Archive for Science and Technology Facilities Council

STFC Consolidated Grants Review

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by telescoper

It’s been quite a while since I last put my community service hat on while writing a blog post, but here’s an opportunity. Last week the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) published a Review of the Implementation of Consolidated Grants, which can be found in its entirety here (PDF). I encourage all concerned to read it.

Once upon a time I served on the Astronomy Grants Panel whose job it was to make recommendations on funding for Astronomy through the Consolidated Grant Scheme, though this review covers the implementation across the entire STFC remit, including Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics (Theory), Particle Physics (Experiment) and Astronomy (which includes solar-terrestrial physics and space science). It’s quite interesting to see differences in how the scheme has been implemented across these various disciplines, but I’ll just include here a couple of comments on the Astronomy side of things.

First, here is a table showing the number of academic staff for whom support was requested over the three years for which the consolidated grant system has been in existence (2011, 2012 and 2013 for rounds 1, 2 and 3 respectively).  You can see that the overall success rate was slightly better in round 3, possibly due to applicants learning more about the process over the cycle, but otherwise the outcomes seem reasonably consistent:


The last three rows of this table  on the other hand show quite clearly the impact of the “flat cash” settlement for STFC science funding on Postdoctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) support:

Constant cash means ongoing cuts in real terms; there were 11.6% fewer Astronomy PDRAs supported in 2013 than in 2011. Job prospects for the next generation of astronomers continue to dwindle…

Any other comments, either on these tables or on the report as a whole, are welcome through the comments box.


Yesterday in Parliament

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in a rather muggy Westminster to attend a reception at the Houses of Parliament associated with an exhibition called Unveiling the Universe in all its Light which is currently set up inside the Palace of Westminster but will later go on tour around the UK.


It took me a while to find the way in. I lived in London for the best part of 9 years but never bothered to visit the Houses of Parliament (at least not the interior), so I was quite excited as, clutching my invitation in a rather sweaty hand, I eventually joined the queue to go through the security checks. That didn’t take very long, so despite getting lost in the corridors of power en route – it’s a bit of a maze inside – I had plenty of time to see the exhibition before joining the assembled throng in the Strangers’ Dining Room. There, surrounded by walls covered in expensive but tasteless flock wallpaper, I had a couple of couples of glasses of wine and ate some posh sandwiches while chatting to various astronomers, particle physicists and others, including a contingent of familiar faces from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It was a coincidence, of course, that this event took place on the day that the Nobel Prize for Physics was announced; it was impressive that posters were already there celebrating the award to Peter Higgs. General opinion was delight that Higgs had won a share of the prize, but sadness that Tom Kibble had been left out.

There were upbeat speeches by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts (who isn’t as tall as he looks on telly), Andrew Miller (Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology), John Womersley (Chief Executive of STFC) and Lord Rees (Astronomer Royal). I think everyone present came away with a strong sense that astronomy and particle physics had strong political backing. Martin Rees in particular said that he thought we were living in a “golden age” for fundamental science, involving an exciting interplay between the inner space of subatomic particles and the outer space of cosmology. I couldn’t agree more.

AGP Matters

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , on September 20, 2012 by telescoper

Well, just made it back to Cardiff following the (hopefully) final meeting of the  Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) for this year’s round at the Science and Technology Facilities Council HQ in Swindon. It’s been a difficult process – though perhaps not quite as difficult as last year’s round which was completely overloaded with applications. I struggled a bit extra this year because I seem to have caught some sort of nasty bug during my recent travels. No doubt I’ve now infected the rest of the panel via coughing and spluttering too…

Anyway, we got through the business at hand, which basically involved merging two ranked lists produced by the sub-panels to produce an overall priority order for the proposals received.  What happens with this list now is that the good folk at STFC carefully calculate the costs of each proposal as they work down through the list and keep going until the money runs out. We don’t know for sure at this stage where the line will fall, but it’s pretty clear that some very good proposals won’t make it. That’s the way it is. There just isn’t enough money to fund all the best research.

I suppose that’s why I always have mixed feelings at the end of an AGP round. It’s good to see the process in operation, because it convinces one that everyone concerned is doing their best to achieve a fair outcome, but it’s very sad that some proposals will fall just short with potentially terrible consequences for those whose livelihoods depend on STFC funding. This accounts for the not inconsiderable quantity of gallows humour displayed by AGP members.

Of course the AGP doesn’t actually award grants. It makes recommendations which are then endorsed (or not) by the STFC Science Board. So although we’ve now done our job, it will take a while until the formal grant announcements start appearing, in November probably.

Anyway, I’ve been on the panel for 3 years now, which is the normal sentence term for an AGP member, so I have the feeling I might be “rotated” off after this round, whereupon it will be up to some other mug  esteemed researcher to take my place performing this thankless task valuable bit of community service.

And on the third day…

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 6, 2012 by telescoper

So here I am, brain the size of a planet, stuck in a corridor in Polaris House in  Swindon for while the rest of the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council considers applications on which I have a conflict of interest. We’ve had two very busy days so far, hence no time to post yesterday, but we’re on track to get through the order of business by the end of today as scheduled. Now I’m at a bit of a loose end I’ve been catching up on emails and other stuff I have had to ignore for the past couple of days.

And now there’s even time for a brief blogette.

It’s a stressful business being on these panels, not just because it’s a lot of work but that everyone involved knows how important the outcome is, for science in general and in terms of the consequences of success or failure in obtaining funding for individual researchers.    Under the current system of “Consolidated Grants”, anyone unsuccessful in this round will effectively be locked out of STFC funding for 3 years. That seems very harsh to me. However, we have to work with the system we’ve got and make the best we can of it.

Anyway, bearing in mind that this is a personal blog and not an official mouthpiece for the AGP, if anyone out there has any comments about the system please feel free to vent your spleen via the comments box. As long as you keep it reasonably polite.

Astronomy Advice Please!

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 4, 2012 by telescoper

I’m up at the crack of dawn this morning in order to travel to Swindon for a meeting of the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. Three days in Swindon beckon.

Anyways, while I’m thinking STFC stuff let me put my community service hat on and remind astronomers that the Astronomy Advisory Panel (yes, there is one) is consulting, and the deadline for folks to fill in the consultation questionnaire is tomorrow (Wednesday 5th September 2012). Please upload your input forthwith.

As a prompt, you might like to have a look at this figure that shows the breakdown of STFC expenditure generally, and specifically within the astronomy programme.

Do these pie charts provide you with food for thought?

Astronomy Grant Outcomes

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on June 28, 2012 by telescoper

While this is by no means an official outlet for news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council nor the Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) thereof, but I am on the AGP so I thought I’d take the opportunity to pass on a bit of news to the UK community, or at least those members that read this blog.

An email  by Colin Vincent of STFC  was circulated this evening via the ASTROCOMMUNITY email list, which includes the following:

As part of the process for improving the feedback to the community of outcomes we have just published a more detailed listing of the recommendations for all projects. This can be found at

We hope that the community will find this helpful. This information supplements what is already available in STFC’s ‘Grants on the Web’ pages.

The link included there takes you to a page that includes a general description of how the AGP works and what it tries to do, and also for the first time (as far as I’m aware) a link to a document that contains a ranked list of all the projects rated fundable, whether funded or unfunded.

Speaking personally, i.e. not in my capacity as an AGP member, I think making this amount of detail public is an extremely good move, as I think it makes the process much more transparent. There’s just a chance, however, that the actual list might ruffle a few feathers here and there, and probably in other places too.

As always, please feel free to comment through the box below, but if you do so please remember that this is a personal blog and I’m passing this on as a community service. I can’t respond on behalf of the AGP, so please don’t ask me to!

UPDATE:  29th June 2012. The document containing the AGP outcomes has been removed from the STFC website. Don’t ask me why…

STFC Programmatic Review

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on June 7, 2012 by telescoper

Following hard on the heels of  its decision to close the UK Infra-red Telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Hawaii, the Science and Technology Fatalities Council today announced the next stage of its Programmatic Review.

STFC graciously invites your contribution to this exercise, which is to be conducted by a Mr Reaper from Swindon…


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