I Did Expect the Spanish Inquisition…

So that was it. D-Day.

Our application to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for a rolling grant to cover the next 5 years of astronomy research went in a  few months ago. Over the summer we got feedback from independent referees. But today was the crunch. The dreaded panel visit.

In the old days the grants panel used to visit the applicants at their own institute, chat to the postdocs and staff, help themselves to free food, and generally get a feel for the place over a period of a couple of days. Now, all that cosiness has gone. Nowadays the applicants visit the panel.  Mohammed and the Mountain and all that (except I’m not sure which is which).

A large group of astronomers are involved in this application, but STFC rules permit only three representatives to make the pilgrimage to Swindon in order to testify in front of the experts. I was among the chosen few, although I was not particularly grateful for this honour.

This would have been stressful enough, but there is grim talk of slashed budgets and looming financial disaster for UK astronomy. The successful launch of Planck and Herschel in May, followed by the exceptionally promising snippets of data that we’ve been getting, has strengthened what was already a very strong case. These events should have given us all the cards. The trouble is, it looks like the casino has gone bust.

We were all a bit nervous, I can tell you, as we travelled to Swindon on the early train from Cardiff. Steve Eales is Principal Investigator on the grant and he’s a self-confessed morning person so he went on a ludicrously early train in case something happened to delay him. Derek Ward-Thompson and I followed on a more sensible one, but we all got there safely and on time in the end.

We started with a presentation by Steve which he delivered in superb style, keeping exactly to time but also ticking all the boxes we were asked to cover in the instructions we got. The science updates from the last 6 months are really impressive, and it was all made even more dramatic when he told the panel that the new Herschel images they were seeing were not public and therefore that they shouldn’t look at them.

Then we were due for 45 minutes questioning by the panel. I thought it might be something like Blind Date because there were three of us to do the answering. Question Number One for Contestant Number Two, that sort of thing, except that we anticipated slightly more technical questions and we weren’t expecting Cilla Black to be there.

But there weren’t many questions at all. In fact, I had only one question (on the cosmology part). It was curiously anti-climactic after having had a near-sleepless night worrying about it. This could mean either that they’d already decided to close us down, that they’d already decided we were brilliant, or that they already knew there was no money so there wasn’t any point in asking anything.

So 25 minutes into the 45 allotted we were shown the door and headed back to Cardiff by train. It was like Monty Python in reverse: we did expect the Spanish Inquisition, but it never happened…

We jabbered nervously on the return journey because the adrenalin was still going, speculating about what it all meant but not coming to any real conclusions except that Steve had given a great presentation and that we had all answered the questions as well as we could have been expected to. It’s all out of our hands now.

The trouble is that we’re not likely to get a new grant announcement until April 2010, which is actually when the grant is supposed to start. The postdoctoral researchers we currently employ will have to wait until then to hear about possible extensions to their contracts. Perhaps by April  the management will have sorted out the current STFC crisis so we can get on and do some science with the wonderful new data.

On the other hand, perhaps not….

5 Responses to “I Did Expect the Spanish Inquisition…”

  1. Best of luck with this Peter, I really hope that you guys get it. The Herschel images I’ve seen so far are just incredible, and I’m sure there’s lots of great science to be done. what percentage of astronomers are on the hitlist/prioritisation scheme?

  2. telescoper Says:

    Thanks for your comment, Chris. The people most directly affected by any cut would be the postdocs supported on the grant whose livelihoods depend on continued funding.

    I don’t know how many PDRAs will be cut, but we’ve already had a 25% reduction which was bad enough!

  3. What, couldn’t you ask them any questions in return to fill up the time?

    All sounds a little bit James Bond … “the new Herschel images they were seeing were not public and therefore that they shouldn’t look at them.” As long as none of the panel had a photographic memory I think it will be OK.

    So even if both the reviewed and the reviewers live in Scotland, do they still have to go to Swindon? No wonder the budget is disappearing

  4. telescoper Says:

    We didn’t ask questions of our own because we were more than happy to let sleeping dogs lie….

    I think it costs less for 3 applicants plus panel to go to Swindon than for the whole caboodle to traipse around the country from one host to another.

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