It seems that the latest STFC Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) results are slowly being released. It also seems that a number of people are somewhat disappointed with the outcome. A recent post by Disturbing the Universe titled Doomed suggests that things are far from rosy (to say the least). Doomed may be a bit extreme, but I have to admit that I am quite worried about the future. The funding level has dropped dramatically since about 2006 and it seems to me that we now have a large mismatch between the size of the community and the amount of available funding. This may not have been too much of a problem 10 years ago when grants primarily covered direct costs with a modest amount of overhead. Today, however, the overheards (indirect costs, estates and building etc) are significantly higher than they once were, and grants now also cover a fraction of an academic’s salary. There is therefore a great deal of pressure on academics to get grants as this is now a significant income stream for universities. I’m not convinced that universities will be happy supporting large astronomy groups if they can’t maintain a decent level of grant income.
There are also other issues with such low funding levels. As hard as panels and referees may try, it is probably difficult to really rank proposals in a manner that everyone would agree was correct. If, however, a reasonable fraction of the community is funded at any one time and if those who are unsuccessful can resubmit their proposals on a reasonable timescale (say once a year) this isn’t too much of a problem. Those who were unsuccessful can learn from the feedback and can have a decent chance of getting funded after one or two resubmissions (I actually think that submitting grant applications is quite a good way to think of sensible and interesting research projects). The current situation seems to be that less than a third of academics will be funded at any one time and those who are unsuccessful cannot resubmit for 3 years. Such a low effective success rate means that uncertainties are magnified. We can’t really say that the projects that were regarded as just not good enough to fund were definitely worse than those that were on the other side of the boundary. However, those that are not funded are at a disadvantage compared to those that are, as they have to spend 3 years without funding and then compete against the same cohort when the grant cycle repeats.
There are also – in my view at least – other issues. The UK community is reasonably broad, but is dominated by some research areas. With a sudden change in the funding level (as has essentially happened), how do we ensure that the dominant areas don’t suddenly become even more dominant. They probably look stronger when metrics are taken into account (more people means more papers means more citations). Also, these areas will almost certainly dominate committees and decision making bodies (simply because there are more people in these areas than in others) and these people, with the best will in the world, are unlikely to be completely unbiased when deciding what is important and worth funding and what isn’t. It’s hard to see how the smaller areas will be able to survive when the funding levels are as low as they currently are.
I guess, it’s not yet all doom and gloom and maybe things will get better or maybe the future just isn’t as bleak as some may think. I just have trouble understanding how we can maintain the current community given the current funding level. Either a significant fraction of the community are doing research that isn’t worth funding and hence the community should really get smaller, or they are doing worthwhile research but we just can’t afford to fund it all at the moment (in which case we have to aim for an increase in the near future). There is also an alternative that I’m not completely against. As long as there is a bit of money for travel and computing, many academics will be happy to do research without necessarily having a postdoc or even a student. They may not get as much done, but it should still be worthwhile science. However, given the amount of extra money that grants are now bringing into the university system, I can’t see the university management being all that happy with this option.