Archive for the ‘STFC’ Category

Blood on the Floor for UK Physicists

December 16, 2009

The irony of the first Herschel science results coming out on the same day that STFC wields the hatchet. There are limbs lopped off all over the place, either immediately or in the near future. UKIRT, the world’s first infrared optimized telescope and a workhorse of UK astronomy for decades, is to go. We’re to leave Gemini and the ING telescopes on La Palma by 2012. We’re withdrawing from XMM-Newton, Cassini, SOHO, Cluster and much more. The headline list is available here and the full rankings can be found here. For those of you interested in Herschel and Planck, you’ll be pleased to know that these projects are safe, but followup observations of Herschel sources will be more difficult with fewer observatories on the ground available to us.

But the underlying message, and the real damage, comes in the cuts to postdoc and fellowship grants. Facilities like UKIRT and Herschel don’t do science, people do, and the UK will have fewer physicists as a result of these cuts. The 25% cut to fellowships gives an indication of what STFC and, by implication, their political masters, thinks should be the size of the UK astrophysics and particle physics community.

We’re always told that we are rewarded for success, in terms of funding. UK astrophysics is second only in the world to US in terms of scientific output and impact. We do this on much less money than the US. And what is our reward for this success? Cuts.

Thank you HMG. Your efforts to make the UK the best place in the world to do science are in tatters.

So here it is… Physics Doomsday

December 16, 2009

2pm GMT is when STFC will announce its prioritised programme in astrophysics, particle and nuclear physics. What this effectively means, since they need to find ~£70M in cuts, is that this will be a cut list. By then end of today there will be far fewer projects in these fields, and probably far fewer people with jobs in them.

STFC is calling this exercise ‘Investing in the Future’ because they have to keep their political masters happy and because the people in charge haven’t got the backbone to admit the whole thing is cocked up. Keith Mason, the Chief Executive and an ex-X-ray astronomer (I can’t see any university department wanting to have him back), especially has been wholly craven in his stance on these cuts, going so far as to say this tis is good for the affected fields. I know the first job at STFC that I’d cut.

There is more discussion of today’s devastation in blogs and newspapers.

It is especially ironic that this is all happening on the same day that Herschel will announce its first full scientific results. Herschel has been an astounding success for UK science, both because the UK is the world leader in far-IR/submm astronomy, but also because we’ve led the construction of the SPIRE instrument which is performing superbly. But it is far from certain that the UK Herschel programme is going to survive today.

Those of you with twitter accounts might like to express your opinions on this issue, using the hashtag #stfc and with tweets directed at the science minister @lorddrayson

Doomsday Approaches

December 14, 2009

The funding axe is about to arrive in the UK. STFC council will meet tomorrow to approve the plans, with the details coming out on Wednesday afternoon.

Further discussion available here, here, and here.

There’ll also be a major Herschel press briefing on Wednesday afternoon. We’ll try to cover that here, but I hope you’ll understand if we’re a bit distracted by news about the cuts.

News and more news…

December 11, 2009

Next week will see the first science releases from Herschel at a big ESA press and science event in Madrid. There will be lots of exciting new science results and some stunning new images to look at. We’ll do our best to cover things here, but also look at all the other usual sources of information like ESA, the BBC and Cardiff’s SPIRE webpages.

Meanwhile, on a more local, UK scale, we’re having a week of ups and downs. Wednesday’s ‘pre-budget report’ announced £600 Million of cuts to ‘higher education, science and research budgets’ which is going to be really painful for the UK academic community. Late yesterday some possibly better news came in with the announcement of the formation of a UK space agency. It’s unclear what form this agency will take, how it will be funded or what it will spend its money on, but it is clear that Space in general is getting a higher profile in government than it has previously had, and its contribution to the UK economy is at last being recognised.

Elsewhere, there are some great new images from UK’s new VISTA telescope, and the launch of the WISE infrared survey satellite is eagerly awaited.

At least someone likes us…

October 1, 2009

Media support from at least one quarter for pure research over the increasing tendency to divert blue skies research money to areas deemed to be more immediately of economic benefit.

Of course ElReg’s tone is always irreverent and more than a little hyper, but in this case their heart is in the right place and they’re making some telling points.

ETA: If you’re in the UK and would like to express an opinion about these funding changes you can use WriteToThem to send a message to your MP.

Funding crisis confirmed

October 1, 2009

Thanks to comments on the e-Astronomer’s blog we now have confirmation of a funding crisis in 2010-2011 for the UK astronomy and particle physics communities.

‘…there is indeed a looming deficit of circa £ 40M for 2010/11, due largely to increases in major international subscriptions as a result of exchange rate fluctuations. Over the last year alone the subs to ESA went up by £17M and CERN by £5M. DIUS has helped out for the last 2 years but nearly half of their £90M subsidy was in the form of a loan, to be repaid (presumably to BIS) in 2010/11’ said Paul Crowther.

[This would suggest that it’s in our interests to campaign for the UK to join the Euro]

There was a further, even more worrying comment from Richard Wade:

‘…the real concern, that has lead to the current restriction on grants, is the future of public spending… the focus of the current prioritisation exercise is not just on balancing the books for next year but more importantly on preparing for likely tough decisions as public spending is squeezed.’

While this isn’t unexpected, it is rather galling that this comes up in the same week that it’s revealed that the UK Home Office is wasting money on a scientifically flawed DNA-based race profiling system and the Ministry of Defense is spending four times as much money per flying hour to keep its aging Puma fleet on life support than a proper replacement would cost. It’s also worth noting that the entire STFC funding debacle for the last two years, including this latest installment, amounts to less than the price of two Eurofighters.

It seems that if you’re pandering to the xenophobic paranoia of the Daily Mail readers or propping up lame duck industries rather than saving soldiers’ lives in Afghanistan, then the coffers are open. If you’re trying to find out how the universe really works then you can’t even have the funding equivalent of scraps off the table.

And now I’ve got that off my chest, I return you to your normally scheduled news about Herschel…

Another UK Astronomy Funding Crisis?

September 30, 2009

Rumours are coming in to the effect that the UK research council that funds astronomy, the STFC, is in the throes of a further funding crisis.

The full and sorry story of the STFCs financial woes, which go back to its formation from the amalgamation of PPARC (who used to fund astrophysics and particle physics in the UK) and the CCLRC (the ‘large labs’ funding council in the UK, looking after Daresbury, Rutherford and Diamond) can be found in great detail here. It had looked as if things were calming down, though we were all rather worried about the current reviews underway on both astronomy facilities and research areas. Worries were heightened today with the following news from STFC:

‘STFC Council policy on grants

STFC Council examined progress of its current science and technology prioritisation exercise at a strategy session on 21 and 22 September. Without prejudging the outcome of the prioritisation, Council agreed that prudent financial management required a re-examination of upcoming grants.

Council therefore agreed that new grants will be issued only to October 2010 in the first instance. This temporary policy is in place pending the outcome of the prioritisation exercise, expected in the New Year.’

From STFC.

This suggests that the current money shortages are so severe that the reviews will lead to substantial changes in priorities, possibly with significant areas of research being cut. Any grants from the current application round, already nearing completion, will not reflect these cuts so, without some way of keeping those grants short term, as was announced today, there is the risk of ‘sending good money after bad’.

One might think that this is a rather paranoid interpretation, but there are other rumours circulating of budget holes at STFC in the tens of millions. Again.

The short term exploitation of Herschel data in the UK is probably safe, but the long term prospects for astronomy don’t look so good this evening…

Meanwhile, there should be another press release from Herschel soon, so I can return you to pretty pictures rather than depressing news.