Advanced Fellowships

This is just a quick Newsflash that UK Astronomers will be  interested in (and depressed by). My attention was drawn to it yesterday by Frazer Pearce of Nottingham.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has decided in its finite wisdom to cut in half the number of Advanced Fellowships (AFs) it awards each year, that is from 12 to 6, that number to cover all of Astronomy and Particle Physics.

These fellowships are awarded to researchers who do not have a permanent position but wish to pursue research, and are designed to further the careers of individuals with outstanding potential. They last 5 years – longer than the usual 2-3 year postdoctoral positions and have been for many a scientist an important stepping-stone to an academic career. A very large fraction of my colleagues who have permanent positions were awarded one of these fellowships when they were run by PPARC (including Frazer), as was I myself but, being an Oldie, mine was even pre-PPARC so was in fact given by SERC. Of course the fact that they gave me one doesn’t itself serve as much of a recommendation for continuing them, but it is worth drawing attention to the huge amount of  high quality research done in the UK by holders of these Fellowships.

A number of people have expressed to me their shock at this decision but it doesn’t surprise me at all. For one thing, it’s an open secret that STFC considers the academic community in these areas to be too large so the last thing it wants is more people getting permanent jobs through the AF route.  In any case, STFC’s prime concern is with facilities, not with scientific research.

Who needs half a dozen top class scientists when you can have Moonlite instead?

22 Responses to “Advanced Fellowships”

  1. Edward Gomez Says:

    It has also decided to slash the outreach budget by more than half and not award any more this year.

    A fundamental problem with government funding (whether for science research or school education) is that they always favour items over people. Every year the University tells us that they can’t afford all the teaching staff but they can afford to replace suites of computers which are only a year old.

  2. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, I read the item about the STFC cuts in Advanced Fellowships on the R.A.S. website yesterday, which includes a short, pertinent criticism by Andy Fabian, the R.A.S. President.

    You will recall the visit several years ago by the then Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, Ian Halliday, to the Nottingham Astronomy Group. During his meeting with the postgraduate and postdoctoral researchers, he commented, with his usual bluntness, that the only career path to a permanent job in astronomy in Britain was via either an Advanced Fellowship or a Royal Society University Research Fellowship. If you didn’t get one of those, you wouldn’t get a permanent job and were out.

    With about a dozen new awards of AFs and URFs in astronomy per year, we have already have had a situation for some years where there has been no guarantee that a person on a five-year fellowship would get a permanent academic position. I have known of a number of very highly gifted holders of such fellowships struggling to get a permanent lectureship. The new STFC policy is clearly designed to reduce this tension. Of course, the policy will only increase the already intolerable pressures in the career system for postdoctoral and postgraduate researchers, which is already beyond breaking point. Britain appears to be, in astronomy and many other branches of science, a training ground for people who have to go abroad to fulfill their career ambitions, or who have to struggle to find employment in companies which have little interest in employing people with very highly developed academic skills.

  3. telescoper Says:

    Ed,

    I didn’t realise they had cut the outreach budget too. Interesting that Keith Mason no longer believes that it is worth even attempting to promote public enthusiasm about science.

    Peter

  4. Why would we expect someone to believe it was worth nurturing the public’s enthusiasm for science whn they’ve been so successful in their own quasi-scientific career whilst showing no enthusiasm for it themself?

    More seriously (and less waspishly), I’m not at all surprised by the cut in the number of STFC Advanced Fellowships, although I was still holding onto some hope that this cut wouldn’t come. My above snipe notwithstanding, I actually find the cut in outreach funding more surprising given that most STFC applications include sections on outreach.

    The emphasis on “things over people” is incredibly depressing to me, as the former should surely only be tools for the latter (as was clear to, amongst others, Stanley Kubrick when he made ‘2001’). The net financial result of this policy is that the small amount of public money nominally set aside for science, and by implication scientists, is being siphoned off to private sector techonology and engineering companies.

    Bleugh.

  5. Thomas D Says:

    Speaking of the university, I haven’t yet found out when and if we should be getting a replacement Bernard, or indeed a replacement Leo. I was led to believe that at least one would be forthcoming. There must be lots of strapping young(ish) CMB theorists that we could give a job to.

  6. I used to think that I could not get any more cynical.

    I recall Keith saying that we should spend more on building things and less money on expensive RAs – a wonderful policy at any time, let alone the economic environment that we have now.

    It will also be interesting to see how much of the recently released report on feedback from the strategy consultation fits with what we were being told we should be doing since the consultation was announced. It will be a good indicator of how in step the community is with STFC thinking.

  7. John Peacock Says:

    Of course, there is no strategic thinking behind the AF cut – just a desperation to save money. Incidentally, I can’t find an official statement on the STFC web; does anyone know if there’s a similar cut in the 3-year PDRFs?

    Nevertheless, it may be true that we have too many AFs. Since the end of the RAE hiring spike and the arrival of general downturn, it has seemed likely to me that there won’t be enough permanent jobs being offered to soak up all the AFs and RSURFs that are already in orbit. I think there would be a case for redirecting some of the money from these 5-year positions into support of post-AF careers (remember the 1980s “new blood” lectureships?).

    But STFC and the RS don’t seem to take any responsibility for the people they’ve attracted into the waiting room of academia: the next step is supposed to be up to the universities. But even those who did well out of the RAE are likely to be nervous. I hear we have been asked to respond to a scenario of a 20% cut in Funding Council income, and in that climate most institutions will be postponing recruitments if they can.

  8. telescoper Says:

    John,

    It’s perhaps worth noting that PPARC scrapped its Senior Fellowship programme some time ago, indicating that departments should use their FEC funds to provide research time for established staff. Now STFC is routinely slashing FEC support – and clearly wants to cut it even further –
    it’s clear that there will be rapidly diminishing research activity in this area over the next few years.

    STFC has trimmed the AFs and a few projects this year but there is a crisis looming over next year’s budget because the difficult decisions haven’t yet been made. If what I’ve been told is true there is going to be blood on the walls.

    Peter

  9. On the one hand, we have gentlemen’s agreements about various fellowships being stepping stones to permanent positions and on the other hand funding agencies cutting fixed-term positions to save money. Obviously, if there is a conflict, it is the gentelemen’s agreement which goes.

    Back in the good old days when there was enough money, such a system might have worked and might even have had something going for it. These days, there are many sources of funding and most young researchers are told what they should do in order to get a permanent position. There are always more people looking for a permanent position than there are positions to be filled. Many leave the field before getting a permanent job. Often, those who are independently wealthy, have no children etc are the ones who manage to stick it out long enough. (This is not to say that those who eventually get the jobs are not qualified, but they are not necessarily the best of the whole lot, even if they are the best of those remaining in the pool.) An astronomer we both know, and who now has a permanent position, once told me that he would have had to leave astronomy long ago if his wife weren’t rich. Add to this the frustration that occasionally people get a permanent job even though they did not all or even none of the things which are recommended and have neither a large number of papers nor particularly important ones. (Obviously, in these cases, favours, blackmail etc play a role. When there are more than enough posiitons, this might be acceptable at some level, but it obviously shouldn’t be when each such person takes a position away from someone who really deserves it.)

    I think the only way to acceptably solve the problem is to have all funding come from universities (whether or not there is ultimately some other source doesn’t matter—it’s all tax money in the end anyway) and these should hire the people they need to maintain their staffing levels. Best would be tenure-track positions so that people have a chance of settling down at a reasonably young age. I don’t even think that it is necessary to do a few postdocs between degree and tenure-track position. If we look at who has permanent jobs today (and deserves them), it was obvious even back in their undergraduate days. The situation these days is that people spend their most productive years in perpetual fear of unemployment, in working on the side just in case things don’t work out in academia, in applying for the next job etc. Yes, hiring people young might mean hiring someone who burns out at 35, but for everyone of those there are probably a dozen others who were extremely well qualified but had to leave the field for reasons of job security.

    One often hears that there is no way that academia can compete with the real world with regard to salaries. True, but irrelevant. Someone who leaves academia might make 3 times what he was making before, but that doesn’t mean that 3 times the salary would have been needed to keep him. If he left for financial reasons, maybe 30% more, or not even that: just job security. In some cases, even job security is not necessary: there just isn’t enough money to go around.

    I never cease to be amazed by the number of tenured senior researchers who don’t see this as a problem: there are always more applicants than positions, and the person hired is always good enough. They overlook the fact that even better people have had to leave the field. Of course, criticism of the current system they sometime take as personal criticism, especially if one points out that it was easier to get a job in the past.

  10. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Peter,

    To answer John’s query above, PDFs were not cut this year. By a quirk of fate the AF selection had been delayed by bad weather, and the earlier PDF selection had already been announced when the demand to make cuts in the fellowship budget arrived. The PDFs couldn’t be recalled so the full brunt fell on the AFs.

    As things stand the AF cut is for this year only, not a permanent one as implied in Peter’s original post. However it is likely that Education Training and Careers Committee (which runs the fellowship programme and which I am currently on) will be asked to make savings in future years given STFC’s position. If so they would almost certainly be shared between PDFs and AFs, and there may be arguments that the PDFs should take more of the share. Eg given the huge oversubscription (200 applications for each type AFTER institutions have enforced their quotas), the overhead in running two separate selections for such small numbers of actual fellowships may be hard to justify

    Of course ETCC’s ambition to restore Senior Fellowships looks further from reality than ever.

    best,

    Andrew

  11. telescoper Says:

    Andrew,

    I was indeed under the impression that this was a permanent cut, so I’m glad of the correction even if it turns out to be that way eventually. I think if there is to be a cut the axe should fall more heavily on the PDFs rather than the AFs. For one thing, the panel has so little to go on with the PDFs that it really is a lottery who gets them. Even if there were enough money to keep them going, I would have argued for the money to go into the grant round instead.

    Peter

  12. John Peacock Says:

    Andrew,

    Thanks for the clarification; I had suspected that this news was referring to the cuts made this year, rather than plans for the future, and it’s nice to have that confirmed.

    As for cutting PDFs preferentially, there are certainly arguments in favour. When I was on the fellowship panel, I quickly tired of references from certain quarters who every year had uncovered “the best student I have ever seen”. But despite being a lottery, they are also a valuable service – allowing our best students to become more rounded researchers before being released into the community to compete against more experienced products of the US system. A PDRA place might accomplish this, but it depends on having an enlightened employer who is hiring in a suitable area.

    I initially hoped that the new 3.5-year PhDs might be a simpler way to achieve this aim of post-PhD polishing. I assumed we would put the extra 0.5 years in a pot and dish out extra years of funding to the ones who looked like they would persist in academia. But in the end, we couldn’t do this because of some institutions who broke ranks and offered students a full 3.5 years as a recruiting bribe. So I would have people say to me, “how come you are only offering 3 years when xxx says I’ll get 3.5 years if I come to them”, and we had to match this offer. This was a real missed opportunity, and I wish STFC would police the system so that funding beyond 3 years is only allocated (say) at the end of year 2. I’d miss the PDFs much less if we had this sort of flexibility.

  13. telescoper Says:

    John,

    I can see your argument but I think the proper solution is more radical. A move to the Bologna system 3+2+3 should prevent each successive stage of our training system being as preoccupied with remedial activity as it is now.

    I think we need more 2 years masters and fewer, better trained PhDs. In that case the need to have PDFs as sticking plaster disappears.

    Peter

  14. How has the Bologna process been received in UK astronomy?

    In Germany in the old days the first degree (“Diplom”, roughly equivalent to a master’s degree in the traditional sense and requiring a year of thesis work (“Diplomarbeit”)) took typically 5 years and the doctorate 3. There was an internal examination (“Vordiplom”) after the first two years, but, unlike the Bachelor’s degree, it wasn’t considered a degree acceptable to an employer. Thus, on the surface not much has changed (only making the Vordiplom an official, externally recognised degree—the Bachelor’s degree). However, in practice very much has changed. The new system is more structured, more school-like and leaves little room for pushing the boundaries (whether due to wide-ranging interests or the need to work on the side, take care of children etc). The general opinion is that the resulting quality is less than under the old system.

    The big goal of Bologna is for all countries to have comparable degrees and a comparable structure at university. My main criticisms are that that which has been agreed on was not the best choice (see above) and that one is putting the cart before the horse: it makes no sense to harmonise university studies when otherwise the rules and customs are so different (starting with the question of whether or not students have to pay fees) that they swamp any harmonisation within the system itself.

    The UK system was always more school-like than in Germany and students are typically younger (due in part to the fact that in Germany a) pre-university school was, until recently, 13 years, so that one finishes at 19, and compulsive military service (for men, but most astronomers are men)).

    (Another problem in Germany is that education is the responsibility of the individual states. It is silly to harmonise across Europe when there are huge differences WITHIN a country.)

  15. Bryn Jones Says:

    I agree with Peter that the current career system requires more radical solutions, and the introduction of the Bologna system with fewer PhD places would be a useful move in the right direction.

    The career situation in astronomy/astrophysics in Britain really is not working. We attract too many people to PhD study in astronomy, who otherwise could be supported to study for PhDs in applied physics, with the resulting positive benefit to their own careers and to the national economy. There are too many people in the British astronomy career structure, all struggling to survive to a very small number of permanent positions, most of whom are destined to fail. The current astronomy career system does not produce people of interest to industry or the general economy. It produces people who are considered over specialised and over qualified, turning the brightest and best of a generation into failed academics.

    Curiously, there seems to be little discussion of the Bologna system within Britain. It is almost as though the universities expect that it will never be implemented. There seems to be no leadership at present from government towards implementation.

  16. John Peacock Says:

    Peter,

    You say

    “I think we need more 2 years masters and fewer, better trained PhDs. In that case the need to have PDFs as sticking plaster disappears.”

    I think I agree with this if you are assuming that getting a PhD means with reasonable probability that you are headed for an academic career (as in the US, for example). Most of the current PhDs we train are not intended for this destination, but probably employers would be equally happy picking up people with research skills gathered during a 2-year Masters.

    So Bologna could be a sensible outcome. But I don’t see any signs of movement in that direction in the UK. I guess it’s the same snobbery that afflicts other parts of education: “only” an MSc would be seen as having failed to do things properly by getting a PhD. This is the same problem that we face with undergraduates: most of our students reach their intellectual limits after 2 years, and it would be in everyone’s interest to see them graduate with a meaningful ordinary degree at this stage. But this is seen as failure, so they stagger on and you see many cases of people struggling to avoid getting a Third in the MPhys programme. This isn’t the right outcome for these students.

    Incidentally, when I was in Barcelona recently, the university there was plastered with anti-Bologna graffiti, and the undergraduates had just had a general strike over the issue. I didn’t grasp what they disliked, but clearly the process doesn’t appeal to the intended customers.

  17. telescoper Says:

    John,

    Yes that’s basically what I meant. I think graduates with a 2-year Masters are probably much more useful to the general economy than PhDs. But it’s all pie-in-the-sky because altering undergraduate and postgraduate funding would require some intelligent thinking across political departments which is just impossible. Bologna might as well be on the Moon as far as we’re concerned. Scotland (or even Wales) could go it alone if they had the inkling, though. That would be fun.

    Peter

  18. @Bryn: I think your analysis applies to countries other than the UK as well.

    @John: I don’t know, but I suspect that much of the anti-Bologna sentiment in Barcelona is similar to that in Germany (see above).

  19. Speaking from experience, while of course someone who has worked for years in research is very specialised in some sense, I don’t think this is a real problem as far as employers are concerned. In many non-academic jobs, things move so fast that any university study would be obsolete by the time one is finished and learning by doing is the norm. Ex-academics are often quite good at learning by doing and some employers seek them out.

    I think the bigger problem is that most ex-academics wanted to remain academics. If one is after money, then the best time to leave academia is right after getting one’s degree. The psychological jump from academia to non-academia is a big one. It’s hard to sell oneself if one shows up at the interview and says “I’m here because I ran into a dead end in academia”.

    I think the biggest problem in academia is lack of objectivity. Even apart from cases where someone gets a permanent position due to marital connections or blackmail (or both combined), with so many applicants and so few positions ability is only one of many factors and not even the most important. I don’t even think that employers can judge who is the best since the output during the postdoc years (which is used to judge) depends on so many things other than ability. At least within a given country, the playing field is probably most level during one’s university education. Give the best tenure-track jobs and have no other possibilities available to stay within academia. This would be in everyone’s best interest.

    The real reason the current system exists is because funding agencies don’t have to make long-term financial commitments. Most research is financed by soft money, which can disappear at the end of the next grant. Even some who have tenured academic positions like this system because it keeps their subordinates in their places.

  20. […] Advanced Fellowships In the Dark This is depressing. The STFC, the funing body for UK astronomy, continuing to cut down astronomical research in the UK to a more manageable level. […]

  21. […] Advanced Fellowships In the Dark This is depress­ing. The STFC, the fun­ing body for UK astro­nomy, con­tinu­ing to cut down astro­nom­ical research in the UK to a more man­age­able level. […]

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