Archive for EPSRC

Introduction to the PhD for Physics or Astronomy students

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on October 22, 2013 by telescoper

It’s the time of year when final-year students start to think about the possibility of doing a PhD after they have graduated, so I I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people who are thinking of taking the plunge. I’ve posted on such matters before, but this is something that comes around every year so I hope you’ll excuse the repeat. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £13590 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

Don’t be shy! There’s nothing at all wrong with being pro-active about this process. Contact academic staff at other universities by email and ask them about research, PhD opportunities. That will make a good impression. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Although we’re all keen to recruit good PhD students for our own departments, we academics are  conscious that it is also our job to give impartial advice. Ask your tutor’s opinion.

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

Here are some of the slides I used for a talk on such matters a year or so ago, which you might find useful.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…

Should UK Research Funding Be Reorganized?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by telescoper

A couple of recent news items spurred me on to reflect a bit about the system of research funding in the UK. The first of these was an item I noticed a while ago in Research Fortnight about the (ongoing) Triennial Review of the research councils, and specifically, input from the Wellcome Trust to that review that was rather critical of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and suggested it might be dismantled.

For context it’s probably a good idea to look back to the formation of STFC in 2007 via the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Previously, PPARC had looked after particle physics and astronomy (including space science) and CCLRC had run large experimental facilities in other branches of science. The idea of merging them wasn’t silly. A large chunk of PPARC’s budget went on managing large facilities, especially ground-based astronomical observatories, and it was probably hoped that it would be more efficient to put all these big expensive pieces of kit under the same roof (so to speak).

However, at the time, there was considerable discussion about what should happen in general with science grants. For example, physicists working in UK universities in areas outside astronomy and particle physics previously obtained research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), along with chemists, engineers and even mathematicians. Some experimentalists working in these areas used facilities run by the CCLRC to do their work. However, astronomers and particle physicists got their grants from PPARC, the same organisation that ran their facilities and also paid subscriptions to international agencies such as CERN and ESA. These grants were often termed “exploitation”  or “responsive mode” grants; they involved funding for postdoctoral researchers and staff time used in analysing observational or experimental data and comprised relatively little money compared the the cost of the PPARC facilities themselves. PPARC also funded PhD studentships and postdoctoral fellowships under the umbrella of its Education and Training division, although needless to say all the Education and Training involved was done in host universities, not by PPARC itself.

The question was whether the new merged organisation, STFC should continue giving grants to university groups or whether the responsibility for doing this should be moved elsewhere, perhaps to EPSRC. At the time, most astronomers were keen to have their research grants administered by the same organisation that ran the facilities. I thought it made more sense to have research scientists all on the same footing when it came to funding and in any case thought there were too many absurd divisions between, say, general relativity (EPSRC) and relativistic astrophysics (PPARC), so I was among the (relatively few) dissenting voices at the time.

There were other reasons for my unease. One was that, during a previously funding squeeze, PPARC had taken money from the grants line (the pot of money used for funding research groups) in order to balance the books, necessarily reducing the amount of science being done with its facilities. If STFC decided to do this it would probably cause even more pain, because grants would be an even smaller fraction of the budget in STFC than they were in PPARC. Those EPSRC physicists using CCLRC facilities seem to have managed pretty well so I didn’t really see the argument for astronomy and particle physics being inside STFC.

The other reason for me wanting to keep research grants out of STFC was that the (then) new Chief Executive of PPARC, Keith Mason, had made no secret of the disdain he felt towards university-based astronomy groups and had stated on a number of occasions his opinion that there were too many astronomers in the United Kingdom. There are two flaws with this argument. One is that astronomy is essential to the viability of many physics departments because of its appeal to potential students; without it, many departments will fold. The other problem is that Mason’s claim that the number of astronomers had grown by 40% in a few years was simply bogus.  This attitude convinced me that he in particular would need only the slightest excuse to divert funds away from astronomy into areas such as space exploration.

It all seems a very distant memory now, but six or years ago UK physics (including astronomy) was experiencing a time of relative plenty. The government had introduced a system whereby the research councils would fund research groups on the basis of the Full Economic Cost of the research, which meant more money coming into research groups that were successful at winning grants. The government increased funding for the councils to pay for this largesse and probably diminished the fear of another funding pinch. Astronomers and particle physicists also felt they would have more influence over future strategy in facility development by remaining within the same organisation. In the end what happened was that STFC not only kept the portfolio of astronomy and particle physics grants, but also acquired responsibility for nuclear physics from EPSRC.

But then, in 2007, just after STFC came into existence,  a major financial disaster broke: that year’s comprehensive spending review left the newly formed STFC with a huge gap in its finances. I don’t know why this happened but it was probably a combination of gross incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive and deliberate action by persons higher up in the Civil Service. The subsequent behaviour of the Chief Executive of STFC led to a public dressing down by the House of Commons Select Committee and a complete loss of confidence in him by the scientific community. Miraculously, he survived, at least for a while. Unfortunately, so did the financial problems that are his legacy.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but that’s exactly what I am going to dp. Everything that happened was predictable given the initial conditions. You might argue that STFC wasn’t to know about the global economic downturn.As a matter of fact I’d agree. However, the deep cuts in the science budget we have seen have very little to do with that. They all stem from the period before the Credit Crunch even started. Although Prof. Mason was eventually replaced (in 20111), the problems inherent in STFC are far from solved.

The last Comprehensive Spending Review (2010) was less bad for STFC than some of us feared – with a level cash settlement which still holds. In real times the funds are now being eroded rather than being slashed further, but the situation remains very difficult because of past damage. I don’t think STFC  can afford to settle for flat cash at the next spending review. The new Supreme Leader  Chief Executive of STFC, John Womersley, said much the same thing at last night’s RAS dinner, in fact.

I know this preamble has been a bit long-winded, but I think it’s necessary to see the background to what I’m going to propose. These are the steps I think need to be taken to put UK physics back on track.

First, the powers that be have to realize that university researchers are not just the icing on the cake when it comes to science: they actually do most of the science. I think the new regime at STFC recognizes this, but I’m not sure the government does. Another problem is that  that the way scientists are supported in their research is a complete mess. It’s called the dual support system, because the research councils pay 80% of the cost of research grants and Higher Education Funding Councils (i.e. HEFCE in England) are meant to provide the other 20%. But in reality it is a bureaucratic nightmare that subjects researchers to endless form-filling and costs hundreds of millions in wasteful duplication. This was true enough of the old Research Assessment Exercise, but has been taken to even higher levels of absurdity by the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, the decisions coming out of which will be more influencing by guesswork and institutional game-playing than actual research excellence.

The Research Councils already have well-managed systems to judge the quality of research grant applications, so do we really needed the REF on top of them?  The second article I referred to in the introduction, on a study showing that Research Council grant income, appeared in last week’s Times Higher. That study shows -at least at institutional level – that the two streams are pretty closely correlated. While REF/RAE income is awarded on a retrospective basis, and grant awards are based on proposals of future activity, it should be a surprise that people with a good track-record are also good at thinking up interesting new projects. Moreover, panels such as the STFC Astronomy Grant Panel (of which I am a member) certainly take into account the applicants’ track-record when assessing the viability of research proposals.

So if we don’t need two systems, what could we have instead? Moving grants from STFC to EPSRC, as some proposed in the past,  would go part of the way, but EPSRC has many problems too. I would therefore prefer to see a new organisation, specifically intended to fund blue-skies scientific research in universities. This organisation would have a mission statement that  makes its remit clear, and it would take over grants, studentships and fellowships from STFC, EPSRC and possibly some of the other research councils, such as NERC.  The new outfit would need a suitable acronym, but I can’t think of a good one at the moment. Answers on a postcard.

As a further suggestion,  I think there’s a strong case to be made that HEFCE should be deprived of its responsibility for research funding. The apparatus of research assessment it uses is obviously  flawed, but why is it needed anyway? If the government believes that research is essential to universities, its policy on selectivity doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if it believes that university departments don’t need to be research groups then why shouldn’t the research funding element be administered by a reserch organisation? Even better, a new University Research Council along the lines I have suggested  could fund research at 100% of the Full Economic Cost instead of only 80%. The substantial cash saved by scrapping the REF should be pumped into grants to be administered by the new organisation, reversing the  cuts imposed we’ve endured over past years.

So what should  STFC become after the Triennial Review? Clearly there is still a role for an organisation to manage large experimental facilities. However, the fact that the UK now has its own Space Agency means that some activity has already been taken out of the STFC remit.  The CERN and ESO subscriptions could continue to be managed by STFC along with other facilities, and it could in some cases commission projects in university research groups or industrial labs as it does now. Astronomers and particle physicists would continue to sit on its Board.  However, its status would change radically, in that it would become an organisation whose job is to manage facilities, not research. The tail will no longer be wagging the dog.

I very much doubt if these suggestions are at all in line with current political “thinking” nor with those of many of my colleagues. The input to the Triennial Review from the Institute of Physics, for example, is basically that nothing should change. However, I think that’s largely because most of us working in STFC area,  have much greater confidence in the current management than we did in the previous regime rather than because the structure is right. Some of the bureaucrats in the Treasury, RCUK and HEFCE won’t like my suggestion  either, because they’ll all have to go and do something more useful.  But unless someone stands up for the university sector and does something to safeguard future funding then the ongoing decline in funding levels will never be reversed.

I very much doubt if many of my fellow physicists or astronomers agree with my suggestion either. Not to worry. I’m used to being in a minority of one. However, even if this is the case I hope this somewhat lengthy post will at least get you thinking. As always, I’d be interested in comments..

Pseud’s Council

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , on October 4, 2012 by telescoper

No time for a proper post today – busy busy busy with Week 1 business – but I couldn’t resist passing on the news that the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council has finally made the headlines in a positive way – by appearing in the esteemed column Pseud’s Corner of the high-impact academic journal Private Eye.

This honour arose as a result of the following advertisement:

The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council invites expressions of interest from eligible individuals to attend a five-day interactive sandpit on the theme of digital personhood.

I would have applied had I seen it in time but although I’m a bachelor there’s a strong possibility I wouldn’t have been eligible.

 

EPSRC Blues

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 15, 2012 by telescoper

I woke up this morning to find via Twitter an interesting blog post about a demonstration in London against the policies of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC).

For those of you not up with the ins and outs of the UK science funding regime, EPSRC is the agency that funds the more mainstream areas of physics (as well as chemistry, engineering and some mathematics) while the more exotic bits (particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy) are the responsibility of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The current protest seems to be lead by a number of eminent chemists, including Prof. Sir Harry Kroto, Prof. Sir John Cadogan and Prof. Anthony Barrett.

Almost five years ago – was it really so long? – owing to a mixture of funding cuts and incompetent management, STFC was born into a financial crisis that made many of us doing astronomy and particle physics wish that we also were protected by the friendly hands of EPSRC rather than left out in the cold as we felt we were at STFC. Things have slowly improved at STFC, which now has an executive team that actually seems to listen to its community as well as speaking the language that Whitehall wants to hear. Funding is still tight, but STFC is a noticeably happier ship now than it was it first launched.

In the meantime, any envy we might have had about our colleagues in, e.g., condensed matter physics being safer in the EPSRC stable has now well and truly evaporated. Their strategy, “Shaping Capability“, expressed in dreadful management-speak, involves the imposition of arbitrary priorities such as the restriction of fellowship applications to certain areas chosen by The Management. Worse, its new funding rules attempt to target funding at commercially-driven research. Dark clouds are gathering in the “blue skies” under which UK science has hitherto flourished.

The unresponsive top-down character of EPSRC has strengthened under the leadership of David Delpy who must have been made in the same factory as Keith Mason, former Chief Executive of STFC, whose diplomatic skills were similarly remarkable by their absence.

For some reason, this reminds me of the following quote from Smiley’s People

In my time, Peter Guillam, I’ve seen Whitehall skirts go up and come down again. I’ve listened to all the excellent argument for doing nothing, and reaped the consequent frightful harvest. I’ve watched people hop up and down and call it progress. I’ve seen good men go to the wall and the idiots get promoted with a dazzling regularity.

I’ve argued before that I think EPSRC’s approach is fundamentally wrong. When taxpayers’ money used is used to generate immediate commercial returns, it ends up in the pockets of entrepreneurs when the research succeeds and, if it doesn’t, the grant has effectively been wasted. Commercial Impact should not be a factor in awarding public funding, because it is perfectly suited as a criterion for attracting private funding. This is why we have a national fiscal policy: the only justification for levying taxation is to fund projects which will not yield short-term economic returns. There is no reason to spend public money on commercial projects: we need to justify pure research by a non-economic valuation.

This morning EPSRC have issued a press release calling upon scientists to work together ahead of the forthcoming comprehensive spending review. It doesn’t mention the demonstration, or other manifestations of unrest within the EPSRC community, but instead re-asserts the need for its so-called strategy, with a clear message not to rock the boat ahead of the next Comprehensive Spending Review.

I’ve heard that argument many times in the context of STFC during its crisis period. I firmly believe that rocking the boat in that case helped it get off the rocks. It remains to be seen whether the EPSRC protest, which is currently rather small, will gather enough momentum to make a difference. It all depends on what fraction of EPSRC scientists have actually signed up to the Delpy Agenda. Is the new campaign representative of the views of the EPSRC community? No doubt many research groups will be prospering under the new regime, at least in the short term. Time alone will tell what the long-term impact of short-termism will be.

Thinking of Applying for a PhD in Physics or Astronomy?

Posted in Education with tags , , , , , , on November 21, 2011 by telescoper

This afternoon I gave a short talk to our final-year students about postgraduate research in which I passed on some, hopefully useful,  information about how to go about applying for PhDs  in Physics  and Astronomy. I am, for my sins, the Director of Postgraduate Studies within the School of Physics & Astronomy here at Cardiff University.

Although quite a lot of what I talked about was about our own arrangements in Cardiff, I thought I’d jot down here a few general remarks that might be useful to people elsewhere who are thinking of taking the plunge when they graduate. I’m aiming this primarily at UK students applying for places in the UK; special considerations apply for students wanting to do graduate research abroad.

What is a PhD? The answer to that is relatively easy; it’s a postgraduate research degree. In order to obtain a PhD you have to present a thesis like that shown on the left (which happens to be mine, vintage 1988), typically in the range 100-250  pages long. A thesis has to satisfy two conditions for the award of the degree: it should contain original research, which is publishable in an academic journal; and it should present a coherent discussion of that original work within the context of ongoing work in the area of study. In Physics & Astronomy, the PhD is pretty much a prerequisite for any career in academic research, and it usually takes between 3 and 4 years to complete. After submission of the thesis you will have to undergo a viva voce examination conducted by two examiners, one internal and one external. This is quite a tough test, which  can last anywhere between about 2 and about 6 hours, during which you can be asked  detailed questions about your research and wide-ranging questions about the general area.

The Money Side. In the UK most PhDs are supported financially by the research councils, either EPSRC (most physics) or STFC (nuclear & particle physics, astronomy). These generally award quotas of studentships to departments who distribute them to students they admit. A studentship will cover your fees and pay a stipend, currently £13590 pa. That doesn’t sound like a lot, but you should at least remember that it is a stipend rather than a wage; it is therefore not taxed and there is no national insurance payable.

How do I choose a PhD? During the course of a postgraduate degree you are expected to become an expert in the area in which you specialize. In particular you should reach the point where you know more about that specific topic than your supervisor does. You will therefore have to work quite a lot on your own, which means you need determination, stamina and enthusiasm. In my view the most important criterion in your choice of PhD is not the institution where you might study but the project. You need to be genuinely excited by the topic in order to drive yourself to keep through the frustrations (of which there will be many). So, find an area that interests you and find the departments that do active research in that area by looking on the web. Check out the recent publications by staff in each department, to ensure that they are active and to have something to talk about at interview!

Qualifications. Most universities have a formal requirement that candidates for admission to the PhD should have a “good honours degree”, which basically means at least an Upper Second Class Honours degree. Some areas are more competitive than others, however, and in many disciplines you will find you are competing with a great many applicants with First Class degrees.

How to apply successfully. The application procedure at most universities is quite simple and can be done online. You will need to say something about the area in which you wish to do research (e.g. experiment/theory, and particular field, e.g. cosmology or star formation). You’ll also need a CV and a couple of references. Given the competition, it’s essential that you prepare. Give your curriculum vitae some attention, and get other people (e.g. your personal tutor) to help you improve it. It’s worth emphasizing particular skills (e.g. computing). If you get the chance, make use of your summer vacations by taking on an internship or other opportunity to get a taste of research; things like that will undoubtedly give your CV an edge.

The Interview. Good applicants will be invited for an interview, which is primarily to assess whether you have the necessary skills and determination, but also to match applicants to projects and supervisors. Prepare for your interview! You will almost certainly be asked to talk about your final-year project, so it will come across very badly if you’re not ready when they ask you. Most importantly, mug up about your chosen field. You will look really silly if you haven’t the vaguest idea of what’s going on in the area you claimed to be interested in when you wrote your  application!

Don’t be shy! There’s nothing at all wrong with being pro-active about this process. Contact academic staff at other universities by email and ask them about research, PhD opportunities. That will make a good impression. Also, don’t be afraid to ask for advice. Although we’re all keen to recruit good PhD students for our own departments, we academics are  conscious that it is also our job to give impartial advice. Ask your tutor’s opinion.

How many places should I apply for? Some research areas are more fashionable than others so the level of competition varies with field. As a general rule I would advise applying for about half-a-dozen places, chosen because they offer research in the right area. Apply to fewer than that and you might lose out to the competition. Apply to many more and you might not have time to attend the interviews.

What’s the timetable?  Most applications come in early in the new year for entry to the PhD in the following October. The Christmas break is therefore a pretty good time to get your applications sorted out. Interviews are normally held in February or March, and decisions made by late March. STFC runs a deadline system whereby departments can not force students to accept or decline offers before the end of March, so there should be ample time to visit all your prospective departments before having to make any decisions.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope at least some of these comments are useful to undergraduates anywhere in the UK thinking of applying for a PhD. If there are any further questions, please feel free to ask through the comments box. Likewise if I’ve missed anything important, please feel free to suggest additions in the same manner…

EPSRC : a capital affair (via The e-Astronomer)

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , on February 2, 2011 by telescoper

If you think the grass is greener on the EPSRC side of the fence than on the STFC one, then you should read this post by the genial e-Astronomer. Times are tough…

I just came back from an EPSRC roadshow presentation to our University. Interesting to compare this to the STFC one we got a week or so back. Possibly the most striking thing, given that EPSRC is the biggest research council (budget 760M), is that the attendance was smaller than for the STFC show, and there was a much larger fraction of finance and admin people as opposed to scientists. I think this shows that despite all the troubles of the last … Read More

via The e-Astronomer

A Gloom of Uninspired Research

Posted in Education, Poetry, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , on November 26, 2010 by telescoper

I don’t mind admitting that I’m a bit down today. Being stuck at home with a fever and sore throat, and with mounting backlog of things to do isn’t helping my mood. On top of that I’ve got a general sense of depression about the future.

On the one hand there’s the prospect of huge increases in tuition fees for students, the motivation for many demonstrations all around the country (including an occupation here at Cardiff). I have to admit I’m firmly on the side of the students. It seems to me that what is happening is that whereas we used to finance our national gluttony by borrowing on over-valued property prices, we’ve now decided to borrow instead from the young, forcing them to pay for what we got for free instead of paying for it ourselves; it’s no wonder they’re angry. Call me old-fashioned, but I think universities should be funded out of general taxation. How many universities, and what courses, are different questions and I suspect I differ from the younger generation on the answers.

The other depressing thing relates to the other side of academic life, research. The tide of managerialism looks like sweeping away every last vestige of true originality in scientific research, in a drive for greater “efficiency”. I’ve already blogged about how the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is introducing a new system for grants which will make it impossible for individual researchers with good ideas to get money to start new research projects. Now it seems the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) is going to go down the same road. It looks likely that in future only large-scale, low-risk research done in big consortia will be funded. Bandwagons are in; creativity is out.

Improving “efficiency” sounds like a good idea, but efficiency of what? These plans may reduce the cost of administering research grants, but they won’t do anything to increase the rate of scientific progress. Still, scientific progress can’t be entered easily on a spreadsheet so I suppose in this day and age that means it doesn’t matter.

I found the following in a story in this weeks Times Higher,

A spokeswoman for the Science and Technology Facilities Council also cited stability and flexibility as the main rationales for merging its grants programmes into one “consolidated grant”, a move announced earlier this month.

It looks like STFC has seconded someone from the  Ministry of Truth. The change to STFC’s grant system is in fact driven by two factors. One is to save money, which is what they’ve been told to do so no criticism there. The other is that the costly fiasco that is the new RCUK Shared Services Centre was so badly conceived that it has a grant system that is unable to adminster 5-year rolling grants of the type we have been used to having in astronomy. On top of that, research grants will last only 3 years (as opposed to the previous 5-year duration). There’s a typically Orwellian inversion  going on in our spokesperson’s comment: for “stability and flexibility”, read “instability and inflexibility”.

We’re not children. We all know that times are tough, but we could do with a bit less spin and a bit more honesty from the people ruining running British science. Still, I’m sure the resident spin doctors at STFC are “efficient”, and these days that’s all that matters.

The following excerpt from Wordsworth’s The Excursion pretty much sums it up.

Life’s autumn past, I stand on winter’s verge;
And daily lose what I desire to keep:
Yet rather would I instantly decline
To the traditionary sympathies
Of a most rustic ignorance, and take
A fearful apprehension from the owl
Or death-watch: and as readily rejoice,
If two auspicious magpies crossed my way;–
To this would rather bend than see and hear
The repetitions wearisome of sense,
Where soul is dead, and feeling hath no place;
Where knowledge, ill begun in cold remark
On outward things, with formal inference ends;
Or, if the mind turn inward, she recoils
At once–or, not recoiling, is perplexed–
Lost in a gloom of uninspired research;
Meanwhile, the heart within the heart, the seat
Where peace and happy consciousness should dwell,
On its own axis restlessly revolving,
Seeks, yet can nowhere find, the light of truth.


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No Science Please, We’re British

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on August 27, 2010 by telescoper

The time is getting closer when the Condem government’s hatchet men announce the detailed plans for spending cuts over the next few years. Those of us scientists working in British universities face an anxious few weeks waiting to see how hard the axe is going to fall. Funds for both teaching and research seem likely to be slashed and there’s fear of widespread laboratory closures across the sector, particularly in “pure” science that doesn’t satisfy the current desire for a rapid return on investment.

The mood is pretty accurately summarised by an article in the Guardian, in which John Womersley (who is the Director of Science Programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council) pointed out the very real possibility that the UK might be forced to mothball expensive national facilities such the recently built Diamond Light Source and/or withdraw from international collaborations such as CERN (which would also entail pulling out of the Large Hadron Collider). Astronomers also fear that cuts to STFC might force us to withdraw from the European Southern Observatory, which would basically destroy our international competitiveness in a field which for so long we have been world-leading. Withdrawal from CERN would similarly ensure the end of particle physics in Britain.

As well as the loss of facilities and involvement in ongoing international research programmes, big cuts in science funding – especially at STFC – will also lead to a “lost generation” of young scientists having little or no opportunity to carry out their research here in Britain. In fact the process of throwing away the UK’s future as a scientific nation has already begun and is likely to accelerate even without further cuts this year.

The STFC budgets for training young scientists at both postgraduate and postdoctoral levels were slashed even before the General Election because STFC was formed in 2007 with insufficient funds to meet its commitments. The total funding for research grants in astronomy – which is how many postdoctoral researchers are trained has been squeezed by an unsustainable level of 40% already. Many young scientists, whose contracts have been terminated with virtually no notice, have not unreasonably decided that the UK can offer them nothing but a kick in the teeth and gone abroad, taking their expertise (which was developed thanks to funding provided by the UK taxpayer) to one of our competitors in the global economy.

Some say the previous funding crisis was due to downright incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive, some say it was part of a deliberate policy at the RCUK level to steer funding away from pure science towards technology-related areas. Either way the result is clear. Opportunities for young British scientists to do scientific research have been severely curtailed. Another round of cuts to STFC of the 25% being talked about by the new government will certainly lead to wholesale closures of labs and observatories, the withdrawal from international commitments such as CERN and ESO, and the loss of irreplaceable expertise to other countries.

On top of this, it seems not only STFC but also other research councils (such as EPSRC) are talking about clawing back funds they have already granted, by reneging on contracts they have already signed with Universities to fund research by scientists carried out there. If this does happen, there will be a catastrophic breakdown of trust between University-based scientists and the government government that will probably never be healed.

This government risks destroying the foundations of scientific excellence that have taken over 300 years to build, and all for what level of saving? The annual subscription the UK pays to CERN is about £70 million, a couple of pounds per British taxpayer per year, and a figure that most bankers would regard as small change. It would be madness to throw away so much long-term benefit to save so little in terms of short-term cost.

In the Guardian article, John Womersley is quoted as saying

Our competitor nations such as Germany and the US are investing in science and engineering right now because they recognise that they stimulate economic growth and can help to rebalance the economy. It is pretty obvious that if the UK does the exact opposite, those companies will look elsewhere. That would deepen the deficit – in a recession you need to invest in science and engineering to reap the benefits, not cut back.

Of course we don’t know how the Comprehensive Spending Review will turn out and there may be still time to influence the deliberations going on in Whitehall. I hope the government can be persuaded to see sense.

I’m trying very hard to be optimistic but, given what happened to STFC in 2007, I have to say I’m very worried indeed for the future of British science especially those areas covered by STFC’s remit. The reason for this is that STFC’s expenditure is dominated by the large facilities needed to do Big Science, many of which are international collaborations.

In order to be active in particle physics, for example, we have to be in CERN and that is both expensive and out of STFC’s control. The cost of paying the scientists to do the science is a relatively small add-on to that fixed cost, and that’s the only bit that can be cut easily. If we cut the science spend there’s no point in being in CERN, but we can’t do the science without being in CERN. The decision to be made therefore rapidly resolves itself into whether we do particle physics or not, a choice which once made would be irreversible (and catastrophic). It’s the same logic for ESO and ground-based astronomy. There’s a real possibility in a few years time that the UK will have killed off at least one of these immensely important areas of science (and possibly others too).

A decade ago such decisions would have been unthinkable, but now apparently they’re most definitely on the cards. I don’t know where it all went wrong, but given the (relatively) meagre sums involved and the fact that it started before the Credit Crunch anyway, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that it’s a deliberate stitch-up by senior mandarins. All I can say is that the future looks so grim I’m glad I’m no longer young.


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The Management

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on January 24, 2010 by telescoper

After my little trip to Denmark last week, it’s now time to settle into the routine of academic life. Teaching starts tomorrow, and I’m actually quite looking forward to it. I find teaching very rewarding, in a way that’s quite different from research, to the extent that I would hate to see further separation between the two in British universities. Call me old-fashioned.

Inevitably, though, it’s been research that’s been occupying my mind for the past few days. I’ve posted a couple of times recently about the ongoing review of the way astronomy and particle physics research are funded here in the United Kingdom (see here and here). The Science Minister, Lord Drayson, seems keen to find a way to stop research grants  being massacred by overruns elsewhere in the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). His aim appears to be come up with a plan before the end of February to find a way of preventing the situation from getting any worse for science. No doubt the idea of a dedicated British Space Agency will also be thrown into pot, so that the bit of STFC’s current portfolio that deals with space things will probably be hived off elsewhere.

The major question that is occupying the minds of scientists – but perhaps not those of the bureaucrats – is whether the research grants currently dispensed by STFC will continue to be held by whatever STFC morphs into or whether they should go elsewhere, probably to EPSRC.  I sense a predisposition towards the former possibility among many of my colleagues. I recognize that the EPSRC route is not without its problems, but I fear that if we remain with STFC then not only is there a very strong probability that recent history will repeat itself but that the damage done by the current STFC structure will be irreparable.

Behind all this is the issue of why STFC is in such a mess in the first place. When it came into being in 2007, it was immediately saddled with an £80 million operating deficit. Why? There are two theories. One is that it was a mistake, resulting from inept STFC management. The other is that the creation of STFC presented various grey eminences that inhabit the superstructure of British science politics represented by RCUK  with an opportunity to slash expenditure on “useless” science (i.e. particle physics and astronomy) without having to go through the tedious rigmarole of public consultation. I don’t know which of these is the truth but, given the choice, I’d put my money on the latter.

Note the behaviour of STFC’s Chief Executive after the yawning gap was discovered in his organization’s finances. If it was a result of management incompetence then he should have been fired. If he was stitched up by RCUK then the only honorable thing to do for someone with the best interests of science at heart was to resign in protest. Neither of these things happened. This leads me to the interpretation that Professor Mason was a willing participant in the game, a  point of view that is supported by his performance at the Town Meeting in December 2007 where the STFC’s delivery plan was presented to an audience of scientists. The document containing the delivery plan is notable for its upbeat and self-congratulatory tone containing no hints of the financial catastrophe engulfing the organization. It was clearly designed to say exactly what the Chief Executive’s political masters wanted it to say. The gross dishonesty of this publication was revealed by Professor Mason’s presentation, wherein he told us scientists something rather closer to the truth, that STFC was facing financial oblivion. It was an appaling performance.

After a botched and panicky initial attempt to cut science projects, and a public dressing down by the House of Commons select committee, it took another two years for its latest Programmatic Review to emerge. Once again, though, the management of STFC put an absurdly glowing light on the wreckage of UK astronomy, nuclear and particle physics; calling it “Investing in the Future” and making light of the devastating cull of research grants and projects that it is proposing. The message that I glean from all this is that STFC’s problems stem from deliberate policy at a high level, probably at the Treasury, and carried out enthusiastically by a hierarchy of yes-men who will do whatever they are told regardless of what it means for science. Some of these creatures may have started out as scientists, but they’ve definitely gone native when lured into the Whitehall jungle.

Of course the public purse is limited. We have to decide how much to spend on different bits of science. Astronomy or particle physics (or any other discipline, for that matter) has to make its case. Somehow a balance must be struck between all the competing demands for cash. Maybe Britain does have too many astronomers. Or too many particle physicists. Who knows?  My point is: who decides? This kind of thing is too important to be settled behind closed doors by  individuals who lap up whatever their masters feed them like mother’s milk.

The STFC debacle  is just one manifestation of the rampant managerialism that is strangling British civil society. Gone are the days when scientists knew best about science, doctors knew best about medicine and teachers knew best about education. Now we’re all subservient to managers who think they know best about everything. Things are no better at EPSRC, an organization notorious  for its top-down structure, mania for meaningless initiatives, and wholehearted endorsement of the ill-considered impact agenda. What I am saying is that the Haldane principle is dead and buried.

While I was in Copenhagen last week attending the inauguration of the Discovery Center I was struck by the differences between how research is funded in Denmark and in the United Kingdom. This new initiative in particle physics and cosmology is funded as a rolling programme by the Danish National Research Foundation (Danmarks Grundforskningsfond). Way back in 1991, Denmark part-privatised its pension system and a large chunk of the resulting cash was invested in scientific research. The organization funds programmes across an entire range of disciplines (including arts and humanities)  for periods of10 years (or, more precisely, 5 years with an extension to 10 after satisfactory performance; most get extended). The primary criterion for funding these programmes is scientific excellence and the vast bulk of the funds goes to funding PhD students and postdoctoral researchers at Danish universities.

A representative of the foundation (whose name I have regrettably forgotten) spoke at the official inauguration of the Discovery Center to describe the parent organization’s philosophy. In a nutshell his message was: “You’re the scientists. You know about science. We don’t. We’re here to help you hire the best people, then get out of your way. Excellence is what we want to fund, wherever it lies. That’s our only agenda.” As it happens, two out of the nine programmes funded in the last round, including the Discovery Center, were in particle physics.

Of course I was jealous. I was also struck by how similar this organization sounds to the suggestion I made in a blog post before christmas. Of course Denmark is a much smaller country than Britain and it has  a very different economic structure. I’m not saying we could simply copy what the Danes have done without any modification. But the  real reason why such an organization could never get set up in Britain, is that The Management would never allow it…

What is to be done?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2010 by telescoper

Just after December’s announcement of huge cuts in spending on science by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the minister responsible, Lord Drayson, issued a Press release that included the following

… it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

I’ve decided to post a few thoughts here under a deliberately bolshie title not because I think I have all the answers, but in the hope that somebody out there will come up with better suggestions.

Superficially the problem dates back to the formation of STFC in 2007 via the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Previously, PPARC had looked after particle physics and astronomy (including space science) and CCLRC had run large experimental facilities in other branches of science. The idea of merging them wasn’t silly. A large chunk of PPARC’s budget went on managing large facilities, especially ground based astronomical observatories, and it was probably hoped that it would be more efficient to put all these big expensive pieces of kit under the same roof (so to speak).

However, at the time, there was considerable discussion about what should happen with science grants. For example, physicists working in UK universities in areas outside astronomy and particle physics previously obtained research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), along with chemists, engineers and even mathematicians. Some experimentalists working in these areas used facilities run by the CCLRC to do their work. However, astronomers and particle physicists got their grants from PPARC, the same organisation that ran their facilities and also paid subscriptions to international agencies such as CERN and ESA. These grants were often termed “exploitation”  or “responsive mode” grants; they involved funding for postdoctoral researchers and staff time used in analysing observational or experimental data and comprised relatively little money compared the the cost of the PPARC facilities themselves. PPARC also funded PhD studentships and postdoctoral fellowships under the umbrella of its Education and Training division, although needless to say all the Education and Training involved was done in host universities, not by PPARC itself.

The question was whether the new merged organisation, STFC should continue giving grants to university groups or whether they should be moved elsewhere, perhaps to EPSRC. At the time, most astronomers were keen to have their research grants administered by the same organisation that ran the facilities. I thought it made more sense to have research scientists all on the same footing when it came to funding and in any case thought there were too many absurd divisions between, say, general relativity (EPSRC) and relativistic astrophysics (PPARC), so I was among the (relatively few) dissenting voices at the time.

There were other reasons for my unease. One was that during a previously funding squeeze, PPARC had taken money from the grants line (the pot of money used for funding research groups) in order to balance the books, necessarily reducing the amount of science being done with its facilities. If STFC decided to do this it would probably cause even more pain, because grants would be an even smaller fraction of the budget in STFC than they were in PPARC. Those EPSRC physicists using CCLRC facilities seem to have managed pretty well so I didn’t really see the argument for astronomy and particle physics being inside STFC.  

The other reason for me wanting to keep research grants out of STFC was that the (then) new Chief Executive of PPARC, Keith Mason, had made no secret of the disdain he felt towards university-based astronomy groups and had stated on a number of occasions his opinion that there were too many astronomers in the United Kingdom. There are two flaws with this argument. One is that astronomy is essential to the viability of many physics departments because of its appeal to potential students; without it, many departments will fold. The other problem is that Mason’s claim that the number of astronomers had grown by 40% in a few years was simply bogus.  This attitude convinced me that he in particular would need only the slightest excuse to divert funds away from astronomy into areas such as space exploration.

It all seems a very distant memory now, but three years ago UK physics (including astronomy) was experiencing a time of relative plenty. The government had introduced a system whereby the research councils would fund research groups on the basis of the Full Economic Cost of the research, which meant more money coming into research groups that were successful at winning grants. The government increased funding for the councils to pay for this largesse and probably diminished the fear of another funding pinch. Astronomers and particle physicists also felt they would have more influence over future strategy in facility development by remaining within the same organisation. In the end what happened was that STFC not only kept the portfolio of astronomy and particle physics grants, but also acquired responsibility for nuclear physics from EPSRC.

But then, in 2007, just after STFC came into existence,  a major financial disaster broke: that year’s comprehensive spending review left the newly formed STFC with a huge gap in its finances. I don’t know why this happened but it was probably a combination of gross incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive and deliberate action by persons higher up in the Civil Service. The subsequent behaviour of the Chief Executive of STFC led to a public dressing down by the House of Commons Select Committee and a complete loss of confidence in him by the scientific community. Miraculously, he survived. Unfortunately, so did the financial problems that are his responsibility. After two years of head-scratching, STFC has finally grasped the nettle and slashed its spending, including research grants,  in an attempt to balance the books.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but that’s exactly what I am doing. Everything that has happened was predictable given the initial conditions. You might argue that STFC wasn’t to know about the global economic downturn. In fact, I’d agree. However, the terrible cuts in the science budget we have seen have very little to do with that. They all stem from the period before the Credit Crunch even started. We still have the aftermath of that to look forward to. Unless something is done, grants will be hit again. Things are bad now, but will only get worse as long as the current arrangements persist.

Now, back to Lord Drayson’s press statement. He is of course right to say that there are tensions in putting large facilities and grant giving roles in the same organisation. That’s particularly true when it’s an organisation run by a one-man disaster area, but the main problem seems to me that actually doing science is very far down the list of priorities for STFC. The point I want to make is that by far the most of the very best science in the United Kingdom is actually done in university groups. Some of these groups use shiny new facilities but some continue to do first-rate research with older gear, not to mention us theorists who need very little in the way of facilities at all. What has happened is that the axe has fallen across the programme, apparently without regard for scientific value for money so that highly rated theory grants are being slashed along with those related to lower priority facilities.

Here it seems appropiate to make an aside to the effect that,  in my opinion, even taking into account the difficult financial circumstances in which it was done, the recent prioritisation review was completely botched. All the STFC advisory panels placed university research grants at the highest priority but the management has slashed them anyway. Moreover, instead of really biting the bullet and making tough decisions to shut down more facilities projects, they have kept as many of them going as possible (although with reduced budgets).  Cutting exploitation grants for the highest priority experiments was a particularly stupid decision. If STFC wanted to put science first, what they should have done is baled out of more facilities but preserved exploitation grants.  If that means abandoning whole areas of astronomy then that’s very sad, but surely it is better to do a smaller number of things well than a larger number of things poorly? Isn’t management meant to be about making difficult decisions?

I know this preamble has been a bit long-winded, but I think it’s necessary to see the background to what I’m going to propose. These are the steps I think need to be taken to put UK physics back on track.

First, the powers that be have to realise that university researchers are not just the icing on the cake when it comes to science. They actually do most of the science. The problem is that the way they are supported is a total mess. It’s called the dual support system, because the research councils pay 80% of the cost of research grants and Higher Education Funding Councils (i.e. HEFCE in England) are meant to provide the other 20%, but in reality it is a bureaucratic nightmare that subjects researchers to endless form-filling and costs hundreds of millions in wasteful duplication. The Research Councils already have well-managed systems to judge the quality of research grant applications, so why do we have to have the additional burden of a Research Assessment Exercise every few years on top of that? Just a few millions saved by slashing red tape could restore a large proportion of the physics grant budget.

What we need is a system that recognises the central importance of universities in science research. In order to safeguard this, research grants for all disciplines need to be adminstered organisations that cannot raid the funds allocated for this purpose to offset management failures elsewhere. The funds allocated to STFC under the Full Economic Cost system have already been systematically misappropriated in this way, and things will get worse unless something is done to protect them.

Moving grants from STFC to EPSRC would go part of the way, but I’m not a particular fan of the latter organisation’s heavy-handed top-down management style and gung ho enthusiasm for the  impact agenda which may be appropriate for applied sciences and engineering but surely doesn’t make any sense for, say, pure mathematics. I would prefer instead to see a new organisation, specifically intended to fund blue-skies scientific research in universities. This organisation would have a mission statement that  makes its remit clear, and it would take over grants, studentships and fellowships from STFC, EPSRC and possibly some of the other research councils, such as NERC.  The new outfit would need a suitable acronym, but I can’t think of a good one at the moment. Answers on a postcard.

As a further suggestion,  I think there’s a strong case to be made that HEFCE should be deprived of its responsibility for research funding. The apparatus of research assessment it uses is obviously  flawed, but why is it needed anyway? If the government believes that research is essential to universities, its policy on selectivity doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if it believes that university departments don’t need to be research groups then why shouldn’t the research funding element be administered by a reserch organisation? Even better, a new University Research Council along the lines I have suggested  could fund research at 100% of the Full Economic Cost instead of only 80%. The substantial cash saved by scrapping the RAE should be pumped into grants to be administered by the new organisation, reversing the recent savage cuts imposed by STFC.

And what should happen to STFC? Clearly there is still a role for an organisation to manage large experimental facilities. However, the fact that the UK is now going to have its own Space Agency should mean space science is taken out of the STFC remit.  The CERN and ESO subscriptions could continue to be managed by STFC along with other facilities, and it would in some cases commission projects in university research groups or industrial labs as it does now. Astronomers and particle physicists would continue to sit on its Board.  However, its status would change radically, in that it would become an organisation whose job is to manage facilities, not research. The tail will no longer be wagging the dog.

I very much doubt if these suggestions are at all in line with current political “thinking”. I don’t think politicians really appreciate the importance of research in universities, especially if its of the open-ended, blue-sky variety. The self-serving bureaucrats in RCUK and HEFCE won’t like it either, because the’ll all have to go and do something more useful.  But unless someone stands up for the university sector and does something to safeguard future funding then things are just going to go from bad to worse. This may be the last chance we have to avert a catastrophe.

I very much doubt if many of my fellow physicists or astronomers agree with my suggestion either. Not to worry. I’m used to being in a minority of one. However, even if this is the case I hope this somewhat lengthy post will at least get you thinking. I’d be interested in comments.

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