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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Apocalypse Soon*

Following my last post I thought it worth drawing attention to what is perhaps the most important set of slides presented at the Astronomy Forum.

Prof. Mike Cruise is the chair of the Astronomy Grants Panel; his panel has the job of sifting through the many applications for standard and rolling grants and deciding who gets funding. Since the funding crisis began it has been a thankless task - they have had to wield the axe for the decisions made higher up.

The slides that Mike presented tell a hideous story of decline since STFC became the steward and custodian of astronomy and space science. The poor settlement in CSR07 had led to a 25% cut in grants awarded in the past two years (not to mention facilities targeted for slicing in the programmatic review), sadly this was not enough to cover the shortfall (£80m in 2007) leading to a need for deeper cuts now.

I don't need to cover old ground about the projects and facilities that are going to be axed but it is very much worth examining the fall-out at the coal-face.

According to AGP they were expecting to fund a total of 90 posts this round (there is only one round per year at STFC). In total they received requests for 151 posts from 84 standard grants and 20 rolling grants and expected to fund 14 posts for the standards and 76 for the rollers.
[CORRECTION: It has been pointed out in comments that Mike's slides probably mean that there were 151 posts requested for the rolling grants alone PLUS an assumed 84 posts on the standard grants]

Remember this already includes the 25% cut that had occurred in the previous two years. Also remember that the advisory panels all said that protecting grants and fellowships was the highest priority and this recommendation was disregarded.

On January 12th AGP learnt that the actual target number of posts was possibly reduced to 75 and could be as low as 56 in future rounds. This has a major bearing on the amount they can fund:
75 posts = 12 standard and 14 rolling grants
56 posts = 10 standard and 7 rolling grants (from 84 and 20 applications respectively)

This is a disastrous state of affairs.

Mike very wisely pointed out that the facilities that we now have owe their existence to the kinds of groups whose support would disappear at the proposed levels. This includes, of course the technical capability to build and any potential technological improvements that might spin from them.

A comparison of the past and future is quite chilling (slide 6). We will lose coherency, international leadership, technical experience and knowledge exchange, stability (required to get support from Universities).

We will have a community of independent academics who may get one or two grants in their whole career. With no stability how can we see any long-term projects through to fruition?

What the STFC chair and CEO thought about this I don't know. Rumour has it that Prof. Mason thought it was acceptable since 56 PDRA's per year represents a programme. To find out we will have to wait until the minutes of the forum become available.

Of course this has an important impact on any move now to 'fix' STFC. Lord Drayson has stepped up to the plate and is reviewing the structural problems that afflict STFC. Whatever fix he comes up with will occur quickly (end of February) but its important to make sure that we do not just end up with a new mess in a new form.

From Mike's slides at the Astronomy Forum it becomes quite clear that a major danger is that astronomy and space science will be severely underfunded if the current cuts stand. If we move to EPSRC with the current funding then astronomy is stuffed; if we stay in STFC with the current funding with some sort of ring-fence we are stuffed (as that ring won't ever grow!).

The problem is I have no idea how to fix this; although Lord Drayson wants to fix the overall structural problem he cannot tell STFC to re-allocate the money they have as it will violate the Haldane principle. Well actually I suppose he can if he believes (and can show) that STFC has ignored community input, and the evidence is in the paper trail. He cannot provide additional money as I bet there isn't any, even though its a drop in the ocean compared to the overall government spend.

Frankly the decision lies in the hands of the STFC council (maybe the executive) and it is far from clear that they want to re balance the cuts or even register that this is a problem.

Particularly maddening is that last week RCUK released a report that showed that UK academic staff had risen by 14% between 2003/4 and 2007/8. Paul Crowther calculated that UK astronomy academics had increased by 12.6% (based on the PPARC/STFC studentship quota exercises) for the same period - not the 40% increase from 2005-2007 that Prof. Mason has quoted. Thus these cuts are massively disproportionate.

If a solution to this cannot be found, UK astronomy will indeed be facing an apocalypse. The sad thing is that I cannot see where a solution would come from.


It is important to note that this is just astronomy, it is not clear what the effects on grants will be for particle physics and nuclear physics but I strongly suspect it will be just as devastating.

* with thanks to Paul Crowther, who's Tweet inspired the title

Prioritisation - A doomed strategy

The astronomy forum was held on Friday with special guests from STFC. Being a minor player I was not there but word is spreading from folks who were about what went on. A rundown of the format can be viewed at Paul Crowther's website.

It was a game of two halfs: the first concentrated on the prioritisation exercise; the second emphasised the review of STFC structural issues that Lord Drayson has initiated. More on the latter soon, for now I want to concentrate on the former.

Several short presentations were given including a report of concerns from the NUAP community, the FUAP community and a big question about STFC's attitude to an area of their science.

The first and third of those I mention were linked. NUAP pointed out that a lot of effort went into the (science-driven) community consultation and the resultant strategy (which was quite excellent in my view) and prioritisation of what was needed to achieve this. Slide 3 is the kicker as it reveals the major discrepancies between the community-agreed recommendations and what PPAN actually recommended:

1) grants and fellowships muct be protected as teh highest priority
STFC has cut them

2) current in-situ space plasma facilities were of high priority for 3 of 7 highest priority questions
STFC is withdrawing support for them

3) High priority for access to a Northern hemisphere telescope to answer 2 high priority questions
STFC is closing them

4) AURORA/ExoMars judged to be of lower-middle priority for 1 high priority question
STFC is funding it

What STFC management replied to this I don't know exactly yet, but I hear that the words 'scientific excellence' were bandied around. That has become the phrase of choice for our dear CEO to hide behind; he seems to have finally cast off the 'it's your fault' mantra in favour of another pointless but pithy response.

The NUAP presentation ended by asking why these discrepancies occurred. Quite reasonably they want to know how PPAN used the NUAP document that took so many man-hours of effort to produce. They also want to know what PPAN's equivalent strategy is - I take that to mean they want to know how PPAN tensioned everything together (all inputs from advisory panels).

The other presentation was entitled: Is it STFC strategy to cease in situ space plasma science? I must point out this is of much interest to me; space plasma physics and solar terrestrual physics are massively intertwined - understanding the space plasma phenomena is essential to understanding how the Sun effects the Earth. That is why it has always been stupid to seperate ground and space based STP. Plus as you can see the space based side of things is now being cut massively (though STEREO thankfully persists).

The only insitu space plasma mission to survive is Rosetta and that is starting a 4 year hibernation. The pioneering Venus Express, Cluster and Cassini missions are all subject to a managed withdrawal.

Please bear in mind that these were important for answering 3 of the 7 highest priority questions
oulined by NUAP (point 2 above). In fact they were inportant for answering another of the questions that NUAP conceived in its strategy.

The consequences of this loss are painful beyond the loss of associated jobs and by removing these facilities no we are left with no capability in the next few years - an area of science will effectively start to dry up.

Technical competence will be lost and there will be no national capability (which is currently spread across several universities and labs) in space based measurement techniques.
The UK community will be severely damaged as a partner (the named missions had just been extended by ESA, something the UK had presumably agreed to late last year) and credibility for future initiatives (such as Solar orbiter, Cross Scale and EJSM which might be selected for launch from Cosmic Visions). Yet again the UK's ability to monitor, and more importantly to understand, space hazards is restricted.

So in answer to the question: Is it STFC strategy to cease in situ space plasma science? Keith Mason replied: 'No'.

Well, actions tend to speak louder than words. Plus it seems that earlier in the day the CEO had allegedly commented that in a declining budget we should be focusing on fewer subject areas - which to me sounds lik 'Yes!' This is a sentiment that he has expressed before; he has stated that we do too much exploitation and we need to scale it back. But then again this is the man who cannot tell the difference between 4% and 40% so take from that what you will.

So that brings me to my final point and the point of this rambling rant: Strategy.

STFC does not have a strategy.

All of these cuts are being undertaken with no strategy in mind.

The advisory panels provided strategies for their areas but it is far from clear that it was in PPAN's remit to consider their final prioritisation within the context of a science strategy. Hopefully the PPAN document that is due later this month will clarify this, but it seems as if PPAN were told to just tension everything together.

STFC CEO bandies around the phrase 'scientifc excellence' as some sort of protective device; a magic prophylactic that keeps him safe from the disease of criticism. Plus he thinks we should focus on fewer areas in a time of declining finances. On the face of it these seem reasonable until you actually stop and engage your brain for a second.

Scientific excellence is the only criteria required to determine which facilities we should keep and which we should close - well first of all who's subjective view of excellence are we talking about? Most of the NUAP community thought insitu space physics was excellent, yet PPAN and above clearly thought it was less excellent than other things. Not to mention the status of Aurora.

Okay but in ten years time, what if space plasma physics might be excellent compared to the other stuff that we are funding? Well its too late then because we no longer have a capability in that field - we will have closed the door because of a myopic vision of how STFC should respond to squeezed finances. I could be talking about any field here, Nuclear for example. This is what a strategy should help to prevent.

Pinning your science funding on just a few selected areas might work if your goal is to direct exactly what it is that people should be working on but is a route to catastrophic failure in terms of the evolution of scientific inquiry. It is an effective dead-end which will leave us behind the rest of the world (lets not get into the increased spending in the US and other places).

Scientific excellence is essential - we should not fund bum science just to keep things trundling along. But on the same score, one should not close down an excellent, productive, internationally recognised area of science because you feel that the programme needs more focus. Other research councils have both remit and strategy - its a sensible thing to do and it is appalling that STFC has made such far reaching and damaging decisions without the benefit of a strategy to guide them, especially after the advisory panels went to so much effort to create stratgies that could be merged.

Lack of a clear science strategy is dooming STFC science and sadly it is clear that although Lord Drayson wishes to fix some of the associated issues thsi will have no effect on the cuts that have already been announced.

They stand no matter how flawed the process was that got us there.