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Sunday, December 20, 2009

Post-mortem III Nuclear

A quick one.

I feel very sorry for the nuclear community. They came into STFC and have taken a hell of a beating for their trouble. What's worse is the comments from STFC that we don't need these types of nuclear scientists; how daft is it to talk down an area of science within your own remit? That's going to make life easy when bidding for cash at the next CSR isn't it?

There is a sense of deja-vu here.

If you compare what has happened to nuclear with what was done to STP you see a pattern emerging. It is as if STFC does not know how to deal with small communities - everything gets tensioned against everything else and the small players get hit the hardest. There is no regard for national capability (at least from the outside looking in).

Is this a direct result of the dire lack of strategy at STFC? When some young STP scientists visited Keith Mason after the PPARC programmatic review they came away with the answer that PPARC had no public strategy (but got the impression that a strategy existed in the CEO's mind); this has carried over into STFC which is a general hodge-podge of different sciences and facilities.

Is this lack of strategy one of the major failings of STFC? A colleague termed the way STFC handles small communities a 'failure of process'.

Any approach to try and fix STFC has to take this lack of clear strategy seriously. We all want to do good science but there must be some mechanism in place which stops larger disciplines inadvertently killing smaller ones, particularly when those small areas may be of important strategic value to the UK.

This is not code for 'impact', I'd argue that astronomy has important value to the UK, as does particle physics.

It's not special pleading for a particular area, its asking for due consideration of the fall-out of tensioning whopping great science areas against much smaller ones and then letting the dice fall wherever.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Post-Mortem II - consultation

'A Farce',
'A con',
'Massive waste of time and effort'

Just 3 terms I have heard (or seen) used to describe the latest STFC reprioritisation exercise.

The rumour mill is already grinding and it is not clear at all yet what is true, what is false and what is false but with a grain of truth.

One rumour that is fast spreading is that PPAN ignored most (if not all) of the advice from the advisory panels and just went their own way. They didn't even bother to re-look at the prioritisation from the last programmatic review - a process that still leaves a bitter taste in many mouths, not least as the community had little input and very little faith in the process.

What was the point of this consultation if it did not address the underlying flaws in the previous debacle???

Well, first of all it is far from clear that PPAN ignored the advice of the panels and that they did not re-assess past rankings. In fact there is some demonstrable evidence that some rankings from the past have changed (e.g. Venus Express is just one example, check out the list for yourself and compare with the old version).

The rumour might have been started from PPAN themselves, who released a statement on the STFC website that said:
At its meeting on 28th and 29th September 2009, PPAN developed a preliminary prioritised list of projects for those not considered in the 2007 / 08 Programmatic Review.
At first reading this looks like an admission that PPAN did not reconsider or revisit the programmatic review in light of the wide and, supposedly, thorough community consultation. However Jon Butterworth (member of PPAN) told me via Twitter that PPAN did relook at the old list and pointed to several changes (inc Venus Express) that were made.

Furthermore, PPAN will soon be releasing a report detailing how they reached their recommendations and how the advisory panel advice was incorporated.

I await this with interest and I'm keeping my powder dry concerning the consultation until I see that document. I'd like to be re-assured that it was the science questions formulated by the panels that drove their recommendations rather than the facilities themselves (a perceived flaw in both the PPARC and STFC programmatic reviews: facilities leading the science) and how they reconcile the rankings they came up with to the rankings in the panels advice.

I am also keen to hear from the chairs of the advisory panels to get their perspective of the discussions with PPAN and what they thought of the process. Beyond that the Science Board perspective would also be very welcome.

It is very early days to give a ringing endorsement of how STFC has done consultation, anyone who does is jumping the gun a wee bit. At the same time it is a little early to make claims that the process was flawed, even though my own untrusting nature makes me fear that it was (a problem that will persist until the current management is removed and the CEO's 'vision' is kicked into touch)

If it turns out it was flawed, well I think the shit will well and truly hit the fan then and I'll be doing my fair share of flinging.


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.

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.

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The end is nigh

So today we hear the result of the STFC prioritisation.

Some rumours have started to leak out since STFC has been calling around some PIs to tell them how stuffed they might be. Confirmed is the final demise of Clover - Cardiff's bid to get it revived was summarily dismissed. Rumour has it that both LHCb and ALICE are for the chop but that is unconfirmed as of yet.

Its likely to be bleak. Peter Coles is keeping a running blog post about it and I suspect that #stfc will be a trending topic today on Twitter.

Brian Cox was on the BBC Daily Politics programme today and did a sterling job here and here.

The problem is that there is no money. Even if Lord Drayson appreciated the problem there is little he can do about it right now - the Treasury is unlikely to fling even £10m our way. This cock-up preceded the economic crisis and any hopes of fixing it have been dashed by our banking friends who have sucked up any spare money that might have been lying around.

Impact

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to see two talks on impact from two funding agencies: EPSRC (for RCUK) and HEFCE.

Sadly the first did little to inspire me with confidence, despite the efforts of the speaker.

A key thrust of the presentation was that RCUK does not want us to predict the future (no fortune telling) rather they just want us to spend some time thinking about what the potential impacts might be and how we would go about developing them. So far, so good.

Unfortunately I got the impression (as did some others I spoke to) that they did want us to try to predict the future. In fact the overall impression I took from the talk was that RCUK still doesn't really know what it wants in terms of 'impact'. This was a view shared by several at the meeting. Perhaps this is unfair but I should point out that I am not as hostile to the whole impact idea as others and so this view is not based on a prejudiced view of impact statements. Also the EPSRC rep did state that they would not hold us to the statements we produce - they expect things to evolve and change just as scientific enquiry does - a fair point but then I have to wonder about the worth of the impact statements.

The talk from HEFCE was more encouraging and was dominated by a single theme: "we don't really know how its going to work, we are going to try this in the pilot scheme and see how it goes." I found this incredibly refreshing and encouraging and I left the talk feeling optimistic that they might just get it right. Of course they have a loooong way to go and they really need to get more feedback but at least they are thinking that. I still worry that too much emphasis is going to be placed on the nebulous idea of impact and a lot will depend on their final weightings for the importance of impact in teh overall assessment.

My personal view is that considering impact is not a bad idea. I have recently filled in an impact plan for a grant application. It certainly allowed me to consider ways in which I could spread the word about the science I would do and beg for money to help do that - this is especially useful if you think of the outreach side of impact.

But I am still uneasy about the whole impact agenda, it still feels wrong, like some slowly creeping doom; the thin end of the wedge, perhaps.

I wonder whether they have got things arse about face. Surely the best time to consider potential impact is AFTER the work has been done. If a clear possibility for spin-out, or whatever, can then be identified perhaps there should be a seperate pot of money to support that development.

Here is an embryo of an idea:

If a piece of work has an excellent impact plan but fails to get funding because it was up against better blues skies research that proposal should be made available to other potential funders UK or European industry, relevant government departments, etc. If they think it is worth doing for the possible economic impact then they can fund the research to the levels requested plus develop a strategy for translating the product to the marketplace or whatever. This way we maximise obvious and immediate impact without impacting blue skies research that could yield something in the long term.

Considering the impact that your work might have is not such a bad thing but let us be very clear that this will not and never can influence whether we fund a project from a science budget that is dedicated to blue skies research. To do otherwise is madness and societal suicide.

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).

Investing in the future...

STFC: investing in the future 2010-15

That's the start of the spin that STFC is going to give tomorrow's press conference announcing the results of the prioritisation. Of course STFC has form with spinning bad news and to be fair they are hardly going to say how awful it might be. I say might because we don't know what is going to be announced.

By now the council has met and okayed some plan for STFC to pursue some science and balance the budget it has. We mere mortals have no idea what is going to be announced - maybe it will be good news, maybe it will be bad. Chances are that unless the government has managed to dig extra cash out from behind the sofa cushions the news will be bad. Very bad.

Those who read this blog regularly will know the back history. For those that don't, have a look here, here and for a nice summary here.

The cuts in research support that STFC have already implemented (25% reduction in each grants round) have gone no way to plugging the hole in the budget first highlighted two years ago. It's funny to think how angry I was that December, sat in Norway on an experimental campaign, when I saw the ill-advised STFC strategy delivery plan. It's not funny that this whole farago is still going on and getting worse.

For a discussion of what might might be you can look at Andy Lawrence's blog (new chair of AGP - more fool him), Peter Cole's blog or follow the discussion on Twitter.

To get a real feeling for how the community feels about this, then I suggest reading this blog post. It says what I want to say but says it better.

I hope that when the announcement comes tomorrow the particle physicists, astronomers, nuclear physicists and space scientists all stand together and don't start to squabble, that would only make Keith smile.