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seem reasonably small, but there are some who think that this will only be applied after those proposals that rely on withdrawn facilities are removed – although I’m slightly confused about how removing proposals that haven’t yet been funded can affect the cut.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.