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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).

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