As of today, Bang! is officially available in an American edition, published by the good people of Johns Hopkins Press. If you happen to be in and around LA, Brian is signing copies at Book Soup on the 6th May, but everyone else can now pick up a copy via Amazon for less than $20. This is the Bang! up to date edition, so you should get a copy now before anyone discovers dark matter.
My column describing the May night sky is up over at the Times. Please click through if you have a chance. I was genuinely in two minds about what to write about the Eta Aquarid meteor shower; there’s a complete division between those predicting an excellent shower (60-80 ZHR*) and those expecting more normal rates (20-30). In either case, the low radiant doesn’t help, but in the end I decided that uncertainty just provides more of an incentive to go and look. I shall be getting up early on the 5th anyway as I’m heading down to Devon for Torquay United’s crucial play-off game, so I’ll report back.
* ZHR – Zenith Hourly Rate – the number of meteors an observer would see if the radiant were directly overhead.
I’ve now worked my way through the DIUS select committee report (not with a fine toothcomb, though), and there are some extremely interesting conclusions. You can find the whole thing here, or just trust my reading of it.
The meat starts on p20, which discusses the budget left to STFC from the two councils which preceded it, CCLRC (large facilities) and PPARC (particle physics and astronomy). It is true that neither council had a budget deficit when the merger happened, but the committee remind us that
STFC has been left with a bill for the operating costs of Diamond and ISIS that is £75 million … above the sum that was allocated in its budget following the merger.
Diamond and ISIS are large facilities at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire, which are used by scientists from almost all disciplines (but have very little relevance to astronomy). Where to find the money to pay for these operating costs? Back to the committee
it is the former PPARC programmes that have been cut rather than the former CCLRC programmes. In other words, the former PPARC community is being penalised by the merger with CCLRC. This is a situation that the Government had promised would not come about.
But wait, why didn’t anyone notice? Oh…
This was noted by the National Audit Office in January 2007, and therefore the Government should have known and should have acted upon it. The fact that it did not has had unfortunate consequences. We believe that the Government should ensure that its original commitment to leave no legacy funding issues from the previous Councils is honoured.
Moving on, past headline stuff including a description of the Gemini confusion, we come to the part that resonated most with me. Over to the report again:
Given the anxiety that grant cuts are causing to the physics and astronomy community, we are dismayed that STFC has been attempting to play down the effects of the cuts on the grounds that reductions in future grants are not problematic. We consider cuts to grants that had already been promised a major problem. We urge STFC to take immediate steps to communicate clearly and comprehensively to its research community the impact of its grant cuts.
which echoes what I’ve said before. Those of us in the UK astronomical community are big enough and, god knows, ugly enough to deal with the situation as is if only someone would tell us what was going on.
I wrote earlier about the issue of waiting until the government’s Wakeham review of physics was published in September. The committee were told this was pointless but
We recommend that STFC wait for the results of the Wakeham review before implementing the cuts proposed in the Delivery Plan and that it use this time to consult with its stakeholders.
And that’s it; the conclusion is nasty – calling for substantial changes in the way the STFC is run, and questioning Keith Mason’s ability to carry out these changes. I know that others will jump on these, and who knows, they may be right to do so. It’s a difficult call from my position, but to be honest I don’t care who is in charge. If we can just hang on until the Wakeham review, then the report would have done a great deal of good.
In theory, I’m pleased with the report. It says clearly a lot of things that needed saying, and should help make the picture clearer. But I’m also an hour or so away from the start of my last night on a telescope on Kitt Peak, an observatory I’ve wanted to visit since a trip here helped inspire me to chose an astronomical career, doing excellent science based on the participation of the Galaxy Zoo volunteers. So you’ll forgive me if I stop letting this distract me and get back to what I want to be doing – it is, afterall, what any of us involved in the argument want to be doing.
(Science available at the Galaxy Zoo blog.)
The report by the Science Select committee on funding for STFC is to be released at midnight tonight, BST…more as soon as I’ve had a chance to read it.
Update : Here’s the press release. While the Times focus on the threat to Keith Mason, the head of the STFC, to my mind the Guardian are closer to the mark in concentrating on the reaction to the cuts themselves.
To recap slightly; as part of their reaction to the budget cuts, the government set up the Wakeham review of physics funding. While I think many of us saw this as our saviour, it’s not due to report until later in the year. The most important line in the release, therefore, is the call for no decision on where cuts should be taken to be made until after the Wakeham review reports. That’ll need some extra cash, I imagine, but it offers to my mind the best hope for a way out of this.
More when I’ve finished reading the report itself.
…is the excellent title of this post by someone with the delightful name of Clay Shirky. The nub and, indeed, the crux of it is as follows
For the first time, society forced onto an enormous number of its citizens the requirement to manage something they had never had to manage before–free time. And what did we do with that free time? Well, mostly we spent it watching TV … And it’s only now, as we’re waking up from that collective bender, that we’re starting to see the cognitive surplus as an asset rather than as a crisis. We’re seeing things being designed to take advantage of that surplus, to deploy it in ways more engaging than just having a TV in everybody’s basement.
This is true. And important. And you should read the article, but not before you’ve finished catching up with the progress of our observing run over at the Galaxy Zoo blog.
Hat tip : Pamela.
It’s ironic that I’m posting this here just after writing this over here, but I have to share this with you. I suspect I recognise several of the culprits in this sterling effort but please – can we have a rock (or synthpop) version with fewer white coats, please?
Hello from Tucson, Arizona, where I’ve arrived on the first Galaxy Zoo observing run. Unlike previous adventures on Hawai’i (which had mixed results), this is my first run on an optical telescope. One with a mirror. That takes pictures. I’ll be blogging the experience here and on the Galaxy Zoo blog, but to get some of the background head over there to read Bill Keel’s guide to what we’re doing.
Update : First post up at the Galaxy Zoo blog. Now off to dinner.
Scientific publishing is a confusing place to be these days, and if that’s not the most gripping opening sentence I’ve ever written then bear with me for a second because it is important. Yesterday, we submitted the second of the Galaxy Zoo papers to the Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, the most prominent of the UK journals (it’s not monthly, and it doesn’t publish society notices, but still…). It follows the first of our papers, which was submitted a few weeks ago and we’re thus waiting for a referee’s report for. However, you can already read that paper here, thanks to an archive system that allows authors to make their papers public.
When the paper appears on the archive is a decision that’s left to the author, and it tends to depend on the field. In cosmology, it’s become common to put a paper up in advance of submitting to the journal, to take advantage of any helpful comments that might be made by people who see it before it has to face the acid test of peer review. However, the people I work with on astrochemical matters, for example, would be horrified by this and it’s really not the done thing to post to the archive until your work has been accepted by the journal. As the whole process of arguing with referees can take a long time, it’s certainly tempting to post early (while, of course, always being honest about what stage the paper is at).
Things have got more complicated, because journalists have learnt that the archive is a reasonable place to lurk when looking for the newest research. There’s been a gradual shift in the news pages of, say, New Scientist, to reporting submitted work rather than waiting for the journals to publish. Why am I writing about this now? One of the UK’s leading political bloggers, Iain Dale has today strongly criticised the BBC for posting this story about a predicted sea level rise based only on a submitted paper.
Iain – who despite his skepticism about the scientific evidence for global warming is normally quite sensible – says :
…the research in question, which goes against the consensus view, has not been peer reviewed or accepted for publication but merely submitted to a journal. This means that it is very probably wrong and may never be published (on the basis that almost all articles submitted to journals subsequently turn out to be wrong and many are turned down after failing peer review).
…which strikes me as a very strong statement. It’s certainly true that most articles submitted to journals turn out to be wrong; science is hard and our ideas change over time, but I don’t think that’s what Iain means. I think he means that peer review will reject most of these wrong articles, but that’s just not true. A peer reviewer (and I write as someone who referees papers and has also had articles rejected) is supposed to assess whether the science is well done, not whether it is 100% correct and ready to be written in the Big Book of Scientific Fact (where most people assume that ‘true’ theories end up). It’s perfectly possible to approve a paper which analyses the evidence correctly, but then reaches a conclusion that one disagrees with. For example, recent results indicated that the southern hemisphere of Mars was once covered in salty lakes. If I were competent in the field and assessing that paper, my job would be to check that the data analysis had been done correctly and that the conclusion was reasonable in that context; ie did the evidence point to salt lakes? I may well disagree with the authors about whether this is good or bad for the prospects of ancient life on Mars, but disagreeing with them doesn’t mean the paper gets rejected. Similarly, peer review in the case of the global warming results will check whether the modeling completed by the team is – given the assumptions that they must have put into it – reasonable, and whether their conclusions do in fact come from their results, not whether their model reflects what will really happen. The only way to make that assessment is to consider the whole set of peer reviewed models and evidence, and try and make an educated guess.
All of which is a long way from the question of whether the BBC should publish such an article or not. Personally, I’m happy with the fact that they say that the results come from a submitted paper, and this can then influence our judgement of the results. I don’t see the difference between this and reporting a conference talk, such as the story today about plants thriving in lunar soils. Of course, when it’s politicians and not scientists making a statement, the media reports what’s said without any hope of eventual peer review; we should be careful not to hold scientists to a higher standard all the time. It’s perfectly reasonable to report a scientific opinion, as long as you label it as such rather than as a tried and tested paper.
So I will make our second Galaxy Zoo paper public; but noone should mistake it for the Truth either before or after it’s been peer reviewed.
After all the funding news and politics of the last few weeks, today is dedicated to only wonderful, hopeful news.
Firstly, NASA’s lander, Phoenix, has made a near-final course correction, selecting a landing site near the north pole of Mars. Emily has more details.
Secondly, SCUBA-2, the world’s most advanced sub-mm camera, has arrived at the JCMT in Hawaii. This instrument is the result of an enormous amount of hard work, and to see it arrive at the telescope and seeing pictures of it being lifted into position makes my mouth water in anticipation of the results we’ll get from it. Rob has the full story.
Thirdly, I’m off observing in a couple of weeks. You can see a preview of the trip on the Galaxy Zoo blog.
The knowledge economy: it’s our future. It must be so because the Prime Minister says it is
That was Paxman’s introduction to a report carried on the BBC’s Newsnight on the STFC funding crisis last night; you can watch the latest programme here, at least in the UK. Scroll forward to 32 minutes in to find the beginning of the report.
It’s excellent, and should be required viewing for anyone involved. What struck me is that when we needed STFC to stand up for blue sky research what’s happened is that they’ve taken the position of denying that there is even a problem. Astronomers are used to dealing with complicated subjects; why isn’t it possible for STFC to say that there is a problem even while dealing with it? Instead, the attitude seems to be that admitting that there is any real pain involved at all would instantly blow things apart. This was clear in the comments made in the meeting in Belfast last week when we were told that troublemakers don’t get more government funding, and it’s evident in the comments made in last night’s program.
In the newsnight piece, Keith Mason gives the impression that we’re turning off old projects (even though they’re still working) in order to do new exciting things. Yet the list of projects – as Michael Rowan-Robinson says – contains many on the real frontline of research, and that’s what hurts.