Archive for Science funding

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:

STFC_Con1

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:
STFC_Con

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.

 

More Cuts to University Funding

Posted in Education, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on February 11, 2014 by telescoper

Grim news arrived yesterday with the announcement by the Department of Business, Innovation and Skills of further deep cuts in funding for Higher Education in England. This announcement has been delayed due to internal wrangling over the allocation of funds but in the end the grant letter to HEFCE makes little attempt to sugar the pill:

The settlement will mean reductions in HEFCE funding for higher education institutions in 2014-15 and again in 2015-16 beyond those accounted for by the switch to publicly funded tuition fees. The Government has asked HEFCE to deliver the reductions in ways which protect as far as possible high-cost subjects (including STEM), widening participation (which is funded via the HEFCE Student Opportunity allocation), and small and specialist institutions.

The science budget is, of course, “ring-fenced” which means that recurrent funding for that is maintained at £1,573 million, the same cash levels as 2013-14. This has, for example, translated into the expected flat cash settlement for the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), although there has been some rejigging of the way this money is allocated within STFC, and an apparent increase in funds available for international subscriptions. At least this should unblock the numerous programmes in STFC and elsewhere in the Research Councils that have been on hold pending the final budget allocations.

That said, the overall picture looks very bleak for Higher Education. The really important figure for HEFCE is buried in Annex 2 of the latest grant letter, which reveals that, including the ring-fenced funds, HEFCE will have just £4,091 million to allocate in 2014/15. The corresponding figure for the current year, 2013/14, was £5,014 million. That’s a cut in cash terms of an eye-watering 18.4%.

The scale of the cuts makes it even more likely that if they continue there will be very little money available for HEFCE to allocate as a result of the 2014 Research Excellence Framework, in which case the vast expenditure across the sector preparing for that exercise may will have been wasted too.

For the time being, however, it seems that research has been spared the axe. The bulk of the cuts will therefore fall on teaching grants. HEFCE has been instructed to try to protect STEM subjects as it cuts expenditure on teaching, but will it be able to? The extra funds that have previously supplemented tuition fees have been steadily whittled away anyway, so expensive subjects like Physics only get about £1000 per year more than Arts subjects. There is already a strong incentive in the current funding model for universities to expand cheap subjects. That pressure will only increase with this new settlement.

The last paragraph of the grant letter says:

We recognise that our universities are one of our most valuable national assets. Higher education transforms people’s lives through excellent teaching and transforms society through research and the application of knowledge. The Government’s reforms have laid the foundations for a more securely funded, stronger, more confident and more responsive higher education sector. We will continue to work with the Council and the sector to communicate the enduring value of higher education to potential students and the wider world.

I’m sure readers of this blog will forgive me if I suggest that these words are rendered meaningless by the scale of the cuts announced in the grant letter. If the government really regarded our universities as “valuable national assets” it would be increasing investment in them, not cutting it. What worries me most is that these cuts will never be reversed, whatever the complexion of the next government as there seems to be more enthusiasm across the political spectrum for continued cuts than for investment in the future education of our young people. I’m increasingly ashamed of the legacy being left by my own generation.

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.

Worries for Science in Spain

Posted in Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , on March 10, 2012 by telescoper

I recently received the following email letter, concerning the state of science funding in Spain.  As well as passing it on to colleagues I thought I would post it on this blog where it might have wider impact:

Dear colleague,

You probably know very well how the global crisis is affecting southern Europe, and in particular Spain. Some of us are promoting a campaign among the worlwide scientific community to prevent our conservative government from straining even more the science system in Spain, that so many successes has obtained in the last decade, but whose future is now at stake.

In the next few weeks, and contravening recommendation from the European Commission stating that public deficit control measures should not affect Research and Development (R&D) and innovation, the Spanish Government and Parliament could approve a State Budget for 2012 that would cause considerable long-term damage to the already weakened Spanish research system, contributing to its collapse.

There is an open letter that we are sending to distinguished scientists all over the world, including many Nobel Prize Winners and Members of Academies of Science, asking them to sign, support the motion and spread the word:

http://www.investigaciondigna.es/wordpress/sign

Please do help us by signing the letter and passing it on to your colleagues.

Kind regards,

Alexander Knebe

The “open letter” you can read by clicking on the link contains some interesting – and alarming – information that has serious implications for our colleagues not only in Spain but elsewhere in Europe. Take a look, for example, at the following picture that shows the fraction of GDP being invested in science:

This isn’t just about Spain, although the situation is clearly especially serious for Spanish Science. It’s a timely reminder that the UK is also well below the EU average in terms of science spend. Is it a coincidence that the EU’s worst-performing economies are all on the right of this figure? Is that where we want the UK to be too?

Beware the “Efficiency Factor” ..

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , on March 22, 2011 by telescoper

That sigh of relief we all breathed when the flat-cash settlement for UK science funding was announced last October is now looking decidely premature. For one thing the rate of inflation has climbed to 5.5%, its highest level for 20 years. That’s going to be eating away at the money available for doing science at a much higher rate than we thought it would 6 months ago.

If that weren’t bad enough we now learn that the Dark Lords of the Treasury have been beavering away in the background to come up with a way of squeezing science still further, via so-called “efficiency savings”. Now they have announced their plans under the suitably Orwellian title Ensuring Excellence with Impact.

The full document is (probably deliberately) written in almost unreadable Treasury-speak; after all, you don’t want the lambs to know too much about their impending slaughter. Hidden amid the jargon, however, is a grim message. That grant money you thought you had might not be yours after all.

Some of what is written in the RCUK document was expected. For example, there will be no indexation of grants for the next two years as the public sector pay freeze bites. However, another part of the plan is to tackle the so-called “estates” and other “indirect costs”, the contribution Research Councils pay universities to support basic infrastructure. At the moment, universities cost this themselves. In fact, whenever I’ve applied for grants I have to leave this to other people to fill in as I have no idea how it is calculated. However, different Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) charge at vastly different rates. RCUK has noticed this and will henceforth place HEIs into efficiency groups, with the more expensive being the least efficient. Depending on which efficiency group your HEI is in, the indirect costs will be subject to a squeeze. In other words an “efficiency factor” will be applied.

But this won’t just apply to new grants. Cash you though you had already will be clawed back. Here is a quote from the summary:

To ensure that these changes to indirect cost rates do not present an administrative burden to research organisations, and reflecting the time it takes to prepare an application, existing grants will for this purpose be classed as those submitted via Je-S1 before 30th June 2011. Rather than apply reductions to each individual awarded grant, a top slice will be applied by the Research Councils to research organisations’ portfolio of funding after the 1st July 2011. The percentage of this indirect cost efficiency top slice will be dependent on the efficiency group that a research organisation is in.

Reduced rates of indexation will be used both as part of the efficiency factor for indirect costs and for other elements of grants that are indexed in line with current policies. Reduced rates of indexation for other elements of grants, other than the indirect costs element, will be introduced on 1st April 2011 in line with usual Research Council policies. The indexation changes will be greatest during the first two years to coincide with the period of Public Sector pay restraints, but will be gradually relaxed as the effect of savings being applied to new grants contributes greater efficiencies. The indexation savings will be applied to both new and existing grants. For new grants, new indexation rates will be used for grants awarded from 1st April. For existing grants that have been awarded with different indexation arrangement, i.e. those awarded on or by 31st March, the changes will become part of the “top-slice” by institution.

This is scary. It means money already in departmental and university budgets and used for future planning is going to disappear pretty quickly. How this is going help “Ensuring Excellence” I have no idea, but I have to admit it’s going to have some “Impact”.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.


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The STFC Delivery Plan

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on December 20, 2010 by telescoper

Excuse the very quick and sketchy post on such an important topic, but I’ve got a lot of things to do before the dreaded Christmas lunch.

This morning the allocations of funding for the research councils were announced. The statement accompanying the ensuing Delivery Plan for the Science and Technology Facilities Council can be found here, while the plan itself is here. You’ll probably also want to read Paul Crowther’s analysis here.

Other research councils have also published their plans; you can find the one for EPSRC here.

The headline announcement reads:

After transferring responsibility for space science to the UK Space Agency, STFC’s overall baseline allocation for 2011-12 for resource funding (previously termed “near-cash”) is £377.5m rising to an allocation of £381.14m in 2014-15. This excludes administration which will be separately allocated. Our capital baseline allocation for 2011-12 is £91m, with an indicative allocation for the remainder of the spending review period reducing to £68m in 2014-15.

So not at all bad news for resource funding, but the implications of the capital cut are unclear (at least to me).

I haven’t had time to read the entire document, but did have a quick look at the crucial Appendix D which shows how each discipline is expected to fare:

  • Particle Physics expenditure will rise from £133M to £148M over 4 years
  • Astronomy expenditure will fall from £77M to £69M over the same period
  • Expenditure on Synchtron facilities (e.g. Diamond Light Source) will increase from £42M to £56M.

Within an approximately flat-cash settlement, therefore, Astronomy is a clear loser (although much of the cuts in expenditure relate to decisions already made, such as withdrawal from the Gemini Telescopes). Confusingly, much of the increase in Particle Physics expenditure relates to an increase in the CERN subscription, which I thought was supposed to be falling …

As far as I understand it, the plan also maintains grant funding at the current level (although it will move into the new consolidated grant system as quickly as this can be achieved).

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got time for right now, and comments/reactions/corrections/clarifications are very welcome through the box below.


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Science funding can’t be democratic if education isn’t

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on December 15, 2010 by telescoper

An opinion piece in New Scientist by Dan Hind (who apparently has a new book out) just caught my eye, and I couldn’t resist a quick comment.

The piece makes some good points. One is that much current science funding is actually nothing more than a direct subsidy for private industry. This troubles me. As I’ve blogged before, I think research that really is near-market shouldn’t be funded by the tax payer but by private investment by banks or venture capitalists. Publically funded science should be for speculative research that, regardless of whether it pays off commercially, is good from a cultural and intellectual perspective. I know I’m in a minority of my colleagues on this, but that’s what I think.

Where I disagree strongly with Dan Hind is the suggestion that science funding should be given

… to new bodies set up to allocate resources on the basis of a democratic vote. Scientists could apply to these bodies for funding and we could all have a say in what research is given support.

I can see that there are good intentions behind this suggestion, but in practice I think it would be a disaster. The problem is that the fraction of the general population that knows enough about science to make informed decisions about where to spend funding is just too small. That goes for the political establishment too.

If we left science funding to a democratic vote we’d be wasting vaulable taxpayer’s money on astrology, homeopathy and who knows what other kind of new age quackery. It’s true that the so-called experts get it wrong sometimes, but if left to the general public things would only get worse. I wish things were different, but this idea just wouldn’t work.

On the other hand, I don’t at all disagree with the motivation behind this suggestion. In an increasingly technologically-driven society, the gap between the few in and the many out of the know poses a grave threat to our existence as an open and inclusive democracy. The public needs to be better informed about science (as well as a great many other things). Two areas need attention.

In fields such as my own, astronomy, there’s a widespread culture of working very hard at outreach. This overarching term includes trying to get people interested in science and encouraging more kids to take it seriously at school and college, but also engaging directly with members of the public and institutions that represent them. Not all scientists take the same attitude, though, and we must try harder. Moves are being made to give more recognition to public engagement, but a drastic improvement is necessary if our aim is to make our society genuinely democratic.

But the biggest issue we have to confront is education. The quality of science education must improve, especially in state schools where pupils sometimes don’t have appropriately qualified teachers and so are unable to learn, e.g. physics, properly. The less wealthy are becoming systematically disenfranchised through their lack of access to the education they need to understand the complex issues relating to life in an advanced technological society.

If we improve school education, we may well get more graduates in STEM areas too although this government’s cuts to Higher Education make that unlikely. More science graduates would be good for many reasons, but I don’t think the greatest problem facing the UK is the lack of qualified scientists – it’s that too few ordinary citizens have even a vague understanding of what science is and how it works. They are therefore unable to participate in an informed way in discussions of some of the most important issues facing us in the 21st century.

We can’t expect everyone to be a science expert, but we do need higher levels of basic scientific literacy throughout our society. Unless this happens we will be increasingly vulnerable to manipulation by the dark forces of global capitalism via the media they control. You can see it happening already.


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