I am just back from STFC’s media event covering what did, in the end, turn out to be the discovery of a particle that appears to be the long-predicted Higgs boson, the last component in the Standard Model of Particle Physics to be discovered, and in many ways its linchpin.
Via a mechanism known as spontaneous symmetry breaking (first applied to so-called gauge theories of particle physics in a set of 1964 papers by Higgs himself, Imperial’s Tom Kibble with Guralnik and Hagen, as well as Brout and Englert) the Higgs couples to all of the other particles in the standard model, and gives them mass.
Suffice to say that the results so far, from the LHC experiments, ATLAS and CMS, are consistent with a Higgs with a mass of 125 GeV, interacting with other particles more or less as predicted (although only the couplings to photons and the Z boson have been strongly confirmed by the current measurements). The details have implications for any physics beyond the standard model, in particular for supersymmetry — the measurements already put tight constraints on the simplest such models. (The New York Times has a comprehensive overview, including a mention of the cosmological implications of the result; Sean Carroll has an expectedly excellent discussion of Higgs physics; Peter Coles quotes and comments on the CERN press release, and like him I will avoid mentioning the confusing frequentist statistics underlying today’s results. I’m sure a search will turn up dozens of more blogs and news articles.)
But for cosmologists, one of the most exciting things about the Higgs is that it seems to exist at all. The Higgs is a boson, which means that you can pack many of them into a single state, and therefore can be thought of as a field pervading all of space — photons, which make up the electromagnetic field, are also bosons. (This is in contrast to fermions, which cannot be brought into the same state and are thus more usefully thought of as individual particles of matter.) An even more precise categorisation of particles is via their spin: bosons can take on integer values (0, 1, 2, …) , and fermions half-integer values (1/2, 3/2, …). The known bosons, like the photons, have spin 1 and are known as vector particles. The Higgs, however, has spin 0, and is called a scalar.
Scalar fields are ubiquitous in cosmology: if they are roughly constant across space they act like a vacuum energy or cosmological constant, their (negative) pressure making the Universe accelerate in its expansion. They are therefore thought to be responsible for an early period of inflation, and possibly also for the recent domination of the Universe by dark energy. However, there have been longstanding questions about whether fundamental scalar particles can exist in quantum theories. The data are still consistent with alternative models (for example, the Higgs could be a tightly-bound pair of fermions). But if confirmed, the existence of the Higgs as a scalar particle encourages us cosmologists to continue our occasionally wild speculations on the properties of scalar fields, making the Universe accelerate at early times and again today.
Funding for space missions in the UK was split from the Science and Technology Facilities Council to the the UK Space Agency earlier this year. Very roughly, UKSA will fund the missions themselves all the way through to the processing of data, while STFC will fund the science that comes from analysing the data.
To try to be a little more specific, the agencies have put out a press release on this so-called “dual key” approach: “Who does what? — Arrangements for sharing responsibility for the science programme between the STFC and the UK Space Agency.” The executive summary is:
This still leaves many of the details of the split unanswered, or at least fuzzy: How do we ensure that government supports the two agencies adequately and jointly? How do we ensure that STFC supports science exploitation from missions that UKSA funds, so that the UK gets the full return on its investment? How do we define the split between “data analysis” and “science exploitation”?
Here at Imperial, we work on both sides of that divide for both Planck and Herschel: we are the home to data analysis centres for both missions, and want to take advantage of the resulting science opportunities. Indeed, as we take the Planck mission ahead towards its first cosmology results at the end of next year, we are already seeing some of these tensions played out, in both the decision-making process of each agency separately as well as in the overall level of funding available in these austere times.
These are intended to cover all of the astrophysics being done in the department for three years at a time, combining aspects of former so-called “standard” and “rolling” grants, both of which it replaces. (If you don’t know what those are, you probably don’t care.) It remains to be seen whether this new system ends up with the best or the worst of the two old ones, and whether it brings the promised economies of scale resulting from fewer, larger grants.
For us, at least, it’s more work for the first few years: we will complete our consolidation with the rest of our department in another application in only one year’s time.
We — the whole community — are worried by the changeover to a new system (and not only because we fear change). This happens now that the funding situation has stabilized after a few years of decline — down to a level about half of its 2006 maximum. Worse, a higher than average number of groups are applying this year. Will this be met with a proportionally higher allocation of funds? Or will groups just have to try again (as we are in a year)? John Womersley, Director of STFC Science Programmes answered some of these questions at the National Astronomy Meeting a few weeks ago, but the answers were, perhaps understandably, equivocal.
This was my first chance to be the Principal Investigator on a large grant proposal in the UK. All the usual problems with organizing a team of academic scientists apply: we’re bad at managing (at least, I am), we are bad at being managed, it’s like herding cats, etc. Still, we pulled together just in time, with the more-than-able help of various administrators who put up with our delays and last-minute changes.
And now, we wait…
I don’t suppose that there are many readers of this blog who are not aware of the Science Is Vital campaign for the support of UK science, but just in case: in response to the likelihood of continuing cuts to the UK science budget as spun by business secretary Vince Cable, we in the science community have begun to realize that the radio interviews and opinion pieces in more and less likely outlets may not be enough. Needless to say, blogs like this one (or even much more visible ones) tend to preach to the converted. Prompted in part by Evan Harris’ talk at Science Online 2010, many scientists and supporters of science realized that we need to talk directly to the people who actually hold the purse strings: Government and Parliament.
In particular, biologist, blogger, musician and novelist Jenny Rohn idly suggested doing something about it. As occasionally happens online, this struck a nerve, and Jenny very quickly found herself organizing something of a movement: Science Is Vital. Right now, the campaign is organizing four main activities:
- An online petition;
- A campaign to write letters to MPs;
- A rally outside of Parliament on 9 October; and
- Lobbying Parliament with a meeting on 12 October.
Nonetheless, here it seems more and more likely that we’ll have to deal with cuts of something like 15 percent to the overall science budget, and exactly how that plays out in the face of considerable fixed costs such as subscriptions to CERN and the European Space Agency is unknown (William Cullerne Bown at Research Fortnight has run the numbers for a variety of scenarios for enacting a nightmarish 30% cut. They are all miserable.) No matter what the level, one unintended consequence is likely: instead of the Government’s stated ambition of getting rid of the worst of British science (not that there is very much sub-par science being done here already), the Guardian article about the brain drain that may (will?) follow drastic cuts to science funding is already showing that the cuts may have an even worse effect, driving the best scientists out of Britain.
(Worse still, let’s not forget that this year’s yet-to-be proposed cuts are just the latest in an ongoing shrinking of the physical sciences budget, in particular, over the last few years, ever since the formation of the ill-starred STFC form the former PPARC and CCLRC councils, which began life with an £80 million budget shortfall.)
So, please, if you support science in the UK, sign the petition, attend the rally (unfortunately, I’ll be out of the country), and write your MP. For what it’s worth, here’s the letter I wrote to mine, Andy Slaughter (Labour, Hammersmith, London):
Dear Mr Slaughter,
I am one of your constituents, and am also a Professor of Physics at Imperial College.
You are probably aware that science funding has been under severe pressure for the last several years, first under the previous Labour government, and now, along with so much else, under the Coalition.
Science is crucial to the economic and social future of the UK. It would be devastating for the UK to give up its position as almost certainly the second most powerful country in the world, after only the USA, in higher education and scientific research. Even today (again, after several years of cuts to grants in the physical sciences), the vast majority (over 90%) of research funding goes to world-class scientists, as judged by the latest Research Assessment Exercise. It is impossible to cut this without reducing the amount of excellent research produced in the UK. Moreover, threats of such cuts are already making scientists consider their options — most other countries are increasing, rather than decreasing, their science budgets not despite but because of the economic downturn and growing deficits.
The evidence is clear that investing in research brings a range of economic and social benefits, and that severe cuts at the very moment that our competitor nations are investing more could jeopardize the future of UK science.
Hence, I am sure that you will take the opportunity in the coming weeks to
- sign EDM 767 – Science is Vital;
- join me in signing the Science is Vital petition; and
- attend a lobby in Parliament on 12 October (15.30, Committee Room 10).
The Science is Vital coalition, along with the Campaign for Science and Engineering, are calling upon the Government to set out a supportive strategy, including public investment goals above or at least in step with economic growth. Without such investment and commitment the UK risks its international reputation, its market share of high-tech manufacturing and services, the ability to respond to urgent and long-term national scientific challenges, and the economic recovery.
I look forward to hearing from you. Do not hesitate to contact me if you would like to discuss these matters.
Today was the next drip in the ongoing water torture that is the upshot of the government’s funding cuts on UK science: BIS Minister Vince Cable gave the coalition government’s first major speech on science. Rumors have been flying around of cuts of 20-30%, and we have been searching for any hints of the Government’s science strategy in advance of the comprehensive spending review next month. The two biggest questions have been the overall magnitude of the coming cuts, and how the remaining money would be allocated. Would “economic impact” trump scientific excellence, favoring subjects (irrespective of quality) that can be monetized in the short term over so-called blue-skies research?
Cable indeed highlighted the importance of impact, and eventually boiled down the government’s strategy to funding research that is either “commercially useful” or “theoretically outstanding”. In so doing, he mentioned that 54% of UK science researchers were rated “world class” in the last RAE, and, by implication, that the remaining 46% is in danger. Hearing this, any scientist who has ever evaluated grants for funding councils like STFC would be puzzled: over the last few years we can’t even afford to fund all of the excellent proposals, much less any that aren’t obviously world-class. Indeed: even leaving aside the clear discrepancies between fields in the ratings, what isn’t mentioned in the speech is that this 46% receives less than 10% of all research funding (from 2% to 7% depending on what gets counted as “research funding”). William Cullerne Bown speculates that Cable therefore meant we are in for a 2%-7% cut, which would be seen in the current climate as a huge victory for science (although may only be a precursor to further cuts, in any event). I am not so sure; if he is looking to make large savings in the BIS portfolio this is a good sound-bite to excuse swingeing science cuts. But I, along with almost everyone else, wait and hope.
Jenny Rohn suggests we do more than wait: that we march on Parliament. She has set up a Facebook page to organize the campaign, “Science is Vital”, putting into practice the ideas espoused by Evan Harris at last week’s Science Online 2010 conference and in the aftermath of today’s speech. As long as we can control the message, this can be effective — but we can’t be seen as merely defending our own turf or, what could be worse, as white-coated boffins waving our test tubes at MPs. This isn’t funny, and science needs to be seen, correctly, as vital to the health of the nation.
Peter Coles has blogged about his latest experiences on the UK Astronomy Grants Panel (chaired by Andy Lawrence), so I thought I’d mention that I’ve spent the last couple of days up in Glasgow, not attending the UK National Astronomy Meeting, but as a member of the Projects Peer Review Panel (PPRP). Our job is to review the requests from members of the UK astronomy particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy communities to get involved in large projects: telescopes, particle accelerators, facilities and satellites. We evaluate the proposals and make recommendations to the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN), who in turn make recommendations to STFC’s science board and Executive. Our recommendations and deliberations are secret, of course, but the projects we consider aren’t: this round, we heard from the UK branches of the Solar Orbiter, Euclid, and Plato satellite proposals, as well as from the GridPP computing facility that supports the LHC collider at CERN. Needless to say, the problem remains how to fund all (or at least some) of this excellent science in hard economic times.
Still, this is the only meeting that I’ve ever attended that was cut short due to volcanic ash over Britain — everyone flying out of Glasgow has been scrambling to find an alternative (I was the only one lucky enough to have already booked a leisurely train journey down the West Coast Main Line from Glasgow back into London).
Many different strands of the discussion of the UK science budget are coming together, starting with last week’s announcement of STFC’s restructuring. This week the Royal Society released its report, “The Scientific Century: securing our future prosperity”, arguing that this is a crucial time to emphasize and invest in science, rather than pull away from it. “Science is one of the jewels in our crown but it yields its dividends over decades.” (I believe that the US National Academy of Sciences has said similar things in the past, even more strongly, but I haven’t been able to find the appropriate document.) Even the Conservatives say they want to increase the science budget, endorsing a report from vacuum-cleaner entrepreneur James Dyson (although it is clear that they are even more focused on economic “impact” than Labour).
The parties also engaged in the continuing Science Debate (trending at #scivote on Twitter). Lord Drayson, the Science Minister, tweeted to Manchester Prof, ex-popstar and BBC presenter Brian Cox, who is becoming a very effective media spokesperson for science, “I believe that under Labour, the UK will be the best place in world to do science. Up to us to convince u during election.” I should also say that Drayson, although I don’t always agree with him or trust his electioneering promises, ought to be commended for his openness on Twitter and elsewhere. He is currently canvassing his Twitter followers for ideas for Labour’s “Science manifesto”. Remind him that blue-skies research (such as cosmology — full disclosure, I am not a disinterested observer) pays off — intellectually, culturally, and yes, maybe even financially, in the end.
The latest act in the black comedy which is the running of the Science and Technology Funding Council is being played out. The Science Minister, Lord Drayson (which sounds, with “science”, “minister” and “lord” all in one title, to my US ears more like a character from bad science fiction than an actual member of the Government) has announced “new arrangements” for STFC (press-release version here or here) . Basically, the government will try to insulate grant funding from two big sources of uncertainty. First, BIS would [attempt to] protect STFC from fluctuations in international currency rates which impact the cost in pounds sterling of being a member of international organizations like CERN, ESO and ESA (although the latter would eventually be moved into the nascent UK Space Agency). Second, the costs of running “our large domestic facilities, Diamond, the Central Laser Facility and ISIS” would be separated from the grants — the money for doing physics. This is crucial since these facilities actually don’t themselves do very much physics at all — rather, they use physics to probe the properties of matter in order to do biology, materials science, chemistry and more. So we physicists shouldn’t be saddled with the costs of running these machines.
Alas, these changes, although positive, may be too little, too late, despite the cliché. The amount of money available for grants still seems to remain significantly below the level of a few years ago. There may be perfectly reasonable arguments for decreasing the amount of physics being done in the UK, but we have not had them. Rather, this entire process began with the creation of the STFC, before the financial crisis, with what seemed at the time to be a toxic combination of mistakes and mismanagement. Since then, we’ve been fire-fighting, dealing with sharp cuts without being told about the long-term financial strategy. There have been several “consultation exercises” and “programmatic reviews” but in the curious we-don’t-talk-about-money way that seems to pervade the UK, the community was never really given enough financial information (which, as far as I can tell, should be absolutely all of it) to give truly useful input. Instead, the community just gives “peer review” of the science, but all of the real decisions are made by the so-called Executive — whom, in so doing, have utterly and completely lost the confidence of their community. Indeed, today’s changes, welcome though they may be, seem to have come not because of the Executive, but despite them.
[As usual, Paul Crowther is the best clearinghouse of information; Peter Coles has already weighed in with similar sentiments; and Roger Highfield of New Scientist takes a slightly more positive view, as does the BBC.]
I presume that anyone reading this blog knows that today is the day when the great unwashed masses of UK Astronomers heard about our financial fate from the STFC, the small arm of the UK government responsible for Astrophysics, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics.
For various reasons, some clear and others manifestly not, STFC is something like £70 million in the red. When all this started about two years ago, one of the main criticisms of the STFC management (beyond wondering how they could have got themselves — and us — into this predicament to begin with) was that they started to impose solutions that seemed to bear little resemblance to what the scientists themselves wanted. Trying to either genuinely ameliorate this, or at least give themselves good cover, they’ve spent much of the last year gathering input from various groups of physicists and astronomers, through a series of reports produced by scientist-led panels. These panels released their results this autumn, and STFC has supposedly used them to make decisions about the next five or so years of funding.
I was selfishly relieved to see that our work with the Planck Surveyor Satellite is rated “alpha 5”, and that our other local grants don’t appear directly affected (i.e., we weren’t drastically cut). However, STFC has “requested” (not sure what that means in this context) that even these projects reduce their costs by 15%. Other programs were not even this lucky — a not-quite-complete list of the cuts is on the STFC site. The cuts (a.k.a. “managed withdrawal”) include the UKIRT telescope, the LOFAR array, future work at the low-background facility at the Boulby mine, and future science exploitation of the XMM and Cassini missions (among many others). Alongside this, there will be a 25% cut in studentships and fellowships, although the details of this have not been revealed.
In his independent response, the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, says “we are investing record amounts into scientific research, but it is absolutely right that it is the scientists themselves, through the Research Councils, that decide how best to spend this money.” Of course we scientists don’t necessarily feel that our voices have been heard. The prioritized list of projects is available from STFC, and although it generally correlates with both the inputs from the various sub-panels and the financial outcome (in particular, many of us were pleased and relieved to see the much-criticised MoonLITE project at the bottom of the heap), there are some striking differences from at least my understanding of the panel recommendations, such as the “alpha 4” grade given to the Aurora human spaceflight program.
However, Drayson does seem to understand some of the issues: “…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.” Not sure what this means, but even if we are grasping at straws, it’s the only promising news of the day.
I’ve got 11 browser tabs open just to get myself up-to-date. Here are some of them:
- An excellent summary of the situation before the announcement is at To the Left of Centre.
- Paul Crowther’s page has become the canonical clearing-house for information on the astronomy side of the “STFC Funding Crisis”.
- Blogs from Andy Lawrence and Peter Coles are both well-wrought and likely feature commentary from the opinionated luminaries of UK astronomy.
- The Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society respond.
- The BBC talks about the cuts with Lord Drayson.
- Physics World summarizes the situation as “savage cuts”.
- Our US counterparts get in on the commentary at Science magazine.
- There’s a web campaign to help save astronomy in the UK.
While I’ve been galavanting across Europe and the USA, the ongoing UK science-funding crisis has entered a new, possibly even grimmer, phase. The STFC itself is so strapped for cash it will only be issuing grants lasting until October 2010, instead of the usual two or three years. This is rumored to be engendered by a new £40 million shortfall and related to the ongoing reviews of STFC science and facilities such as big telescopes and membership in international collaborations like CERN and the European Space Agency. The results of these reviews and consultations have started to come in, and they will be digested in a likely mysterious and political process to give the STFC executive
cover for its decisions input from the scientific community as it forms its strategy for the coming years.
Meanwhile, even those applying for these underfunded grants are being increasingly pressed to prove their economic worth, possibly over and above the scientific merit of their proposals. The Guardian discusses this in the context of the search for the next Lucasian Professor at Cambridge (a lineage which stretches from Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking) and asks whether the UK can continue to maintain its leadership in blue-skies (but perhaps manifestly “useless”) science like cosmology and general relativity. My colleague Peter Coles reminds us that this is exactly the sort of things that Universities should be doing, of course.
Looking towards next year’s election, Nature Magazine examines the science policies of the likely Conservative Government, which would unsurprisingly take this economic stance even further.
Still, I suppose it might be better than being at the University of California, where academics are being furloughed to save money — although grants from the Federal government are still flowing (and can often be used to top-up salaries cut by the furloughs). Things, as they say, are tough all over. (And yes, of course, we supposedly but not certainly employed-for-life academics have it pretty good despite these cuts.)
[Warning: this post will be fairly technical and political and may only be of interest to those in the field.]
I spent the first couple of days this week stuck in a room in Cambridge with about 40 of my colleagues pondering a very important question: what is the future of the study of the Cosmic Microwave Background in the UK?
Organized by Keith Grainge of Cambridge’s MRAO, and held at Cambridge’s new Kavli Institute for Cosmology, the workshop brought together a significant fraction of the UK CMB community, from Cambridge itself, Cardiff, Imperial, Manchester, Oxford and elsewhere.
With the recent cancellation of the Clover experiment by STFC, there is no major UK-led CMB experiment (I am making a distinction between CMB experiments per se and those with other primary purposes, such observing the Sunyaev-Zel’dovich effect with AMI, or astrophysical foregrounds with QUIJOTE.) However, there is a huge amount of CMB expertise in the UK, from the design of detectors and telescopes through to the analysis of CMB data.
In the short term, it seems there is some appetite for attempting to revive the Clover effort at some level, perhaps in collaboration with other experimental teams outside of the UK. The major driver — and the only way it makes any sense at all — is to get this done quickly, before the other experiments pursuing the same goals begin to gather data (in the interests of full disclosure, I should point out that I am involved in a couple of those other experiments: EBEX and PolarBear). This decision, I imagine, will be dominated by the politics and economics of the current STFC funding
debacle fiasco debate as well as what I understand are the internal relationships of the Clover team.
So of more scientific interest is the question of what to do next. Right now, the UK astronomy and particle physics community is undertaking a series of consultations to figure out what it thinks are the most important topics, instruments and experiments to concentrate upon over the next few years. One very real possibility is that we could decide not to lead any new CMB experiments, but just to continue to lend our expertise to other efforts. This is cost-effective but unsatisfying, especially to experimentalists who want to take the lead in the design of new efforts. The only viable alternative, I think, is for the community to come together and, with apologies for the cliche, speak with a unified voice in support of a coherent plan. There is enough expertise in the UK to produce great CMB science over the next decade, but it is thinly spread. The basic design of any such experiment is clear: thousands of detectors observing the sky over as many frequencies as possible. But the details — exactly what sorts of detectors, flown from a balloon or stationary on the ground, or to wait for a future satellite — will be crucial to the success or otherwise of the experiment. Unfortunately, these decisions can often degenerate into “not-invented-here” syndrome and personality clashes between strong scientific egos. But as Ben Franklin said on signing the Declaration of Independence, “we must, indeed, all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately.”
Right now, the UK’s astronomy and nuclear/particle physics research council, STFC, is supposedly undergoing a series of “consultations” with the community to try to figure out exactly which of the many possible big-ticket items (telescopes, satellites, particle detectors, etc.) the community wants to pursue.
In the meantime, however, things are proceeding in their usual autocratic way, as our financial overlords attempt to deal with the financial shortfall that a combination of bad luck, the global financial crisis, their own mismanagement, and government policy (in no particular order), has bequeathed the council.
Following on the cancellation of the Clover CMB experiment, this week we heard that the number of Advanced Fellowships per year will be cut in half, from twelve to six for all of astronomy and particle physics, and that the outreach budget will be cut by even more.
I came to the UK on an AF, and so have a soft spot for the program: the five-year fellowships have a very profile worldwide and are indeed open to applicants from all over the world. They have traditionally been one of the best ways to attract and retain young scientists. In many institutions, coming with the imprimatur of a pretty rigorous peer-review process, they lead directly to a truly permanent academic position.
As my fellow AF-alumnus, Peter Coles (from whom I got most of this information and the inspiration for writing it here), puts it: “Who needs half a dozen top class scientists when you can have Moonlite instead?”
Update: There was a package on BBC news today, lamenting the state of UK “space policy” — even the representative from EADS Astrium (“industry”) was complaining. Meanwhile, Lord Drayson, the “space minister”, was on the Politics Show, at least admitting this sort of thing “is going to cost money” — especially the twenty-year plan he wants.
So, apologies for taking so long between posts. For now, I’ll blame twitter and its ADD version of blogging, because that at least lets me point to an interesting meeting that went on last week: the .Astronomy Conference on Networked Astronomy and the New Media. the conference brought together several related strands of astronomical computing, from the grid (the Virtual Observatory), to “citizen astronomy” (Galaxy Zoo, which is apparently being upgraded to “Universe Zoo”, Google Sky, and blogs and podcasts), to hacks and mashups built on top of current bits of distributed infrastructure, not to mention twitter itself. (Connectivity is terrible here, but much of the material from the conference is available from the conference site.)
Now, I’m in the
Macedonian Greek city of Thessalonika, lucky enough to have been invited to give a talk at From the Antikythera Mechanism to Herschel and Planck: 2500 Years of Observational Astronomy, organized by one of Imperial’s postdocs. I won’t let it go to my head, but it’s nice being treated as someone vaguely important: lunch with the vice-mayor, nice hotel, and amusing Thessaloniki swag to cart home (although when Ute Lemper came to sing she had lunch with the Mayor himself…). My talk is this evening, but the rain outside is precluding much local exploration, but at least I have some time to finish my talk (and write this).
For me, home for about 12 hours tomorrow night, and then off to a Planck meeting in Rome and then Palermo.
Finally let me also welcome Peter Coles to the astro blogosphere. His current prolixity is putting me to shame.
Thanks to Dave for pointing out that the final results of the STFC programmatic review
sweepstakes popularity contest consultation exercise have been released. Following on from the recommendations, which grouped all projects into five projects, the STFC Council has decided where and how the money will flow.
The best news overall is that only the very lowest band of projects will no longer be funded, rather than two lowest as had originally been planned. As expected, Imperial Astrophysics has fared relatively well, with continued support for Planck, Herschel, Scuba II, UKIDSS, LISA Pathfinder and XMM Newton.
Overall, it looks like a relatively small number of projects will be “discontinued” and that STFC “will therefore ramp down funding at an expeditious but appropriate rate in consultation with the PIs/stakeholders. Where possible [they] will look for ways to ensure that there is a return on … previous investments.” In astrophysics, these projects include the UK’s contributions to the gamma-ray observatory VERITAS and the astronomical computing and data-analysis projects AstroGrid and CASU/WFAU, in particle physics the b-physics experiment BaBar, and most of ground-based Solar and Terrestrial physics. On the other hand, despite the panel recommendations which put it into the lowest band, the Mercury mission BepiColombo — which apparently threatens to consume the entire ESA science budget — will continue to be funded, because the UK contribution “is subject to an MOU [memorandum of understanding] with the Agency and will be respected.”
But the dark underside to the entire process remains the assumed 25% cut to the “grants line” — the money to pay for the actual science return on these missions, as well as all of the science that doesn’t come from large projects, mostly in the form of salaries for postdocs: theoretical physics, observations of individual astronomical objects, and just thinking hard and opening up new areas to explore. I’ve just got a big stack of grant applications to referee from STFC — let’s see how many of even the best manage to survive the cut.
[I promise to find something new to talk about, now that this unsavory episode seems to be reaching its conclusion, for now at least. Until then, you’ll just have to follow my twittering, although you’re more likely to learn about my musical tastes than cosmology…]
No time for a full blog post, but I wanted to point out the results of the STFC Consultation, now available.
Some of my favorite projects like AstroGrid seem to have not fared too well (the consultation panel rated it highly, but PPAN, responsible for the final ranks, disagreed). Nonetheless, Imperial Astrophysics projects like Planck, Herschel, Scuba II, UKIDSS, LISA Pathfinder and XMM Newton appear to have survived the cut. However,
It is important to stress that these reports are not the final conclusions of the Programmatic Review. These conclusions will be reached by STFC Council using these reports to inform their decision-making.More later as the repercussions become clear.
Today’s obligatory pointer to the latest on the ongoing UK physics-funding crisis: the “Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills” committee has released a pretty scathing report, mostly slamming STFC’s handling of the situation (and refuting most of its arguments for how it got us into this mess to begin with). The BBC’s Today show had interviews confirming these points with Committee Chair Phil Willis MP and Brian Cox.
At this point, the best we could hope for in the short term would be a small amount of emergency funding to close some of the most gaping holes (and as a measure of good faith) and a major change in the STFC management structure. So far, they’ve said they want to “strengthen the management team”, “consult more widely”, and “improve… communication”. We’ll see.
I’ve been distracted from preparing a presentation trying to make the sure the UK (and, yes, our group at Imperial in particular) gets its fair share of the dwindling UK astrophysics budget: Newsnight has a pretty extensive package, filmed over the last few weeks, discussing the ongoing astrophysics funding issues. Most impressive was the strong editorial line, starting with always-irascible host Jeremy Paxman’s opening comment that “the consequences [of the funding cuts] haven’t been thought through. And they could be dire.”
From there, Susan Watts presented interviews with luminaries such as Astronomer Royal and Royal Society President Martin Rees (describing the situation as “poor management and poor planning…. ineptitude”), Royal Astronomical Society President Michael Rowan-Robinson, and footage from the NAM Town Hall meeting with the STFC Chief Executive Keith Mason. Watts explicitly asks “Who mismanaged what?” and interviewed Mason, “the man many of them [the astronomers] hold responsible”, who could only say that “we have to think in new ways”. Indeed.
In what I assume wasn’t a coincidence, the government today released the PM’s response to the petition to “reverse the decision to cut vital UK contributions to Particle Physics and Astronomy.” Alas, it just seems to be parroting the comments of the STFC Executive over the last few months. Roughly paraphrasing: “Actually, there’s no cut. Really, it looks great, if you only look at the numbers we tell you to look at. OK, well, it’s not a bad cut, anyway, and maybe the current review will convince us to make it better in the future. Oh, just stop complaining, we really love science.”
For the last decade, astronomers worldwide have slowly been bringing together the infrastructure to create a “Virtual Observatory” — uniform access to astronomy data from different telescopes, with different sorts of instruments, taken by different astronomers at different times. Very quickly in the process, astronomers realized that the main problems lay not in the underlying technology, but in creating a set of standards so that it would be easy to set that data up for access and to view and manipulate that data with a common set of tools.
AstroGrid is the UK’s VO project, and they released their software this week at the UK National Astronomy Meeting, just ended at Queen’s University Belfast. (There was an excellent group blog set up for the event, with especially good coverage of the “Town Meeting” on the STFC Funding
Crisis Situation, discussed here and elsewhere ad nauseum before.) You can download the AstroGrid desktop java application, which gives access to data worldwide, and tools to visualize and manipulate that data. Most of the biggest surveys to date are online (SDSS, 2MASS, IPHAS, as well as images from the Hubble Space Telescope), as well as tools for viewing and manipulating images and energy spectra. There’s also an infrastructure for adding more tools, and for manipulating data using the Python language. Getting that infrastructure just right, so it will be accepted and adopted by curmudgeonly and conservative astronomers worldwide, from Europe and America to India, has of course proved the hardest part. If you are a professional astronomer, give AstroGrid a try.
I’ve spent the last couple of days at a meeting of the STFC Projects Peer Review Panel (PPRP). We evaluate all of the large project proposals (big telescopes, satellites, detectors for particle and nuclear physics) that are submitted to the funding council. Despite the still-unresolved crisis in STFC funding, projects are still being proposed, and some of them even funded. It was eye-opening being on the other side of the table for a change — although I can’t really talk about what we saw.
But the best part of the two days was the following quote which appeared on one of the slides:
“…and unexpected systematic errors are to be expected.”The beauty of this apparently paradoxical statement is that it’s true: no matter how clever we are in understanding our apparatus, experiments never quite work exactly as we predict, and the hardest part is trying to understand exactly how it’s gone wrong. Are those extra counts in our detector from cosmic rays? A badly-soldered connection? Interference from television? Or does it turn out to be a Nobel-prize-winning discovery of a cosmic background?
In an unexpectedly rational decision, STFC (UK astronomy’s funding council, if you haven’t been paying attention) and the board of the Gemini telescope, have come to some sort of agreement to reinstate UK observing time for the time being, with the further statement from Gemini that “The Board asks that the Chair and Designated Members, including the UK, meet face-to-face at the earliest opportunity to further discussion of possible continued UK involvement in Gemini.” (Via Andy Lawrence.)