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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Post-mortem III Nuclear

A quick one.

I feel very sorry for the nuclear community. They came into STFC and have taken a hell of a beating for their trouble. What's worse is the comments from STFC that we don't need these types of nuclear scientists; how daft is it to talk down an area of science within your own remit? That's going to make life easy when bidding for cash at the next CSR isn't it?

There is a sense of deja-vu here.

If you compare what has happened to nuclear with what was done to STP you see a pattern emerging. It is as if STFC does not know how to deal with small communities - everything gets tensioned against everything else and the small players get hit the hardest. There is no regard for national capability (at least from the outside looking in).

Is this a direct result of the dire lack of strategy at STFC? When some young STP scientists visited Keith Mason after the PPARC programmatic review they came away with the answer that PPARC had no public strategy (but got the impression that a strategy existed in the CEO's mind); this has carried over into STFC which is a general hodge-podge of different sciences and facilities.

Is this lack of strategy one of the major failings of STFC? A colleague termed the way STFC handles small communities a 'failure of process'.

Any approach to try and fix STFC has to take this lack of clear strategy seriously. We all want to do good science but there must be some mechanism in place which stops larger disciplines inadvertently killing smaller ones, particularly when those small areas may be of important strategic value to the UK.

This is not code for 'impact', I'd argue that astronomy has important value to the UK, as does particle physics.

It's not special pleading for a particular area, its asking for due consideration of the fall-out of tensioning whopping great science areas against much smaller ones and then letting the dice fall wherever.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Post-Mortem II - consultation

'A Farce',
'A con',
'Massive waste of time and effort'

Just 3 terms I have heard (or seen) used to describe the latest STFC reprioritisation exercise.

The rumour mill is already grinding and it is not clear at all yet what is true, what is false and what is false but with a grain of truth.

One rumour that is fast spreading is that PPAN ignored most (if not all) of the advice from the advisory panels and just went their own way. They didn't even bother to re-look at the prioritisation from the last programmatic review - a process that still leaves a bitter taste in many mouths, not least as the community had little input and very little faith in the process.

What was the point of this consultation if it did not address the underlying flaws in the previous debacle???

Well, first of all it is far from clear that PPAN ignored the advice of the panels and that they did not re-assess past rankings. In fact there is some demonstrable evidence that some rankings from the past have changed (e.g. Venus Express is just one example, check out the list for yourself and compare with the old version).

The rumour might have been started from PPAN themselves, who released a statement on the STFC website that said:
At its meeting on 28th and 29th September 2009, PPAN developed a preliminary prioritised list of projects for those not considered in the 2007 / 08 Programmatic Review.
At first reading this looks like an admission that PPAN did not reconsider or revisit the programmatic review in light of the wide and, supposedly, thorough community consultation. However Jon Butterworth (member of PPAN) told me via Twitter that PPAN did relook at the old list and pointed to several changes (inc Venus Express) that were made.

Furthermore, PPAN will soon be releasing a report detailing how they reached their recommendations and how the advisory panel advice was incorporated.

I await this with interest and I'm keeping my powder dry concerning the consultation until I see that document. I'd like to be re-assured that it was the science questions formulated by the panels that drove their recommendations rather than the facilities themselves (a perceived flaw in both the PPARC and STFC programmatic reviews: facilities leading the science) and how they reconcile the rankings they came up with to the rankings in the panels advice.

I am also keen to hear from the chairs of the advisory panels to get their perspective of the discussions with PPAN and what they thought of the process. Beyond that the Science Board perspective would also be very welcome.

It is very early days to give a ringing endorsement of how STFC has done consultation, anyone who does is jumping the gun a wee bit. At the same time it is a little early to make claims that the process was flawed, even though my own untrusting nature makes me fear that it was (a problem that will persist until the current management is removed and the CEO's 'vision' is kicked into touch)

If it turns out it was flawed, well I think the shit will well and truly hit the fan then and I'll be doing my fair share of flinging.


Post-Mortem I - exploitation

So I see that Paul Crowther has written a guest post over at the e-Astronomer querying what the future might be for STFC after Lord Drayson's intriguing comments. I partly agree with Mr. Physicist:

The biggest problem with STFC is its management and that could and should change. Sure the merger of STFC/CCLRC, CRS07, etc all played their part, but it is clear almost 2 years later where many people put the blame for a crisis that turned into a disaster.

So, dont change the structure – change the management.

I say partly because I think there have to be some structural changes to address the imbalance between facilities and exploitation.

Which brings me to my theme:

Exploitation

Addressing rumours of a disturbing trend before it becomes reality.

When did we start calling research 'exploitation'. Agreed much of our research does indeed exploit the facilities operated by STFC but surely that should not be exclusively so.

I am employed on a research grant, to do research. In the course of that research I exploit data from several instruments but the exploitation is not the be-all and end-all.

There is a distrurbing creep (dash?) towards the idea that all research funded by STFC should exploit the STFC facilities. There is an argument to be made here that since we have invested so much we should do just that. Surely though we are in the business of doing the best science and if that involves using equipment outside of STFC then so be it.

If the STFC kit is so wonderful then chances are that lots of people will want to use it and so we get return on our investment. People should not be forced to pen their ideas into 'what can we do with X, Y or Z' and unfortunately I am getting the feeling that is exactly what STFC expects us to do. Of course there are fine details like the relative sizes of communities who use instruments but the principle remains.

So we are facing a managed withdrawal from certains projects. The sense I am getting is that STFC now expects to cut any grants that rely on these facilities since they don't do that bit of science anymore. I could be wrong, but if not then I call bullshit.

Let's take an example; Cluster and Cassini will now be subject to a managed withdrawal - does this mean that grants that rely on the use of Cluster and Cassini data should be rejected without consideration of their scientific merit? I suspect (again I could be wrong) that STFC would say: yes (AGP might think differently but then there would be an interesting stand-off).

But Cluster and Cassini have a wealth of historical data to be plundered, lots of great science could come out of that. Should we just ignore that because we no longer offer post-launch support? Should someone else's decisions about what the UK builds effectively dictate what science we should be allowed to do?

Well maybe that is a bad example because data from both these missions are archived by ESA and since we pay the subscription they remain an STFC funded resource. In theory even if STFC say that we should not do science with unfunded instruments then Cluster and Cassini data are still funded.

But what if I wanted to use data from the new RBSP mission to examine fundamental space plasma science, would STFC even consider that in this brave new age? It has no links to STFC funded instrumentation. Or even the new SWARM mission - ESA mission with no STFC connection, its on the NERC side of things. Not sure STFC even knows it exists yet it could easily (and will) address science that lies square within STFC's remit. Would STFC allow grants to 'exploit' this?

It needs to be made clear what policies STFC has in place as we move beyond the reprioritisation. I don't think anyone can justify removing a whole area of scientific enquiry from their effective remit simply be closing an instrument down. We need to be sure that STFC are not thinking that that is what they are doing.

Thursday, December 17, 2009

And the scores from the judges...

Well, by now I'm sure you have all seen and heard the news. The full announcement can be seen here.

The webcast of the press conference was cringeworthy - I thought poor John Womersley was going to have a stroke at one point. Some fantastic little comments in there:

"[we're facing a] short term blip" - Keith Mason

"There may be grants rounds which may be skipped as a result of this [reprioritisation]" - John Womersley

"There has been no reduction in support" - Keith Mason
Pick-up by the media was slow but has grown with reports from the Guardian, BBC, Times Higher. The Times has focused on the Nuclear side of things, a new angle for a story that many thought covered last year. Of course many senior science reporters will be tied up with the Copenhagen meeting.

It is interesting to note that the BBC article blames the current financial crisis:
The council has been forced to make savings following the global financial crisis and the fall in the value of the pound, which has increased the cost of its subscriptions to large international facilities including the Large Hadron Collider at Cern in Switzerland.
Of course this is not really true, we are witnessing the continued mess following the merger of PPARC and CCLRC exacerbated by the financial crisis. It should also be borne in mind that these cuts do not in any way cover the cost of the £600m savings that universities and science need to make for the Treasury.

So anyway these are the headline points:
  • we owe the other research councils thanks for subbing us 14m to allow STFC to honour its grants commitment.
  • a 10% cut on research grants, that I assume falls AFTER those proposals that depend on withdrawn facilities are culled.
  • 25% reduction on fellowships and PhD places
  • the managed withdrawal from a number of facilities across particle, astronomy and nuclear physics
It was vaguely amusing to see that MoonLITE had a brand new category made especially for it by PPAN - sub alpha. I wonder if it will still manage to push ahead in the future.

The response from the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee:

We are hugely disappointed that studentships and fellowships will be cut. We hope that this is only a short term measure and that they will return to pre-2009 capacity as soon as possible.

It is clearly unacceptable that any Research Council has to bear the brunt of increased cost as a result of the vagaries of currency fluctuations. The Government needs to establish a centrally-driven, robust system for funding international subscriptions based on scientific peer review.

At the earliest opportunity we will examine these cuts in detail.

A comment from Lord Drayson was intriguing:
However, it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.
For what its worth, your first step should be to sack Mason. I still reckon this can all be traced back to him not asking for enough money in the CSR07. Get rid oof him and put someone with some managements skill and competence in place.


What does this all mean for STP?

Interpreted in its broadest sense the post-launch support for several related missions are toast:
Cluster, Cassini and SOHO

The first and last do not surprise me but I was shocked at the loss of Cassini support. A key point is that this is operations money - not science. I would hope that if someone came up with an excellent science case for exploiting the wealth of historical data available from these ex-facilities STFC would not be prejudiced.

On the other hand some things survived albeit with taking a cut to operating costs:
Hinode, STEREO, Cosmic Visions, Solar Orbiter (not sure why this is separate from Cosmic Visions.

LOFAR-UK which had STP possibilities is also gone.

So where do we stand? Well probably about where we thought we would.

Unlike when this first blew up in 2007/2008 (and in fact in the previous PPARC programmatic review) STP is far from being singled out. The pain is being spread wide and it is tempting to say 'I told you so' to those folks who were reluctant to make a fuss back in the day. But that is far from useful now - we are all in this together now and we have to come up with a way to try and fix this mess and at the very least stop further cuts from eroding our science base in the future.

PostScript

It's the next day and feelings are still running high On the Today programme John Womersley was called a liar by a nuclear physicist; on Andy's blog there is a rather heated argument about whether ESA is to blame for all of this. Frankly, that discussion is not doing anyone any favours, particularly the tone. And this comes from me - hardly the most polite person in this whole debacle.

It is important to discovere what went wrong and what led us to this point. It's no good saying we should just move forward and get on with things, because if you don't learn the lessons of history you are bound to yada, yada, yada. That said we can do it better than by sliding into our natural camps and shouting at each other.

One of the great things to come out of this two-year long mess is the cohesion across astronomy and particle physics. We haven't always agreed on the best way to do things; we haven't always sang from the same song sheet; but we have avoided attacking each other and playing 'my science is better than yours', at least not in public.

Sadly I fear that we are on the brink of that disaster.

A post-mortem is needed, we need to assess how much of the communities views PPAN and science board actually captured. We need to find out what reasons (possibly good ones) exist for deviations from those views. Moreover we need to assess whether the decisions made are good ones. For example is it reasonable to cut support on missions near their end of life (seems so) whilst maintaining support for missions that may never even get launched (possible big gap in years to come)? Has the right balance been achieved?

If we can do that without screaming at each other and sticking the knife in we may get somewhere and we might look sympathetic to the public rather than whinghing ivory-tower academics.

Just a thought.


Oh, yes, except for Mason, say whatever the hell you like about him.
Hypocrisy, thy name is Kav.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The end is nigh

So today we hear the result of the STFC prioritisation.

Some rumours have started to leak out since STFC has been calling around some PIs to tell them how stuffed they might be. Confirmed is the final demise of Clover - Cardiff's bid to get it revived was summarily dismissed. Rumour has it that both LHCb and ALICE are for the chop but that is unconfirmed as of yet.

Its likely to be bleak. Peter Coles is keeping a running blog post about it and I suspect that #stfc will be a trending topic today on Twitter.

Brian Cox was on the BBC Daily Politics programme today and did a sterling job here and here.

The problem is that there is no money. Even if Lord Drayson appreciated the problem there is little he can do about it right now - the Treasury is unlikely to fling even £10m our way. This cock-up preceded the economic crisis and any hopes of fixing it have been dashed by our banking friends who have sucked up any spare money that might have been lying around.

Impact

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to see two talks on impact from two funding agencies: EPSRC (for RCUK) and HEFCE.

Sadly the first did little to inspire me with confidence, despite the efforts of the speaker.

A key thrust of the presentation was that RCUK does not want us to predict the future (no fortune telling) rather they just want us to spend some time thinking about what the potential impacts might be and how we would go about developing them. So far, so good.

Unfortunately I got the impression (as did some others I spoke to) that they did want us to try to predict the future. In fact the overall impression I took from the talk was that RCUK still doesn't really know what it wants in terms of 'impact'. This was a view shared by several at the meeting. Perhaps this is unfair but I should point out that I am not as hostile to the whole impact idea as others and so this view is not based on a prejudiced view of impact statements. Also the EPSRC rep did state that they would not hold us to the statements we produce - they expect things to evolve and change just as scientific enquiry does - a fair point but then I have to wonder about the worth of the impact statements.

The talk from HEFCE was more encouraging and was dominated by a single theme: "we don't really know how its going to work, we are going to try this in the pilot scheme and see how it goes." I found this incredibly refreshing and encouraging and I left the talk feeling optimistic that they might just get it right. Of course they have a loooong way to go and they really need to get more feedback but at least they are thinking that. I still worry that too much emphasis is going to be placed on the nebulous idea of impact and a lot will depend on their final weightings for the importance of impact in teh overall assessment.

My personal view is that considering impact is not a bad idea. I have recently filled in an impact plan for a grant application. It certainly allowed me to consider ways in which I could spread the word about the science I would do and beg for money to help do that - this is especially useful if you think of the outreach side of impact.

But I am still uneasy about the whole impact agenda, it still feels wrong, like some slowly creeping doom; the thin end of the wedge, perhaps.

I wonder whether they have got things arse about face. Surely the best time to consider potential impact is AFTER the work has been done. If a clear possibility for spin-out, or whatever, can then be identified perhaps there should be a seperate pot of money to support that development.

Here is an embryo of an idea:

If a piece of work has an excellent impact plan but fails to get funding because it was up against better blues skies research that proposal should be made available to other potential funders UK or European industry, relevant government departments, etc. If they think it is worth doing for the possible economic impact then they can fund the research to the levels requested plus develop a strategy for translating the product to the marketplace or whatever. This way we maximise obvious and immediate impact without impacting blue skies research that could yield something in the long term.

Considering the impact that your work might have is not such a bad thing but let us be very clear that this will not and never can influence whether we fund a project from a science budget that is dedicated to blue skies research. To do otherwise is madness and societal suicide.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

STP: NERC vs. STFC

A couple of weeks ago it was announced that some of solar-terrestrial physics was going to be 'moved' to NERC from its current home at STFC. This followed a recommendation of the Wakeham review of physics:
The Panel recommends that responsibility be transferred to the Natural Environment Research Council for those parts of solar terrestrial physics research which are most relevant to the NERC mission.That transfer should be accompanied by sufficient funds to enable NERC to administer and support the current level of research.
To be clear, this is not a wholesale move of STP to NERC from STFC, much of the work of interest to the community is still supposed to be funded by STFC, though that will depend on what is announced tomorrow.

In the announcement Alan Thorpe, CEO of NERC (and head of RCUK) said:
"I welcome the transfer of responsibility for Earth-oriented solar terrestrial physics, which will strengthen the delivery of NERC's strategy. This area of physics includes, for example, studies of space weather impacts on technological systems, ionospheric effects on communications and global positioning, and solar influences on global climate change. We look forward to working with the new members of our community."
Which is nice. This transfer also includes funding for ground-based STP instrumentation, which at the moment has been solely identified as EISCAT*. I still have some issues with splitting funding based on where a measurement is taken rather than what you plan on doing with it but so be it.

At the recent Autumn MIST meeting some representatives from NERC came to talk to us about how the transfer will work and what we might expect to find in NERC. To me this was a very encouraging step, and I came away from the meeting feeling somewhat more positive; not least because the NERC guys had seen some solid, exciting science in one of the best Autumn MIST meetings I have been to.

Our favourite CEO also offered an opinion:
Professor Keith Mason, STFC's Chief Executive, said, "This reorganisation of the funding for solar terrestrial physics recognises the contribution this community can make to the work of the NERC. STFC will continue to work with the community to ensure a smooth transition period and to support space-based facilities and non-Earth orientated solar terrestrial physics, focused upon our understanding of the physics of the Sun as our nearest star and its central role in our Solar System."

There is a bit more to it than that. One aspect of STP is fundamental space plasma physics - not just understanding the Sun but also understanding diverse topics such as turbulence in the solar wind, magnetic reconnection across all scales, kelvin-helmholtz instabilities at magnetic boundaries such as the magnetopause, etc. STFC is still responsible for these topics and for any magnetospheric science that is based in space rather than on the ground.

Ironically, in this time of impact, STFC have managed to shed an important area of science with the potential for huge economic and societal impact, but Keith has never rated the application of science spin-outs; rather he prefers the technological angle. Indeed at a meeting at RAL, when reminded about the dangers of giant solar storms (such as the Carrington event 150 years ago) he agreed that if we had experienced such a thing in the past few years then STP would have no problems - but we don't live in that world. A man with clear forward vision there.

There will undoubtedly be some tricky times ahead (not least depending on tomorrow's announcement) as NERC and STFC balance who pays for proposals that straddle the two (what if you want to study processes within the radiation belts that includes the loss to the atmosphere?). The NERC chaps told us that RCUK has now set up better protocols to deal with this sort of cross-council issue; this is a good thing as past experience was less than encouraging. Perhaps I am being naive (makes a change from jaded and cynical) but the NERC chaps were convincing and came across well.

So now STP is spread across NERC and STFC. The future is far from clear - is it ever?


*Other instruments besides EISCAT are still operating (on a shoestring) but are due to go under very soon. The reason that NERC has not considered these is probably because STFC has always maintained that they were cut and so no longer funded. In actuality the STP National Facilities program was axed in the PPARC programmatic review. Keith Mason would have you think that was the end of it but actually groups that operated these instruments were encouraged to seek instrument support through the grants line (operating costs were so small that this was highly feasible) with appropriate science cases. This was done and a couple of groups were successful. Thus STFC was still supporting ground-based STP when Keith claimed they were not. He clearly had not kept up with the developments (of course EISCAT had never been cut before the notorious 2007 Strategy Delivery Plan).

Investing in the future...

STFC: investing in the future 2010-15

That's the start of the spin that STFC is going to give tomorrow's press conference announcing the results of the prioritisation. Of course STFC has form with spinning bad news and to be fair they are hardly going to say how awful it might be. I say might because we don't know what is going to be announced.

By now the council has met and okayed some plan for STFC to pursue some science and balance the budget it has. We mere mortals have no idea what is going to be announced - maybe it will be good news, maybe it will be bad. Chances are that unless the government has managed to dig extra cash out from behind the sofa cushions the news will be bad. Very bad.

Those who read this blog regularly will know the back history. For those that don't, have a look here, here and for a nice summary here.

The cuts in research support that STFC have already implemented (25% reduction in each grants round) have gone no way to plugging the hole in the budget first highlighted two years ago. It's funny to think how angry I was that December, sat in Norway on an experimental campaign, when I saw the ill-advised STFC strategy delivery plan. It's not funny that this whole farago is still going on and getting worse.

For a discussion of what might might be you can look at Andy Lawrence's blog (new chair of AGP - more fool him), Peter Cole's blog or follow the discussion on Twitter.

To get a real feeling for how the community feels about this, then I suggest reading this blog post. It says what I want to say but says it better.

I hope that when the announcement comes tomorrow the particle physicists, astronomers, nuclear physicists and space scientists all stand together and don't start to squabble, that would only make Keith smile.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

STFC grants announcement

STFC have posted something on their website about grants.

I only saw this as a consequence of my daily perusal of Paul Crowther's webpage, I wonder have the people who are/might be affected sent something directly to inform them?

Anyway, here is what it says:

STFC Council examined progress of its current science and technology prioritisation exercise at a strategy session on 21 and 22 September. Without prejudging the outcome of the prioritisation, Council agreed that prudent financial management required a re-examination of upcoming grants.

Council therefore agreed that new grants will be issued only to October 2010 in the first instance. This temporary policy is in place pending the outcome of the prioritisation exercise, expected in the New Year.

What does this mean?

Does this affect grants that are currently being decided on to be announced around Christmas?
What about grants awarded last year but were delayed until now (st STFC's request)?
What does it mean for rolling grants (makes them sort of pointless really)?

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

who stole the sunshine?



Turned cloudy today, rained last night but stayed fine today. Some promising breaks in the cloud hint at sunny weather later. No radar for me today but exciting ground breaking UK experiments are currently underway. The heating facility is being used to probe the lower ionosphere using partial reflection. Magnetospheric radar, mesospheric radar, ionospheric heating - is there anything that field of antennas cannot do?


My radar run yesterday was not so hot. Things were very quiet and all I really got was a nice quiet, solar illuminated ionosphere. Nothing to help me with my work but a couple of cool things showed up in the data anyway. The plot to the right shows the estimated electron density provided by the VHF radar.
You can see how the electron concentration is highest at about 200 km (F-layer) and decreases with descending altitude until it disappears below ~90 km (D-layer); the radar is just not sensitive enough to pick out the much lower electron density below there.

If you look closely from ~12:45 UT you can see an undulation in the data, noticeable in the bit coloured green. This looks like gravity waves to me (not to be confused with gravitational waves), which are generated in the troposphere and are important for transferring energy and momentum to the mesosphere. Caused by airflow over mountains or weather fronts, these disturbances are called gravity waves since gravity acts as the restoring force that causes the oscillation.

Another interesting feature is the appearance of PMSE layers - polar mesosphere summer echoes). The most obvious is around 14:00 UT where there are strong radar echoes. These are not true estimates of the electron density, rather they are caused by coherent scatter where more power is returned to the radar giving the false impression of much higher electron density. The coherent scatter is actually from irregularities with spacing of half the radar wavelength (in this case about 70cm). PMSE are caused by the presence of electrically charged ice particles - the mesopause is very cold so water vapour freezes. These same ice particles cause noctilucent clouds.

So there may be something useful in that data even if not for me.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

least surprising headline

I was wondering about this on Sunday night.


Schumacher would consider return

Michael Schumacher is not ruling out the possibility of standing in for injured Ferrari driver Felipe Massa.


In actuality I think it unlikely that he will return to stand in for Massa. At the risk of sounding somewhat mercenary Ferrari would be better off trying out someone new (to them at least). They have to think to the future and at the moment that might not include having Massa in a car again.

Norway in Summer

Well, its campaign time and here I am sat in the north of Norway. Except rather than snow, ice and rain I can see sunshine and mountains of green. It makes a refreshing change.

I arrived yesterday evening into lovely sunshine and warm temperatures, somewhat removed from the cold and snow into which I normally arrive.

The drive from the airport to the radar site was very picturesque and I did not have to worry about icy roads and so could relax and enjoy it.


It was almost enough to wipe away the pains of a 6am start followed by a three leg journey incorporating a high speed dash through Oslo airport to make my final connection. I was pleasantly surprised to find my luggage on the conveyor when I arrived.

I was even more pleasantly surprised to be fed reindeer when I got to the site. Good times.

This is the first time I have been abroad since my daughter was born and I am already missing her terribly. I just hope that we take some good measurements and get some nice results from this campaign to make up for being away from home.

That said I am not terribly hopeful.

I am not here looking for aurora this time. Instead I am looking for the signature of very high energy electrons. These relativistic electrons precipitate from the magnetosphere and deposit energy in the lower D-region (or even deeper). They can have significant effects on the chemistry of that part of the atmosphere.

The radar up here is capable of detecting the tell-tale signs of these electrons and provide a means of measuring the precipitation spectrum (that is the number flux and energy of the elctrons). This is not so easy to measure in space since you want to only sample the portion of the electron population that is going into the atmosphere plus you have the difficulty of a satellite moving through the region of interest creating temporal-spatial ambiguities. From the ground we can resolve those somehwat.

One of the advantages we have over astronomers using optical telescopes is that our radars are not dependent on clear skies and we can operate happily in the daytime. However we have our own limitations; whereas chances are that astronomers can go back to the same object over and over and repeat measurements, we are working in a massively dynamic system that disallows that. No two precipitation events are identical and are highly dependent on how the magnetosphere is being driven.

The problem I have is that my timing sucks., I had hoped to catch a period of high solar wind speed, a phenomenon that enhances driving of the magnetosphere and can lead to increased relativistic electron precipitation. The image above (linking to Spaceweather.com) shows the Sun in extreme UV as seen by SOHO. What I needed was the dark spot in the upper middle (a coronal hole) to be slightly further around to the right as that would mean the solar wind burst I needed would be on its way.

I may yet get lucky for Thursday and Friday...

Friday, July 24, 2009

Campaign time

I'm off to Norway next week. Sitting and watching radar data might inspire me to write some more. Lots to write about including various consultations.

Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Cool gadget

Now I'm not normally a huge gadget person and I don't even own an iPhone but this gadget I came across today stuck me as such a brilliantly simple and elegant solution. It's called the Aircurve and it amplifies the sound from an iPhone by 10 dB WITHOUT needing electricity.






Tuesday, May 26, 2009

UK science policy

The transcript for the latest IUSS evidence session on "Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy" is now available. This is coupled with Science Question time and makes interesting reading.

The issue of the debate over the future of science policy in the UK was, of course, discussed. The committee was a bit confused over statements made by the science minister about a need for debate and those of John Denham that effectively said the debate was over. I was very confused by this as well and I cannot say that my confusion has been resolved.

You do seem to get a different answer to the same question depending on who you ask in DIUS, yet they say that the answers are the same and everyone is in agreement. I must be missing something there, but inspection of the transcript sheds no further light. Baffling!

Anyway, Paul Drayson wrote an opinion piece for the Guardian, 'Built on Brainpower', which led to a very noteworthy letter from Professor George Efstathiou in response. I reproduce said letter below:

Lord Drayson argues that the government is committed to funding curiosity-driven research. He needs to talk to the chairman (Peter Warry) and chief executive (Keith Mason) of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Their message, both to me in person and to the scientific community, has been unambiguous - the government, and the Treasury in particular, are interested only in new projects that have direct economic impact. It doesn't matter if we have the greatest ideas for projects to study the big bang or the properties of fundamental particles; these will fall on deaf ears unless we can articulate clearly the resulting "economic benefits".

Lord Drayson needs to tackle this evident lack of communication between government and the research councils.
Professor George Efstathiou
University of Cambridge


There is a clear and continuing problem with science in the UK and it stems from the communication from government, through the upper reaches of DIUS to the interaction with the research council and thence to the scientific community.

Hostility that exists toward the whole circus surrounding 'economic impact' is not just because academics live in their ivory towers and want to be left alone (some do - not all), it is because we constantly get mixed messages about how EI should or does work in terms of effects on funding decisions. Until there is an effort for everyone to get 'on-message' (whatever that message might be) then confusion and distrust will continue. I am far from convinced the the current STFC CEO is capable of ending this distrust as I am not convinced that he knows what the government really wants even as he itches to enact their decisions.

There is nothing you can do when you are next in line...

Since my last post there has been a push from European scientists for Austria to reverse its decision to pull out of CERN. Indeed this seems to have worked and Austria are now back in.

What is interesting is that there does seem to have been a worry about a possible domino effect. Reassuring words from our very own STFC:

A spokeswoman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council said: "The STFC, on behalf of the UK, has no plans to pull out of Cern."

I do actually believe them. It makes little sense for the UK to pull out of CERN at the moment, but then I'm not convinced that 'sense' has any place in decision making. I still think that the particle physicists need to be (and I am sure that they are) looking ahead to a couple of years down the line when pulling out of CERN may look more attractive to STFC.


Of course, little alarm bells in the cynical portion of my brain go off when I see phrases like
'has no plans'
This is a beautiful weasel phrase employed by politicians down the ages. It means nothing.

"Today we have no plans to do X", yet tomorrow we find that X is done. Just because you do not plan to do something, it does not mean that plans cannot be drawn up and something done. Must respond to the changing landscape you know.

So if ever you hear or read , "we have no plans to..." don't get too comfortable.



ps. bonus points for getting the reference in the title.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

One data point does not make a trend

... but if one thinks about the context it can make one nervous that it could be the start of one.

h/t telescoper

Austria has announced that it is pulling out of CERN. This will lead to an increase in costs for the remaining members, not much in the great scheme of things but in a time of financial difficulty it will be a bit of a blow in some areas.

If I were a particle physicist in the UK I would be getting nervous now. Government wants more return on its science spending and the Research Councils, rather than operating at arms-length from government (see this article) are bending over backwards to accomodate wishes. We can debate the role of RCUK until the cows come home but the fact of the matter is (whether we like it or not and Haldane be damned) they are now a defacto branch of government and strongly subject to policy decisions. One such decision is the need to see economic impact.

Now I am sure the PP folks have many excellent examples of how their work influences the economy, but they have to be careful in considering whether such things benefit the UK economy. There is a focus on UK leadership as a requirement for funding how does this translate to projects like CERN?

It is not outside the realms of possibility that some might see CERN as a luxury in these times and Austria's pull-out as a clarion call.

[UPDATE: Do I think that the UK will rush to pull out of CERN? No. Do I think that Austria's pull out has got some people thinking? Yes. Do I think that said people would push for a CERN pull-out? No. At least not until someone else folds out.]

In general I fear that if we do not progress carefully in terms of science policy we will in fact not be progressing at all.

[UPDATE: The thing that sets alarm bells ringing in my head is Austria's rationale for pulling out. I actually understand why they are doing so given the figures involved (70% of their international science budget) and their desire to be involved in other projects. The thing is that here in the UK we hear that we should do less things, but do them better. At the same time there is a drive towards specific areas of scientific inquiry (driven by government policy). Factor in that the science minister has been talking up space as the next big thing for the UK and one starts to wonder what the new big science questions will be...]

Woohoo!

Women 'fight off disease better'

so says the BBC.

Hurrah, Man flu is not all in the head, we can't help it because we are simply the weaker sex!

My ego will take that as a result if it means an extra day moping about the house without having to do work.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Too busy

... to blog.

There is lots I want to talk about from the exciting new Formula 1 season, through the joys of new fatherhood to the great debate over science research and economic impact.

Unfortunately (and somewhat ironically given the name of this blog) the real world keeps intervening.

Recently I go home each evening and get to spend a couple of hours playing with my daughter before her bedtime. Then I might watch some TV or, more often than not, crack open the laptop and get on with some more work. Not much time for sharing my all important opinion on things with the rest of the interwebs.

Not complaining, you understand, just explaining. Busy, busy, busy.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Who ate my snark???

I finally write two blog posts tonight following days of inactivity and they both disappear! Both were inspired by this article in New Scientist.

The first was a beautiful piece of snark aimed at the idiocy of the decisions of our favourite CEO of a research council (remember peer-review advises it doesn't decide) whilst the other was a discussion of the issues raised in the article.

The first appears and sits on top of the blog right up until I hit post for the second. Then everything goes screwy and both are gone next time I load up the page!

Hey-ho.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Boost for science

I take it all back they clearly know what they are doing!

It is great to see that DIUS is attempting to follow the path that Obama has laid down. They are certainly tackling my fear that current plans are a zero-sum game; a £1bn boost to science spending would alleviate this worry significantly.

It's up to the treasury now. It will be interesting to see whether they think that science is as good an investment as toxic debt generated by irresponsible bankers.

Monday, March 16, 2009

The great debate

I said in my earlier post that I support the debate over the future of research in the UK and I thought I would clarify. I think scientific research has a role to play in driving the economy, a big role, in fact. I also said that I was worried about the government's plans, mostly that they don't really have any, and what they do have is ill thought through.

I know, I know, they are only consulting at this time, but the rhetoric from Denham and others is such as to make one wonder.

Today, scientists are being told that they have to identify the economic impact of their work. Every grant application has a section devoted to economic impact. This has been viewed with scorn in some quarters. Distinguished scientists have called for a modest-revolt against this practice, especially since the economic impact statement has no teeth (the statement is not considered in the funding process). I'm not sure what the worth of these compulsory plans is beyond adding to the red-tape and bureaucracy that scientists find themselves plunged ever deeper into. The idea of a revolt has been challenged:

But he[Denham] criticised recent suggestions from researchers that they should refuse in principle to describe the relevance of their research.

"It can't be right to expect billions of pounds of funding and then systematically deny the taxpayer any insight into its potential applications to the economy, public policy or popular understanding," he said.

I fear that the secretary of state is missing the point, and is quite frankly attempting to score points by turning those who oppose the idea of 'economic impact' into the enemy. Cheap rhetorical tricks abound in the paragraph above.

Sometimes with scientific ideas and research it is quite clear how it could lead to something of economic or societal worth. Other times it is far less clear, yet ten or twenty years down the line ideas come into their own and their worth becomes apparent.

If something has clearly identifiable benefits in the short term then by all means the mechanisms should be in place to encourage the researchers to pursue those impacts. However, to force all applicants to create an economic impact statement is not efficient and, dare I say, not particularly economical.

One also has to consider that some ideas on their own will never result in an economical benefit, does that mean that they should not be funded? What about the greater advance of human knowledge, or are we no longer concerned about the cornerstones of civilization? How about if some aspect of some obscure piece of research, when combined with a number of other equally obscure things results in a revoltionary discovery?

This drive towards economic impact is essentially asking scientists to predict the future - has anyone ever seens some of those old clips where they attempted to do this? Where is my personal jet-pack?!?

The government maintains that blue-skies research will not be damaged and will be supported since a broad-base is still required, but in the next breath they speak of 'finite budgets'. Regardless of MP Ian Taylor's (of the opposition!) protestations to the contrary this most certainly is a zero-sum game. If funding is focused on some areas it needs to be de-focused from others.

Unless the government fancies printing some more money.

What concerns me most is that the government is acting like it is grasping at straws. To a casual observer it looks as if they have grasped the fundamental point that science is a good thing and have decided to run with it, but have not really looked where they are running.

An uncharitable observer might suggest that the government is desperate for something to pull them out of the economic hole that their bliond faith in the city has dropped us into. Science fits the bill since, to their credit, they have been pumping money into the system for many years now. But they seem to want pay-back now without realising that science cannot work that way in all quarters. They have to accept that the benefits of some of the science they funded will not show through until successive (and unlikely to be Labour) governments. Investment in science pays off for everyone in the longterm and is unlikely to bring short-term political benefits to the investing party.

If the government cocks this up then they could put UK science back in a time of growing international competition. Do they really want to screw up (yet again)? If not they need to tread a lot more carefully than they have been doing and they have to be clear about what they really want from science, otherwise I wonder how big a constituency scientists make in the next general election...

Watching the Watch-dog

Am watching the IUSS committee evidence session on "Putting science and engineering at the heart of Government policy"

The key question at the start of the session aimed to discover what the current debate really is about. Is it:

1) should we restructure UK science funding to target or focus research into key areas of benefit to the economy?

or

2) having decided to target research what areas should we choose to target?


Adrian Smith (Director General of Science and Research, DIUS) stated that it was clearly 1.

This was all well and good until it was pointed out that John Denham made a speech that said it was not a case of if but of what we should target.

Quite frankly this whole thing is puzzling and disturbing in equal measure. Although I support debate over the future of UK research and how it can help shape the future economy, I am far from convinced that the UK government really knows what it wants. The testimony of Professor Smith did nothing to re-assure me.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Weighing the evidence

Now that the transcript for the recent IUSS evidence session with embattled STFC CEO Keith Mason is available (h/t Paul) it is the perfect opportunity for a rant discussion about one aspect.

From the transcript, following Question 115 (excerpted, and highlighted by me):

Professor Mason: The STFC has been quite consistent on this. It sees eMerlin as a strategic link to the SKA which is one of our highest priority items. There was a lot of concern about Jodrell Bank because of advice we received from our scientific peer review committee on eMerlin. That looked at eMerlin as an isolated project which was running late and had problems, whereas the council was looking at a strategic plan...

Q116 Graham Stringer: Let me make sure I have understood that. The funding for Jodrell Bank and some of the funding for eMerlin was going to be stopped because of the peer review, but you overrode that because you thought this was a pathway to SKA?

Professor Mason: That is in a sense correct. Peer review advises; it does not decide, but it was one of the factors that went into the equatio


Now, I can recognise the sense in what KM says, SKA is a strategic (though as of yet we have no declared science strategy... - ed.) goal and e-Merlin leads directly towards it, therefore overriding the concerns of PPAN in that case may not be unreasonable. However, it makes one start to doubt (start to doubt??? - ed.) the worth of a programmatic review carried out by people without full awareness of the strategic worth of the facilities they are considering and the importance of not looking at things in isolation.

Did PPAN look at all projects in isolation? What about the potential issue that other projects were similarly looked at in isolation rather than as part of a bigger picture?

What about EISCAT being important for EISCAT 3-D, a new generation radar with lots of positive noises in Europe? In fact it is on the ESFRI roadmap, something STFC never even bragged about even though RAL were heavily involved in the design stage. STFC declined to put out a press release even though it was a positive story of work done by their own staff, why? I can only suppose that they had their reasons.

However, EISCAT isn't really the issue; given the limitations of the programmatic review (isn't that a misnomer then -ed.) outlined by Keith, did the original programmatic review labour under the same problems - looking at things in isolation without reference to the interconnectedness of things?

It was in that review that the decision to remove the STP national facilities was taken. Keith would have you believe that it was decided to close them all down but EISCAT funding was secured (we had just signed up to the new deal - you know, the one Keith doesn't understand). the only PPARC documentation of that time points out the desire to retain a capability in ground-based STP.

Plus, and here is the kick in the nuts, those institutes that ran the national facilities were encouraged to bid for funding for them in their next rolling grant applications - one of them (at least) even got bridging funds to cover the time between NF funding disappearing and the presumed start of the next roll. In between that time the notorious strategy delivery plan was released and all went to pot, past suggestions were meaningless.

My rambling point here is: did that review consider the instruments in isolation or did it consider the fact that their effectiveness was increased together, in particular when combined with space mission data such as from Cluster? We would know if we saw the related documentation, but we haven't (even after MIST council put in a request -ed.) and quite frankly I don't think it even exists.

Hey ho.

/rant over

Thursday, February 05, 2009

More evidence...

As you may know, embattled STFC CEO Keith Mason was grilled by the IUSS select committee on the 4th. It can be viewed here.

Hopefully I will have some comments to follow (child allowing) but for the moment I offer my first impressions:

  • the committee is still very interested in what went on and what is going on
  • the committtee do not seem to have a very high opinion of STFC
  • Keith seemed defensive from the word go (understandably perhaps)
  • the committee thinks the review of STFC was a whitewash
  • the committee is very distrustful of STFC's ability to communicate
  • Keith has an annoying habit of avoiding questions by twisting them so that they sound like attacks on the integrity or intelligence of others
  • Keith does not realise how really bad it sounds when he says how 'relaxed' he is about things
  • Keith did say one good thing - he highlighted the danger of directed research at the cost of basic research, it almost sounded like a defence of his old discipline. Novel.

EISCAT on the Beeb

This week the Sky at Night focused on the Northern Lights.

Chris Lintott travelled to the EISCAT facility in Tromsø, a place I know well, and met a couple of scientists, one of them being a professor from Lancaster University in the UK, who was up there on an experimental campaign.

The show originally aired on BBC4 on Monday and there are 4 days left to watch it on the iPlayer. It will also be shown on BBC1 on the 9th (times vary by country). Obviously I am biased but I think it is well worth a view.

In the studio Patrick was talking to Tony van Eyken (former EISCAT director) and Chris Davis (heavily involved in the very cool STEREO spacecraft). Chris showed that there was actually a CME recently, a nice thing to see in this minimum. In addition they pointed out how important this sort of science is for exploration of other planets - even Mars which only has crustal fields!

Tony pointed out that we understand the aurora in general terms but we don't understand the highly important fine detail and complexity. I suspect that is why some STP folk get accused of doing 'more of the same', folk don't realise that finer and more detailed observations throw up new and unexpected processes that operate.

The nice thing about instruments like EISCAT is that we can get a good, close-up look at these rapidly time-varying phenemona and start to understand how these processes work and that gives us a valuable insight into the things that happen on other planets, in the solar wind or even on stars.