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Tuesday, January 19, 2010

Apocalypse Soon*

Following my last post I thought it worth drawing attention to what is perhaps the most important set of slides presented at the Astronomy Forum.

Prof. Mike Cruise is the chair of the Astronomy Grants Panel; his panel has the job of sifting through the many applications for standard and rolling grants and deciding who gets funding. Since the funding crisis began it has been a thankless task - they have had to wield the axe for the decisions made higher up.

The slides that Mike presented tell a hideous story of decline since STFC became the steward and custodian of astronomy and space science. The poor settlement in CSR07 had led to a 25% cut in grants awarded in the past two years (not to mention facilities targeted for slicing in the programmatic review), sadly this was not enough to cover the shortfall (£80m in 2007) leading to a need for deeper cuts now.

I don't need to cover old ground about the projects and facilities that are going to be axed but it is very much worth examining the fall-out at the coal-face.

According to AGP they were expecting to fund a total of 90 posts this round (there is only one round per year at STFC). In total they received requests for 151 posts from 84 standard grants and 20 rolling grants and expected to fund 14 posts for the standards and 76 for the rollers.
[CORRECTION: It has been pointed out in comments that Mike's slides probably mean that there were 151 posts requested for the rolling grants alone PLUS an assumed 84 posts on the standard grants]

Remember this already includes the 25% cut that had occurred in the previous two years. Also remember that the advisory panels all said that protecting grants and fellowships was the highest priority and this recommendation was disregarded.

On January 12th AGP learnt that the actual target number of posts was possibly reduced to 75 and could be as low as 56 in future rounds. This has a major bearing on the amount they can fund:
75 posts = 12 standard and 14 rolling grants
56 posts = 10 standard and 7 rolling grants (from 84 and 20 applications respectively)

This is a disastrous state of affairs.

Mike very wisely pointed out that the facilities that we now have owe their existence to the kinds of groups whose support would disappear at the proposed levels. This includes, of course the technical capability to build and any potential technological improvements that might spin from them.

A comparison of the past and future is quite chilling (slide 6). We will lose coherency, international leadership, technical experience and knowledge exchange, stability (required to get support from Universities).

We will have a community of independent academics who may get one or two grants in their whole career. With no stability how can we see any long-term projects through to fruition?

What the STFC chair and CEO thought about this I don't know. Rumour has it that Prof. Mason thought it was acceptable since 56 PDRA's per year represents a programme. To find out we will have to wait until the minutes of the forum become available.

Of course this has an important impact on any move now to 'fix' STFC. Lord Drayson has stepped up to the plate and is reviewing the structural problems that afflict STFC. Whatever fix he comes up with will occur quickly (end of February) but its important to make sure that we do not just end up with a new mess in a new form.

From Mike's slides at the Astronomy Forum it becomes quite clear that a major danger is that astronomy and space science will be severely underfunded if the current cuts stand. If we move to EPSRC with the current funding then astronomy is stuffed; if we stay in STFC with the current funding with some sort of ring-fence we are stuffed (as that ring won't ever grow!).

The problem is I have no idea how to fix this; although Lord Drayson wants to fix the overall structural problem he cannot tell STFC to re-allocate the money they have as it will violate the Haldane principle. Well actually I suppose he can if he believes (and can show) that STFC has ignored community input, and the evidence is in the paper trail. He cannot provide additional money as I bet there isn't any, even though its a drop in the ocean compared to the overall government spend.

Frankly the decision lies in the hands of the STFC council (maybe the executive) and it is far from clear that they want to re balance the cuts or even register that this is a problem.

Particularly maddening is that last week RCUK released a report that showed that UK academic staff had risen by 14% between 2003/4 and 2007/8. Paul Crowther calculated that UK astronomy academics had increased by 12.6% (based on the PPARC/STFC studentship quota exercises) for the same period - not the 40% increase from 2005-2007 that Prof. Mason has quoted. Thus these cuts are massively disproportionate.

If a solution to this cannot be found, UK astronomy will indeed be facing an apocalypse. The sad thing is that I cannot see where a solution would come from.


It is important to note that this is just astronomy, it is not clear what the effects on grants will be for particle physics and nuclear physics but I strongly suspect it will be just as devastating.

* with thanks to Paul Crowther, who's Tweet inspired the title


Ken Rice said...


My reading of Mike Cruise's slides is that there were 84 SGs (which I assume were asking for 1 post each), plus 20 RGs asking for a total of 151 posts (i.e., a total of 235 posts).


Kav said...

Thanks Ken,
I think you are right. That assumes that each standard only asked for 1 PDRA/technical post.

オテモヤン said...