be set up as soon as practicable, and call for nominations for panel members in the PPAN areas is being made. We note the recommendation of Science Board that future programmatic reviews should be conducted with some kind of consultation process as the first step; this could perhaps be done by using the advisory panel inputs.
This is a step in the right direction and whoever decided to scrap the old PPARC advisory panels just before a CSR bid and the second programmatic review ought to have considered their position. Frankly, to think that new structures could be set up in time and to blame PPAN and PALS for not having done it is both ludicous and unworthy.

Kudos to science board for suggesting a first step consultation in the next review. Perhaps someone could also suggest tieing the review to the CSR timetable. Why review every two years on a a CSR cycle of three years? It seems silly to me and I am at a loss to understand why 2 years was chosen.

So what about STP?

Well in short Solar-Orbiter is okay (and PPAN considered it higher priority over other missions contrary to the advice of the solar and STP community as represented by the ad-hoc panel) subject to ESA still wanting to do it. But S-O is in the far future and there is a gap to fill until then and that is where the current stuff comes in.

STEREO PLS and HINODE PLS will continue as agreed having moved up the scale.

Cluster, SOHO PLS and the UKSSDC will all aslo continue as before. This is good news as Cluster is the only magnetospheric mission that we have at the moment.

STFC are now wondering how to take the issue of data-curation forward. They need to develop a strategy for dealing with long-term data sets so that they don't just vanish in the future. It seems to be left to chance at the moment.

BiSON is gone and STFC, like PPAN, have failed to address the weird double standard that has been applied here. There are plenty of small instruments and projects funded through the grants-line that were not included in the programmatic review; hence many projects escaped the review that otherwise should have been included if we take STFC at their word:

We note that while the consultation panel recommended that BiSON should not have been considered in the Programmatic Review, PPAN could not accept this recommendation, believing all projects should be evaluated. That is correct: the Programmatic Review is intended to cover all projects and facilities in the STFC science programme.
STFC need to deal with this major discrepancy and very soon. If smaller instruments funded by the grants line should be in the PR then put them in the PR otherwise, rely on the rolling nature of the grants line (and I don't mean rolling grants) to determine whether an instrument is still worth funding. As it stands, the current model means that some instruments have to jump two hurdles whereas others only have one. Bold and broad statements such as the one above, fail to adress this.

There is a hint of good news for ground-based STP. Although the vast majority of our infrastructure has been condemned to history this actually puts in words the issue that future ground-based STP proposals should be judged on merit and not based on a throwaway line in a strategy delivery document.

We intend to follow the panel’s recommendations. EISCAT is supported until 2011 and until this time proposals for its exploitation will be considered on their merits. Proposals for the support of ground-based STP will also be considered on their merits.

The key thing here is to ensure that we are mentioned in the upcoming strategy document as otherwise the key 'fit to strategy' criterion will always drop us down the rankings in the future. As for EISCAT, I think STFC has put itself into a very sticky situation with asserting its right to withdraw in 2011 based on a non-withdrawal letter. Their interpretation of the ad-hoc panel's view on this has caused upset:

The consultation panel accepted the inevitability of UK withdrawal from the EISCAT subscription in 2011,
I am told that the panel has sent a letter to Walter Gear (chair of PPAN) challenging this (amongst other points) and copied it to Peter Knight and John Womersley. What STFC do about this is up to them but if they just ignore it then I am concerned what that says about their methods of consultation at a time when they are finally making steps in the right direction.

It is still unclear to me how PPAN could have reached that conclusion and that erroneous interpretation has propagated to STFC. I hope that a correction and a public apology to the panel will be forthcoming otherwise it is yet another body-blow to community confidence.

Finally on a sligtly different note:

Looking ahead, many of the arguments made for the topicality of this area of research because of its links to climate and the environment suggest that it would be appropriate to involve additional funding partners. (It is interesting to note that ESFRI has classified the EISCAT-3D upgrade project as an environmental, rather than a physical sciences, facility.) We encourage the community to pursue other sources of funds, including the cross-council Living with Environmental Change programme, and we will seek to play an enabling role in any such discussions.
This is an interesting and promising statement. The STP community is already investigating avenues of cross-council funding as it is such a cross-disciplinary effort. However, this means that the community has to push this and not become apathetic about the whole thing. Past experience tells us that cross-council initiatives tend to fail as one council pushes things off to another with no one wanting responsibility.

This state of affairs will not change unless there is a tremendous push from the community. Pressue and constructive engagement needs to be maintained.

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