STFC Consolidated Grants

The results of the first round of Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Consolidated grants are due to be released in the next few weeks and the second round of submissions are due early next year. For those not in the know, STFC used to have two types of grants, Standard Grants and Rolling Grants. Standard grants were typically for individual researchers requesting funding to support a postdoctoral researcher and to pay for some travel and some computing. Rolling grants were typically for a larger group of researchers. Generally it was expected that a Rolling grant had some kind of theme and there was an expectation that such grants would typically be renewed – hence being referred to as rolling – although not necessarily in full.

There were problems – in my opinion at least – with both funding styles. My problem with the Rolling grants was that they encouraged groups and departments to focus in a few areas, and they promoted inertia. You were rewarded if you kept doing what you’ve always done (or more correctly, the system didn’t really reward risk taking and it wasn’t easy to break in if you were trying to start something new). The problem with Standard grants was their inflexibility. They were typically for a single project that lasted for 3 years and provided funding for one postdoctoral researcher. Renewal was neither guaranteed nor likely, so the funded researcher would regularly leave before the 3 years was complete resulting in either a waste of a few months of funding or trying to hire someone on a short contract.

STFC has now decided on a single type of grant called a Consolidated Grant. The idea here is that everyone in particular area (Astronomy, Particle physics, Nuclear physics) within a given department are bundled into a single grant. Within this grant are a number of proposals requesting support for postdoctoral fellows, computing and travel. Unlike the previous Rolling grants, however, there doesn’t have to be an overriding theme and each proposal within the grant is assessed independently. In a sense it’s like combining the Rolling and Standard grants. One big grant made up of a bunch of smaller proposals. Each proposal is, in theory, assessed on it’s scientific merits but having a number of proposals bundled together provides flexibility. Given the current financial constraints, this may be a very sensible way to go. I do, however, have a number of reservations.

Firstly, a lot of the “refereeing” is done within each department. There is a limit as to how many cases can be included in each submission and so each department has to decide what to include. This may make sense to some, but it is likely that internal politics will play a huge and possibly negative role. How does a junior person fight a much more senior person within their own group. Once the grant is submitted, you’re also tied to it for the full three years. If your case was unsuccessful there’s no means for you to get funding within the UK for the next 3 years. Potentially extremely damaging if you’re mid-career. Admittedly, this was also true for Rolling grants and it is something I’ve never really liked. The cases are, in theory, meant to be assessed independently and, having spoken to some panel members, this does appear to be the case. However, my gut feeling is that some strategic aspects will influence the final outcome. I can’t really believe that if one group had all their cases ranked highly and another had very few, that they wouldn’t juggle it a little to balance the system. I suspect that this wouldn’t be explicit, but my guess is that some form of this will happen. I may be wrong though.

Another issue I have is how do you propose risky projects? Your group, who essentially decides what goes in, would probably rather play it safe. I was in a meeting where senior STFC staff were present and the explicit statement was that the flexibility of the Consolidated grant system meant you could take risks with your funding if you wished. However, how do you as an individual convince your colleagues to take the risk.

As I mentioned earlier, given the current financial position, the Consolidated grant system may be the most sensible option. However, the motivation for instituting this seems to be largely to reduce admin costs and to make the system simpler. Neither of these necessarily ensure that we fund excellent science. Given that the UK community is currently very good, we can almost guarantee funding excellence by default (there are far more excellent proposals than we can fund). We will probably fund excellent people and groups and some excellent people and groups will also not be funded. My concern is whether or not this is a funding style that will guarantee excellence in the long term. I certainly don’t feel that it is. Not many seem to agree though.

The NHS: A fantastic business for Britain?

In was reading an article in the Guardian about Circle Health taking over the running of Hinchingbrooke hospital. Personally I think this is very dangerous thing to do and, as far as I can tell, there’s no real evidence to suggest that private companies do a significantly better job at this kind of thing than the public sector. What has confused me is that this is reported as a £1 billion, ten-year deal. An earlier article had claimed that Hinchingbrooke hospital was projected to have a £5 million loss this year and revenues of £90 million. Their total debt would then be £40 million. Instead of giving £100 million a year to Circle Health, why not simply give £100 million a year to the existing trust. They appear to be able to run the hospital for £95 million a year, so in eight years will have paid of their debt and over then next two years would make a £10 million surplus. I appreciate that it is probably more complicated than this, but probably not by as much as might be expected.

What really got me wound up was David Cameron’s quote that he wanted the “NHS to be a fantastic business for Britain”. Quite how he expects this to be the case is beyond me. My gut feeling is that he thinks that if a private company gets involved and makes a profit, then that is good for Britain. I would argue that this, in itself, is generally not true. Firstly, the more we spend on healthcare, the less we have to spend on other things. As far as I’m concerned wealth creation involves creating efficiencies and freeing up income to be spend on other things. If private healthcare could provide the same quality and level of service as the NHS currently does, for the same or less, that would be fine. Given that they fundamentally need to make a profit, it seems unlikely. They also have no real incentive to provide it for the same or less. The more money they can get, the better for them. They want (and in a sense should be allowed) to optimise for profit, not for efficiency. Furthermore, a large chunk of the companies bidding for NHS work are not even UK-based companies. Why giving money to US companies or others that are – for tax purposes – based overseas is good for Britain seems nonsensical.

Essentially, I think this quote of David Cameron’s illustrates the fundamental problem with the current ideology. The basic message seems to be “private good, public bad” and is – in my view at least – extremely misguided.

Fees at US Universities

I happened to have two American students in my tutorial class yesterday, both of whom were visiting for a semester and both of whom were from Californian universities (neither of which were part of the University of California system). I was asking how they were enjoying studying in the UK and whether or not they were paying to study here. One said that they simply paid their fees to their home university and it paid the fees here. The other was paying directly and it was costing a little more than it would have cost to spend the semester back at her home university.

We then got talking about fees at US universities and how, in the case of public universities, the in-state fees could be quite low. The University of California is a public university and the fees are about $13000 per year (these have risen considerably in the last couple of years, as a few years ago they we more like $9000 per year). I should clarify that in-state means that you come from that particular state. If you are from out of state, the fees can be quite a lot higher. The State University of New York has in-state fees of $5200 per year. Essentially US public universities can be reasonably inexpensive for in-state students. The really expensive universities in the US are the Ivy League Universities (Harvard, Yale, Princeton,…), some of the good Liberal Arts Colleges, and some of the other private universities. However, as one of the students in my tutorial pointed out, only a small fraction pay the full fees as these Universities typically have excellent financial aid. She claimed that only about 15% of the students at her college paid full fees and that some of these could have received financial aid if they’d realised that they qualified. This student didn’t, however, appear terribly amused when I, jokingly, suggested that this was a great example of socialism in action.

There are two aspects of this that I find relevant to what is happening to higher education funding in the UK. One is that, as far as I’m aware, typical in-state fees at most US public university are lower than typical fees will be at most UK universities next year. The UK will go from having a public university system with relativity low fees to one of the most (if not the most) expensive public university systems in the world. The other is that even at very expensive US universities, the financial aid is very good and can provide substantial support to those who would not otherwise be able to afford to attend these universities. This isn’t to suggest that the US system is good, it’s just that to a certain extent we are attempting to emulate their system without really understanding how their system works. We are trying to introduce a free market HE system when, even in the US, the system doesn’t really work like that.

There’s also a question of why we’d even want to consider doing what is being introduced. It is true that the US has more universities in the top 100 than any other country. The UK, however, has a population one-fifth that of the US and a GDP one-seventh that of the US. We therefore, as far as I’m aware, outperform the US. We have more universities in the top 100 than would be expected based on the size of our population or our GDP. Essentially we are planning to change what has been shown to be a very effective system for producing top universities, possibly the best system in the world. We are going to attempt to introduce a more free market-like system as might be expected to be the case in the US without really realising that this isn’t how it actually works in the US and we’re going to hope that our universities get better. Doesn’t seem likely to me. Hope I’m wrong.