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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.