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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  • a 10% cut on research grants, that I assume falls AFTER those proposals that depend on withdrawn facilities are culled.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.

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