Dear STFC, WTF? Sincerely, Ian

This week has been a horrid few days for UK physics. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) announced on Wednesday that it was going to plug a hole in their funding deficit by withdrawing the UK’s participation in a number of astronomy, nuclear and particle physics projects.

This measure will have a huge impact on the number of PhD and postdoc positions that will be available for students pursuing research training. In fact, a whopping 25% of fellowships and student grants for PhD projects will be eliminated next year.

On reading some of the reports, anyone would think the UK’s institutions are pissing their funds away Enron-style. How many billions of pounds is the STFC hoping to hide from these money-hungry physicists? After all, tea breaks and lasers don’t come cheap.

ยฃ115 million.

WTF?

Perhaps I’m just a little numb of hearing national debt topping “hundreds of billions” and “trillions,” but doesn’t ยฃ115 million sound petty by today’s standards? In a world where banks have vaporized zillions of pounds/dollars/euros and world governments are baling them back out again, just over one hundred million pounds doesn’t strike me as a huge number by a nation’s standards.

It’s okay, let’s pass the mic over to Prime Minister Gordon Brown for an explanation, surely he has a clue why baling out banks is better than baling out a research funding body? Actually, I think he’s got his work cut out in Copenhagen at the moment, but he seemed pretty upbeat about science in Feb. 2009 when he made the grand statement, “The [economic] downturn is no time to slow down our investment in science but to build more vigorously for the future.”

(I followed up the STFC turmoil on the Number 10 Downing Street website, but it appears the Prime Minister’s search engine is unavailable for comment on the issue.)

This statement came after a fairly ratty time during 2008 when I had a rant (across a series of articles) about the UK government’s stupidity when handling astronomy funding. The STFC — a then-recently appointed funding body that was formed after the merging of PPARC and CCLRC — had announced to the world that the UK was going to back out of its commitment as joint funding nation for the Gemini observatories in Hawaii and Chile.

Astronomer outrage and ceremonial Union Jack Flag-burning ensued.

In an effort to plug an ยฃ80 million hole in the STFC’s budget, the funding body appeared to slam the door shut on Gemini. But that was the straw that broke the camel’s back and after huge protests by astronomers, the UK’s involvement in Gemini was reinstated. Good times.

However, it would seem that the STFC deficit is getting worse and increasingly desperate measures are being taken. For a full run-down of STFC funding problems, have a look at Paul Crowther’s growing list on STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy. Also see STFC Funding Crisis: Particle Physics and STFC Funding Crisis: Neutron & Muon Science.

Ian Douglas, Telegraph science producer, has compiled a sobering list of the projects that are facing the axe in this new round of science culling. However, for me, this is the most alarming part:

SOHO, a collaboration between ESA and NASA, was to study the structure of the sun and its solar wind. The loss of Venus Express again puts Britain on the back foot when it comes to the exploration of other planets. Withdrawing from ALICE at CERN means that Britain will lose influence at the site of the largest experiments ever conducted and the Boulby underground laboratory is one of the leading centres of research on dark matter.

SOHO? Cassini? Venus Express? ALICE? It’s beginning to sound like a Who’s Who of projects you would never withdraw from. This shouldn’t be a budget cut hit list. Granted, all the projects, no matter how big or small, will be an irreplaceable loss for all scientists involved.

The Institute of Physics President Prof. Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell echoed some of my points in a recent statement, but also highlighted a fundamental flaw in this STFC strategy (emphasis added):

The greatest shame about today’s announcement is the reduced investment in people. With all of the challenges we face, from climate change and energy security to a rapidly ageing population, we urgently need individuals well-trained in physics. Today’s announcement, which includes a 25 per cent reduction in studentships and fellowships, runs counter to this need.

The amount needed to avoid this unfortunate cut is minor in comparison to the huge sums of money spent saving the financial sector, surely money can be found to avoid it.

Money to one side, this is the thing that worries me the most: If the STFC cuts back on the research opportunities available to postgrads and postdocs, the UK’s future in a huge swathe of physics disciplines could be crippled. If you start weakening the UK’s ability to lead, or at least be involved with, international physics projects, you ultimately damage the nation’s competitive edge. This impacts employment, innovation, industry, education and the economy.

Although it is fairly easy to paint the STFC with an incompetence gloss, it is really the UK government that’s screwing up. I’d find it insane if any government didn’t step in to fill a science funding deficit of this size (yes, the money could be found), but for the UK — a world leader in science and technology innovation — to stand by, citing the current economic climate as a reason for not investing in the future, is idiotic.

Unfortunately, politics is short-sighted and politicians have a shelf-life of a few years, it’s too easy to let the next administration sweep up the mess.

One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite

Forget Bush’s “Vision For Space Exploration”, is it about time for some common sense?

When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)
When NASA had purpose: Buzz Aldrin on the Moon (NASA)

Just in case you were wondering about what NASA is supposed to be doing, you’re not alone. On Monday, Buzz Aldrin, Feng Hsu and Ken Cox submitted a scathing draft letter proposing a radical change to ex-President Bush’s 2004 Vision for Space Exploration, stating that “post-Apollo NASA” has become a “visionless jobs-providing enterprise that achieves little or nothing,” in the field of re-usable, affordable or safe space transportation. The authors also call into question that logic of returning to the lunar surface. Tough words, but are they right?

As it turns out, only yesterday (Wednesday) the word from the White House was that the US will still be returning to the Moon in 2020, regardless of the short-falls of Bush’s 2004 Vision
Continue reading “One Giant Leap… into Obscurity? Not Quite”

The Space Exploration Crisis

President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency
President-elect Barack Obama has some big challenges to confront when he takes office in January. Let's hope it's not to the detriment to the US space agency

When you look up on a starry night, what do you see?

Do you see a Universe with endless potential and resources for mankind to discover? Or, do you see an unnecessary challenge; too expensive, too risky and too pointless to consider wasting billions of tax-payers dollars on?

Right now, President-elect Barack Obama’s transition team is pondering the future of US manned spaceflight, and I’m sure they are addressing each of the above questions in turn. There has always been an unhealthy mix of politics and spin when it comes to the way NASA is funded, and while it would appear NASA’s future is confronted with a flood of budget cuts and red tape, the Obama administration will want to put a positive light on whatever direction they choose.

However, it will be hard to justify a funding cut (and therefore a delay) of the Constellation Program. We already have a “5-year gap” between Shuttle decommissioning and proposed Ares launch (2010-2015), if this block on US-administered manned spaceflight is extended, the damage inflicted on NASA will be irreversible. However, I doubt we’d ever be able to measure the permanent damage caused to mankind.
Continue reading “The Space Exploration Crisis”

Guest Appearance on the TV Show Uncommon Sense, Episode 25

Following hot on the heels of episode #24 of Uncommon Sense, both Charles Parselle and myself discussed another batch of topics chosen by host Charlotte Laws. This time, we started out with politics (my personal favourite as you will probably tell from my expression, and the background to this can be found in my recent article “Politics Has Nothing To Do With Space Exploration” – Debate (Wear Safety Goggles)), where I had a rant about NASA (although I wish I’d studied Obama’s space policies more thoroughly!), then we drifted into the reasons why women dressed in red are more attractive to men, how deadly Black Friday became this year, alternative therapies (cue: rant about the perceived risk of radiation) and robotic soldiers.

Once again, Charles and I had little clue about what we’d be talking about, so there was a lot of spontaneous fun to be had. Thank you Charlotte again for inviting me on Uncommon Sense and for being a superb host, I think it’s a great format worthy of a prime time slot (I think we’ve found a replacement for The View!).

“Politics Has Nothing To Do With Space Exploration” – Debate (Wear Safety Goggles)

Space + Politics = Can of worms
Space + Politics = Can of worms

Today has been a strange day. Last night was much like any other. I wrote a fairly innocuous article for the Universe Today, about a contractor who allegedly ripped off NASA with faulty goods. I went to bed.

But then I woke up this morning to find a proverbial can of worms ripped open all over my little online world.

When I wrote the NASA article, I was keen to point out the legal proceedings were far from over and I wanted to get as many of the facts into the text as possible. It turns out the 60 year-old contractor could be going to jail for 15 years and face $500,000 in fines, so this is no laughing matter.

However, I flexed my blogging rights and added a little levity to the proceedings with a bit of tongue-in-cheek humour. The humour wasn’t directed at the chap going through the legal system in Houston, it was an article opener I thought would be a fun read… I was wrong.
Continue reading ““Politics Has Nothing To Do With Space Exploration” – Debate (Wear Safety Goggles)”

China Launch Gaffe: Who Should We Believe?

The Long-March II-F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-7 spaceship plus three crew blasts off (Xinhua/Li Gang)
The Long-March II-F rocket carrying the Shenzhou-7 spaceship plus three crew blasts off (Xinhua/Li Gang)

China has high hopes to be the third nation to successfully carry out a spacewalk after launching three taikonauts into orbit today. According to officials, the Shenzhou-7 spacecraft has successfully completed its first orbital manoeuvres and is currently orbiting 343 km above the Earth. The world now waits for news that the first Chinese astronaut has successfully left the capsule to explore the vacuum of space for the first time. It all sounds rather exciting doesn’t it?

But this feat pails into insignificance when compared with another stunning achievement. The Chinese authorities have shown that not only can they blast man into space – following in the pioneering footsteps of Russia and the USA – they also have the ability to foresee the future. Either that, or they’ve found a way to travel through time. Amazing as it may sound, it really did happen; transcripts of a “future” conversation between the Shenzhou-7 astronauts, whilst in orbit, were published on the official Chinese news website hours before the rocket engines had even ignited…

Wow!
Continue reading “China Launch Gaffe: Who Should We Believe?”

“Apologies for calling it the Hay-dron Collider the other night, pure ignorance.”

Did he REALLY just say that? Brian Cox's expression says it all... (still from the BBC's Newsnight program)
Did he REALLY just say that? Brian Cox's expression says it all… (still from the BBC's Newsnight program)

It’s days like this that I worry for the future of science in the UK…

Sure, Sir David King is the former Chief Scientific Advisor for the UK government, but the opinions he voiced on last week’s BBC Newsnight airing caught my breath. If his short-sighted and ill informed ideas are indicative of the UK government’s science funding strategy, I’d suggest all UK-funded particle physicists pack up and move to Europe or the US.

In the aftermath of the LHC grand event on Wednesday, outspoken Newsnight host Jeremy Paxman was joined by King and the ever impressive Professor Brian Cox. The topic focused on how the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) will benefit mankind. As the media had been buzzing about the event for weeks, it was great to see a leading news opinion program set aside six minutes for a particle physics debate.

And what a debate it was! Let’s put it this way, Brian Cox got pretty irritated by King’s point that “brilliant people” should be attracted into other challenges to mankind, rather than focusing their attention on “navel searching” projects like the LHC. Brian’s response was awesome
Continue reading ““Apologies for calling it the Hay-dron Collider the other night, pure ignorance.””

The Shuttle Could Fly Beyond 2010

Could the Shuttle be revived until 2015? (NASA)
Could the Shuttle be revived until 2015? (NASA)

Whether you are surprised by this news or not, it is a big development for the future of NASA. An internal email within the space agency has instructed staff to begin preliminary planning for a feasibility study into extending the life of the Space Shuttle fleet until 2015. This isn’t a one year extension, this isn’t just one extra flight, this is a full five year extension beyond the scheduled decommissioning date set by NASA.

This email, although downplayed by NASA sources, appears to show a U-turn in the political climate behind the agency’s closed doors. So what prompted the decision to commence a feasibility study? Could the Shuttle be safely flown after 2010?
Continue reading “The Shuttle Could Fly Beyond 2010”