Friday, June 20, 2008

Changing priorities

A while back I briefly posted about the release of STFC's programmatic review in which it ranked the priorities of varies particle physics and astronomy research projects (much, much more can be found all over the internet e.g. here and here.) The programmatic review was based on the advice of the Physics, Astronomy & Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN) which was made up of a relatively small group of physicists and astronomers. This process was highly criticised by the wider UK physics and astronomy community for not being informed by a much broader consultation of experts. So for the last few months the priorities have been reassessed by a variety of ad hoc panels with the aim of giving a more truthful representation of where the community believes the UK's priorities should lie (although even this process has not been entirely well received, due to it's untimely and hurried nature.) Obviously it would be nice, and most profitable scientifically, to see everything being given a high priority, but with the current climate some hard choices have to be made. For the projects receiving high to medium priorities I think things should be reasonably safe funding-wise at least until the government's next comprehensive spending review, however it does leaves the projects with the lowest priority facing the very harsh reality of having funding completely pulled. The reason I'm writing this post is that yesterday the reports from these ad hoc consultation panels were released. I've not read all of them, but from this BBC article it's seems that things are in pretty similar shape priority-wise to how they were after the programmatic review. However, various things like eMerlin and some solar projects seem to have been slightly bumped up the list (although I think it's mainly a result of another tier being added to the bottom of the priority scale and they've been moved off the bottom one.) The one report I have looked at is that for Astro-particle physics, in which gravitational wave research lives, and it seems to have been kept at the highest level of prioritisation. According to the report there had been some grumbling from the wider community that there were too many high-to-medium priority gravitational wave projects in the list, but I think the report answers the that criticism well. For the relatively small level of funding that we (the UK) put into gravitational wave research (a few million pounds) we get a disproportionately large amount back i.e. we have access to all the data from the current GEO600, LIGO (a billion dollar scale project!) and Virgo detectors, as well as that which will come from the next generation of detectors. Also the potential reward for being the gravitational wave game is very high. People may well disagree and cite the fact that nothing's been detected yet, but I think these are very valid reasons to keep up the funding of these projects. Of course I would say this as it's my field of research. These reports aren't yet the final outcome though and we'll have to wait until 8th July until the final version of the programmatic review is published.