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Friday, December 18, 2009

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.

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