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.

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