Merry Christmas to one and all

I was tempted to write a new post about what appears to be the UK government’s view on how to fund Higher Education and research, but I can’t really be bothered. I’m feeling somewhat drained and others (here and here) have written about it more eloquently than I think I can at the moment, and have pretty much summarised my general views.

So, I hope everyone has a wonderful Christmas and a great New Year (or at least enjoys the break even if you don’t observe Christmas as such). I would like to think that things can only get better next year, but I’m afraid I can’t bring myself to believe that that will be the case. Maybe we need to consider enlisting some celebrities (Bono, Joe McElderry, etc.) since these seem to be the only type of people that the current crop of politicians pay any attention to. Maybe if Jordan says that Higher Education and fundamental research are important for the future of the UK, things will start to improve (maybe Jordan’s a bad example, but I couldn’t think of another celebrity name).

STFC Fellowship debacle?

There’s been quite a lot of anger and disappointment at today’s decision to cut all STFC Postdoctoral Fellowships (PDFs). In fairness to STFC management – and as pointed out by Paul Crowther on Twitter – the decision to cut all PDFs was probably taken by the Education and Training Careers Committee. Admittedly this was as a result of the decision last Wednesday to cut Fellowships and studentships by 25%.

Maybe I should wait a while before commenting, but since I tend to write these posts when I have a particular view about something, here goes. I don’t know how many STFC studentships are awarded each year (my suspicion is that it is more than 100), but in the past there have been 12 Advanced Fellowships (AFs) and 12 PDFs awarded each year – shared between Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics. A 25% reduction means a cut of more than 25 studentships and reducing the AFs and PDFs each from 12 to 9 (I’m assuming here that awarding 6 AFs last year was an anomaly) .

The impression that I have gathered (mainly from Twitter to be honest) is that the reason for today’s decision is to protect the AFs and studentships. An AF probably costs slightly more than a PDF, but cutting something like 4 PDFs can probably fund 3 AFs. Each PDF can also fund something like 3 studentships, so cutting all 9 PDFs allows STFC to increase the number of AFs from 9 to 12, and increase the number of studentships by about 20 (so the reduction in studentships is less than 25%). The former decision I think I agree with.

Although the Fellowships are meant to be prestigious, the intention – at least as far as I can tell – is to award them to a reasonable fraction of those who are doing quality research, and have the potential to be the research leaders of the future. It is not intended to be a lottery. Reducing the number of Fellowships, coupled with the increased demand for jobs, was going to make it even harder to identify those who truly deserved these Fellowships. Although increasing the number of AFs from 9 to 12 isn’t going to make it perfect, it will allow them to be awarded to a larger fraction of those with great potential. Since the PDFs are aimed at early career researchers one could argue that it’s even harder to reasonably identify who amongst them will be the research leaders of the future. With a cut of 25%, it might have become too much of a lottery to make it fair and worthwhile.

Assuming that I have interpreted the decision correctly, the main problem I have is what it does to the total number of jobs that will be available next year. Instead of having 9 PDFs and 9 AFs (total 18) we will have 12 AFs (plus something like 20 additional studentship), a net reduction of 6 postdoctoral positions. Again, I’m not entirely sure how many postdoctoral positions will be funded by STFC next year (remember that most come through the grants line not through Fellowships), but I expect that this will reduce the number of postdoctoral positions by a few percent (on top of the 10% cut in grants announced last Wednesday). I would, therefore, have been much more comfortable with a decision in which the number of AFs was increased back to 12, and in which at least some of the remaining money was sent back to the grants line in order to try and preserve the number of postdoctoral positions (admittedly after the cuts announced last week). I might even have been comfortable with some money going into studentships and some going back to the grants line.

Of course at this stage all I know is that all the PDFs have been cancelled. Maybe once we know more, it will all make a bit more sense and those on the committee will have thought of all the implications of their decision. It’s of course also possible that I have completely misinterpreted the situation and will eat my words tomorrow. However, I do think that people should not necessarily be angry about the cancellation of the PDFs (apart from the fact that it took a lot of wasted effort), but they may well be right to be angry if this decision has effectively further reduced the number of postdoctoral jobs that will be available next year. Some might argue that studentships are also important and I wouldn’t necessarily disagree, but right now I have more sympathy with existing young researchers than I do for as yet unknown undergraduates who still have to apply for a PhD studentship.

Science funding after the next election

While following the #stfc comments on twitter, I noticed that someone made a comment along the lines of “who’ll vote for the Labour party now”. To a certain extent, I agree. I certainly have no desire to see Labour win the next election. They have ultimately managed to do immense damage to some very productive areas of British science, and the UK doesn’t appear to be a better place to live now than it was before Labour came to power in 1997 (as an aside, my father – who left the UK many years ago – commented, when visiting recently, that politicians used to say “continue to serve” but now shamelessly say “remain in power”).

Something that concerns me, however, is the impression I have that many people’s automatic alternative to Labour is the Conservatives. The reasoning seems to be that the only other possible party is the Liberal Democrats, but they’ve never been in power and so the Conservatives are the only viable alternative. This really doesn’t make sense to me. As far as I’m aware the pre-1997 Conservative government was at least as bad as the current Labour government, if not worse. We surely cannot want the next government to contain any of those who were involved in the pre-1997 Conservative government (I’m referring here to ministers rather than backbench MPs). Admittedly I suspect very few – if any – of the current Conservative shadow ministers were in the pre-1997 cabinet, in which case they have as much experience as any of the Liberal Democrat shadow ministers. Therefore why is there a general assumption that the Conservatives are capable of running the next government, while the Liberal Democrats are not. It’s true I guess that there are currently more Conservative MPs than Liberal Democrat MPs, but all (or at least most) of those who would actually be in the next cabinet are probably currently experienced MPs.

As far as current performance is concerned, I think the Liberal Democrats have been quite impressive. Vince Cable seemed to have a good handle on the financial crisis well before either Alistair Darling or George Osborne. Evan Harris, the Liberal Democrat Science Minister, seemed to perform quite well in an event discussing the future of UK science, certainly better than the Conservative Shadow Minister Adam Afriyie (there’ll be another debate in late January). Phil Willis has also, in my view, been a very good Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee (what used to be known as the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills). In fact, it was their report on STFC that prompted me to write this post. Maybe I’m biased, but the report seemed remarkably honest and straightforward and pretty much confirmed what many people had been saying. In particular, it essentially confirmed that a primary issue is that STFC was not formed with sufficient funding to maintain current programmes, saying

We remain concerned that the former PPARC community has been saddled with a £75 million (at 2006/07 prices) funding deficit derived from CCLRC to meet the additional running costs of Diamond and ISIS TS2, despite assurances from the Government that STFC would be formed without any legacy issues. We conclude that the combined budget of PPARC and CCLRC was never going to be sufficient for STFC to manage Diamond, ISIS TS2, the other large facilities and all the PPARC research programmes. 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.

Somewhat surprisingly, for what is essentially a government report and might normally be expected to be somewhat restrained, it was also very critical of the way in which STFC was being run, stating explicitly

Substantial and urgent changes are now needed in the way in which the Council is run in order to restore confidence and to give it the leadership it desperately needs and has so far failed properly to receive. This raises serious questions about the role and performance of the Chief Executive, especially his ability to retain the confidence of the scientific community as well as to carry through the necessary changes outlined here.

Of course, some changes have been made, but I suspect many would argue that these changes weren’t sufficient. The Science Minister – Paul Drayson – has now agreed in a recent press release that there are problems with the structure of STFC and intends to find a solution within a few months. My suspicion is that a solution to the structural problems will be found (even one that we may be happy with), but no real attempt will be made to resolve the legacy funding issues.

I guess this post started with a discussion of which party may end up forming the next government and has ended up back with a discussion of STFC. Let me finish by saying that I’m not arguing that everyone should choose the Liberal Democrats, rather than the Conservatives, as an alternative to Labour, or even that people shouldn’t vote Labour. I don’t belong to the Liberal Democrat Party and, in fact, am not a fan of party politics – I think the Three Line Whip is completely undemocratic. I am, however, worried that we’ll end up with a Conservative government primarily to punish Labour, rather than because everyone who voted for the Conservatives believes in their policies (maybe I’m not giving the general British public enough credit though). I also think that, as far as science funding is concerned, a future Conservative government may result in us harking back to the good old days of Labour. In truth, since party politics is here to stay I would actually rather we had three strong parties, than two parties who seem to be essentially the same as each other, or at least very similar. I might even be happy with a hung parliament. They can spend more time booing and hissing at each other in Westminster and less time messing about with things more to suit their political goals than to really make things work more effectively.

STFC prioritisation

Feeling slightly shell-shocked, partly as a result of yesterday’s STFC announcement, and partly because of the amount of interest shown in my previous post . More people read this post in the hour after Brian Cox tweeted about it (thanks for that), than had read all my other posts combined.

I’m not quite sure what to say about the STFC announcement. It seems like they found (were given) £14 million which allowed them to avoid having to claw back money from existing grants. There were, however, a number of closures (managed withdrawals) including the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), Gemini, NLS, ALICE, Boulby, to name a few. There’s a 25% cut in studentships and in Fellowships and a 10% cut in exploitation grants. A comment by Russell Smith on the telescoper’s blog suggests that there has been effectively a 25% cut in Astronomy funding, 27% for Space, 17% for Particle Physics, and 52% for Nuclear Physics. I assume that this doesn’t include ESA, ESO and CERN contributions though.

The cut in grant funding may seem reasonably small, but there are some who think that this will only be applied after those proposals that rely on withdrawn facilities are removed – although I’m slightly confused about how removing proposals that haven’t yet been funded can affect the cut. My main concern regarding grant funding is what impact this will have on Standard Grants. If there is a desire to roughly keep the number of Rolling Grants constant – and since there is a minimum level of funding for a Rolling Grant – it’s possible that the amount of money left for Standard Grants could be vanishingly small (rumours of a 5% success rate). I have some sympathy with Paul Crowther’s comment on the eAstronomer’s blog suggesting that we should aim to have a level playing field and make sure that we don’t disadvantage some in the community simply because of their circumstances. We probably, however, don’t want to move towards a system in which we’re applying for grants every 3 months. We probably also want to at least have some flexibility (supposedly one of the main reasons for the Rolling Grant system). If we have fixed-term projects and tie too much of our research funding tightly to these projects, then we may have lots of situations in which research staff leave part way through a project and we’re left with too little money to hire someone new, and can’t use the money to help fund an existing researcher on a similar project who may just need a few months to finish off something equally valuable.

All in all I think I’m essentially resigned to the current situation and largely agree with the general view (expressed by some on the other blogs) that although we could argue about the details, the outcome was determined once STFC had been formed without enough money to carry on funding these research areas at previous levels. I’m pleased to see the final statement in Paul Drayson’s press release acknowledging that “there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council”. He hopes to find a better solution by the end of February 2010. Doesn’t really help us now, but maybe there is a glimmer of hope for the future.

STFC: Investing in the future?

The Council of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) are meeting today to discuss future science prioritisation and will announce the outcome of this meeting tomorrow (16 December) at 2pm. According to their website this is being headlined as STFC: Investing in the future 2010-2015. Sounds wonderful, doesn’t it? The truth is that tomorrow may see the complete destruction of some British Science areas (Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics) that have, to date, been extremely productive and successful. Complete destruction may be a little over-the-top, but not by as much as you might think.

So why is there a problem? It seems that when the STFC was formed from the merger of PPARC and CCLRC a couple of years ago, it wasn’t actually given enough money to carry on doing what the previous two councils had been doing. There is some debate about this and the Science Minister – Paul Drayson – and the head of RCUK – Alan Thorpe – seem to think it was, but many others (MPs included) are convinced that it was not. Whatever the truth is, STFC needed to borrow some money in order to cover its costs two years ago and last year. The total amount borrowed was about £47 million. It now needs to repay this money this coming year and it is still effectively short of something like £20 million if it wants to carry on with current projects. This means it needs to somehow find something like £70 million right now in order to balance its budget.

Today’s meeting is therefore going to be a prioritisation excercise. The reality, however, is that rather than having something like £100 million of uncommitted spending, STFC will have something like £30 million. This is the money that is used to fund research projects that will exploit STFC facilities and will fund people to carry out the research. The expectation is that the decision will be to effectively slash and burn many very good Astronomy, Particle Physics, and Nuclear Physics research projects and that many people (young researchers primarily) are about to lose their jobs and have their careers cut short before they even have a chance to prove their worth. Effectively we might be looking at a 70% cut in funding with no real hope that it is going to get better in the future.

Maybe STFC has to pretend to the outside world that everything is hunky-dory, but the reality is that the meeting today is not about “Investing in the future”, it’s about finding a way to balance the budget probably by cutting the only things that can be cut : funding for research grants. They are being forced to have this meeting due to current circumstances (I would like to say beyond their control, but I’m not sure that’s correct) and not because there is some strong – non-budgetary – strategic reason why they need to consider priorities. I don’t really understand why the organisation that has effectively been responsible for funding Astronomy, Particle Physics and Nuclear Physics is unable to stand up and say that they are being forced – due to budget constraints – to consider major cuts to research funding that could see the end of a golden age in these areas. Hundreds of people may well, tomorrow, discover that they are about to lose their jobs and either have to leave the country or change careers. It seems incredibly disingenuous to pretend that this is about “Investing in the future”. What message does that send to people who’s careers may well be over and to those – like myself – who may still have a job, but will find it difficult to get any funding to do research.

Maybe I should wait till tomorrow before commenting, but part of the reason for writing this blog is just to get things off my chest. I also have a vague hope that if enough is said about this before it is too late to fix it, something positive may happen. It does, however, appear that there isn’t much desire within government or even with STFC to try and find a solution that doesn’t involve massive cuts to research grants. What I find amazing is that the management of STFC, which includes a couple of people who have been active researchers in Astronomy and Particle Physics, are not kicking up more of a fuss. If anything, they are giving the impression that everything is fine, and that the direction STFC is going in is the right direction (i.e., less researchers more facilities). I find it difficult to understand how people can comfortably oversee the destruction of their own research areas without resigning in protest. Maybe this shows great objectivitity, but I still find it hard to understand. I’m also not sure how anyone can retain faith in a senior management that either didn’t make a strong enough case for sufficient funds in the first place, or have mismanaged the budget so badly that they might be (it hasn’t happened yet) forced to do immense damage to what have been – and currently are – some extremely successful research areas.

Yay – a British Space Agency

I’ve written about this before (here) but it seems, now, that a decision has finally been made that the UK will now have an executive agency for UK space and satellite industry. The title of the BNSC press release is actually quite instructive because until I went to that link everything I’d read interpreted this as a new British Space Agency and that it would have implications for British science. I, however, have great misgivings about this and the title of the BNSC press release is the reason why.

The reason I have misgivings is that I believe that the money to create this new agency will ultimately come out of the science budget and most people will probably assume that this is the right thing to do since a Space Agency presumably benefits scientists. I don’t, however, believe that this is the correct interpretation and the real reason – I believe – why we are forming this agency is not necessarily to benefit scientists, but to help British industry get a bigger chunk of the money being spent on space (primarily through ESA). As far as I can tell, British scientists are already quite successful at becoming involved in space missions. I was told a few days ago that at a recent ESA meeting where future space missions were discussed, 4 out of the 7 potential missions were lead by British scientists. They’re only likely to fund 2 of these missions, but it does illustrate the level of involvement of British scientists in these missions.

It’s possible that I am being overly cynical about this new agency, but the title of the BNSC press release makes me think that my concerns have some merit. It’s not necessarily that I think such an agency isn’t worth it, its that I think we will spend science money to benefit industry and us scientist will be expected to be pleased about this. If we believe that forming this agency will be of benefit to the UK economy then we should be willing to invest new money and not simply raid the science budget and pretend that this will ultimately be good for British science.

How to discourage volunteers

We’ve just had a letter from our children’s school about volunteering. It is a very good government school at which parents are very involved in fundraising and managing after school activities. Apparently a lot of parents have shown an interest in volunteering at the school. My understanding is that these are people who would like to help in some way, probably mainly in the classroom. The letter states that this interest “coincides with new guidelines from our Human Resources Department… Accordingly we are now obliged to :

Request that you complete an application form
Invite you for interview
Request completion of a Criminal Conviction Form
Take two references
Put you through Enhanced Disclosure checks if necessary”

I know that we do have to be careful around children, but this just seems ridiculous. These are parents of children at the school who would just like to help. They don’t want a job. They’re not going to get paid. There may be some who could become troublesome but, I suspect, most just want to help with odd jobs at the direction of classroom teachers. I can think of very few, if any, reasons why the school shouldn’t be clamouring for this kind of volunteering rather than making these people jump through hoops as if the school is doing them some kind of favour. I appreciate that these rules are probably not actually coming from the school itself, but we really should be trying to stamp out these ridiculous processes that achieve very little and if anything discourage exactly the type of things that we should be encouraging in our society.

It’s possible that there are very good reasons for these rules and maybe the school (or some other local school) has had a problems with overzealous parents, but I haven’t heard anything to suggest that this is the case. My wife is also quite heavily involved with the parent’s council and apparently these types of processes are creeping in all over the place. It seems likely that it will become harder to get people to help with activities at the school, either because they haven’t completed all the necessary paperwork or because they don’t have the time or can’t be bothered. Since the parents raise quite a substantial amount of money every year, this could be, ultimately, quite damaging.