Recently I started working for the Las Cumbras Observatory Global Telescope. LCOGT runs the Faulkes Telescopes and is expanding into a network of 0.4-2m diameter telescopes spread around the world that will be free to use. It is pretty exciting and I love that the motto is "we always aim to keep you in the dark" (night sky wise, obviously).

One of the key parts of LCOGT is allowing people to take observations with the telescopes. I soon realised that, with one search form as the access point to every observation that had been taken, finding something specific was a little difficult. If you had forgotten the date you took the image you might have to search through hundreds of images of M31 before you found your own. So, along with Ed, we started thinking about providing more ways to get at information in the observation database.

In a parallel part of my brain I've been following the BBC's developing efforts on /programmes - a way to provide access to their gigantic database of TV and radio programmes using simple web addresses. This is all connected to RESTful services and to Tim Berners-Lee's idea of 'linked data'. Jargon aside, I liked the idea of building simple web addresses to get at their programmes and channel information e.g. /programmes/b006mk7h/episodes gives access to episodes of the Sky At Night and /programmes/b006mk7h/episodes/upcoming lists upcoming episodes of it. It was only natural then to think of creating /observations.

Within /observations every observation has it's own identifying URL built from the location ID, the telescope ID, and the observation ID for that telescope. So this nice image of M82 taken with the Faulkes Telescope North is located in /observations/ogg/2m0a/53692 ("ogg" for telescopes at Haleakala, "2m0a" for Faulkes North, and "53692" is the observation number on that 'scope). You can start removing bits of the URL and still get some kind of useful information. Stepping back to /observations/ogg/2m0a gives you the most recent observations taken by Faulkes North. Back another step and you get a list of telescopes at the Haleakala site (only 1 at the moment). If you are an observer you can see all your own observations via your unique user URL e.g. /observations/user/1323 shows all observations by Clifton High School. We've also added the ability to see the most recent observations from any telescope in the network via /observations/recent and you can get these in RSS form at /observations/recent/rss.

This certainly isn't a finished product yet. I'd like to add other data output formats (JSON, FITS?) and also the ability to drill down into the data by using dates e.g. /observations/ogg/2m0a/2010/10/ I'm sure even more ideas will spring to mind as time goes on.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 15th Oct 2010 (20:44 BST) | Permalink

Talk to my agent

Those who inhabit the increasingly crowded and dark metropolis of Postdocingham know that the life of a research postdoc is not 9 'til 6. Weekdays get filled with admin, teaching (voluntary or forced), admin, telecons, admin, group meetings, and admin. Evenings and weekends will be spent analysing data, writing code, writing papers, and writing grant proposals. Every two or so years of this they compete against the best minds the planet has to offer for the few jobs that still exist. Even if they think their short contract is secure, when a government funding crisis hits the postdocs are often the first to be sacrificed. The fun bits of science - the discovery, inspiration and playfulness - can get squeezed out. All this doesn't do much for job satisfaction.

Today, Sarah commented on a Nature article about the emergence of postdoc unions in the US. The arguments for and against are interesting. People don't become postdocs for the money so I don't think a union would necessarily lead to demands for higher salaries or strikes. I think postdocs are actually after more stability, more academic support, or simply the feeling that their work is valued. They would also like to be left to get on with doing science. Unions might be one way to attempt to achieve these things. However, a big hurdle for a postdoc union is the difficulty of fighting for relatively small numbers of people in such diverse jobs, institutions and countries. The individualism of postdocs won't help either. Are there alternatives? Maybe.

In recent months I've jokingly likened postdocs to actors. Actors also take on a series of short term jobs for different employers spread around the globe. They solve some of their problems by employing agents, managers and even personal assistants. These support roles help an actor to find appropriate jobs, negotiate contracts, organise their travel and fill in paperwork. Could postdocs benefit from something similar?

An experienced manager/agent would help find jobs, provide advice on moving country (visas, how to rent accommodation etc) and could act as a consistent intermediary between the postdoc and their succession of employers. Perhaps the travel/consumables money within research grants could be administered by a postdoc's manager/agent rather than University administrators who might care more about following inefficient procedures than getting value for money. A postdoc manager/agent would presumably have more incentive to help as their income would be directly connected to that of the postdoc.

I realise that managers/agents wouldn't solve everything and would bring their own set of problems. Still, there may be something useful to learn from the way other professions do things.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Monday 11th Oct 2010 (22:15 BST) | Permalink

Size Zero Science

As we approach the expected announcement of more huge cuts to the UK science budget, you'd be mistaken for thinking that physicists had been living like fat cats for years. Vince Cable's implication that 45% of research grants were not excellent hasn't helped particularly as only excellent research gets funded anyway. In fact, UK physics has been "belt tightening" over the past 3 years like a supermodel on a destructive diet.

With so much of the budget committed to new buildings and kit, it is the jobs of younger scientists and engineers that has been affected the most. Over the past 1-2 years I've seen many of my friends lose their jobs through grants being cut or funding discontinued (despite being ranked as excellent). Within the system though, nobody uses the phrases "job cuts" or "redundancies" so most people have ignored what this has meant for young scientists.

Young astronomers spend the years following their PhD in a series of 2-3 year long contracts. When a job comes to an end they can't just walk into their local job centre. Either they leave astronomy or attempt to find funding in another city or move to another country. It costs a lot to move and is particularly difficult for those with partners or a young family. This has long been the case but these days there are far more people qualified for fewer jobs which are increasingly insecure. Once you've cut a young scientist out of science, it's very difficult for them to get back into it even if you re-instated the funding. Effectively you've scrapped a generation of scientists.

Three years of being told that excellent isn't good enough, being in fear that your job will be cut at any moment, two governments spinning the cuts so they look good, and a funding council that may no longer honour contracts has led to huge amounts of negative feeling amongst young astronomers in the UK. Science and the people who do it are vital to both our society and the economy.

So Mr Cable and Mr Cameron, when you're making your cuts, please remember that some areas have made 20-40% cuts already and are suffering from the extreme diet they've been put on. Someone in government needs to realise that size zero science is not healthy and can not be sustained.

Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 01st Oct 2010 (10:50 BST) | Permalink
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