Wednesday, 10 March 2010

The future of UKIRT

Well, the news is out now so at least I can say something about this, but not everything of course. As you might imagine there's still plenty going on behind the scenes. What I can tell you is the last three months have been among the most stressful of my life although that is not all down to UKIRT's funding issues, as I mentioned here.

In December we were told UKIRT faced closure and in fact the STFC said this would happen in April this year (2010), i.e., next month. This soon changed to the end of 2010 which of course was better news for the staff but still grave. Now the news is that UKIRT will continue to operate until at least March 2012 which allow UKIDSS to continue and perhaps come close to completion. This comes at a cost though and potentially a very serious one for many members of staff because the mode of operation will have to be changed drastically which also means a potential loss of staff positions. This new mode is to be called the "minimalist mode".

While all this is going on, UKIRT is still seeking partners. The observatory already has agreements with two or three organisations and countries and the hope is some of these will be expanded plus there is news of some new and potentially significant interest from at least one other organisation. That's about all I can say for the moment though. If new partnerships happen or current funding is increased, then the hope is, of course, that the minimalist mode won't occur. It won't be known for sometime if this will happen though which of course increases the stress all the members of staff are feeling.

On a slightly different matter, today I found out that one of my photos, the one below (at least I think so) was displayed all day on the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory screens and in an STFC staff newsletter. I hope I was given the proper credit! I can't tell though as I'm not employed directly by the STFC so can't see the newsletter. Oh well, I'm sure they did the right thing...


Aaron Stene said...


Thanks for the update on the status of UKIRT. I hope somehow UKIRT is able to remain in operation (through new partnerships or increased funding).

Keera Ann Fox said...

I'm feeling relief on your behalf, Tom. A reprieve for another two years is good! It'll give you all time to find ways to keep going after that. So although it's not the best news, it is good news.

Anonymous said...

Glad to hear things are looking up.

alice said...

Whew! A welcome reprieve!

Tom said...

All - although it might look good that UKIRT will be around for a couple more years, in order to do that there will be job losses. In terms of which group will likely be affected most, it'll be the scientists. There are five of us here. The cut in science jobs will likely be above 50%. You can do the maths. We are all hoping that extra funding will be found soon.


Keera Ann Fox said...

Well, dang. *recrossing fingers for scientist jobs*

Er, how do they plan on running UKIRT properly without scientists? This reminds me of so many down-sizing stories where they "streamlined" to the point of not being able to do the original job (well) anymore and so had to close down or rehire.

Dan Birchall said...

Since UKIDSS is just a survey, and the selection of what to take pictures of within the survey at any given moment in time is very automated and computational, the workload can be offloaded to non-scientists. I'm tempted to say trained monkeys, since I was trained as a UKIDSS queue observer before I ever had an astronomy class... but the monkeys might be insulted by the comparison.

I'd really, really like to hear that some university or national science or research board somewhere has decided to take over primary funding of UKIRT from the UK STFC, although this would likely mean a name change.

I'm personally hoping for either Denmark, the University of Florida, Greece, Saint Helena, or Slovakia to do this, with it being renamed, respectively, to DIRT, FLIRT, GIRT, SHIRT or SKIRT.

Tom said...


The future name jokes have been going around for a few months in the office!

As for the trained monkeys bit, I know what you mean, but you need to remember that to make it possible for inexperienced observers to take the survey data has taken an awful lot of work by people who *do* know what they're doing and it's their jobs at risk.

Also, it may appear that it's all computational and automated when you observe at the summit, but I can tell you it isn't down at sea level. Our whole operational approach is to make it as easy for the observer at the summit as possible. That doesn't mean it translates to easy at sea level.


Maren aka hilobeads aka Palms, Etc. said...

As usual, I hadn't heard any of the office gossip (the usual comment to that is "but you have your door closed"). What Tom said, this cannot be done without scientists (especially those who understand how things work, like Tom), as well as well trained operators and technical staff who know the equipment and communicate, among themselves as well as with the scientists (counting myself into the technical staff).