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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

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