Archive for March 10, 2010

Taken for Granted

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on March 10, 2010 by telescoper

It’s been a couple of weeks since the Astronomy group in the School of Physics & Astronomy at Cardiff University was informed of the result of its recent application to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for a continuation of its rolling grant. I haven’t been able to post anything about it because it has led to some difficult personal situations and we didn’t want anyone to hear about it other than face to face from relevant members of the department.

In case you weren’t aware, a rolling grant covers a 5-year but a group holding one has to apply for renewal every three years at which point the programme of research is reviewed by a panel of experts. If this review is positive a new 5-year grant is awarded and the two years remaining on the old grant or cancelled. In the case of a negative review, however, there is two years’ grace until the funding is terminated, giving the applicants the chance to try again next time.

At least that’s what used to happen.

The previous Cardiff Astronomy roller supported 6 postdoctoral research assistants (PDRAs) as well as providing other funds for travel, equipment, infrastructure and other staff time. This time we requested an increase, primarily in order to enable us to exploit the wonderful data coming from the Herschel observatory. I joined Cardiff after the last review so I wasn’t included in the existing  funding package. However, I did succeed in getting a standard grant in last year’s grant round which provides support for a 3-year period. This time, I applied to have this grant subsumed into the rolling programme when it completes in 2012. I requested an extension to the 3-years to tide this over until the next rolling grant and bring me into phase with the rest of the group.

That was the idea, anyway. STFC is extremely short of money, so despite what we felt was a strong case for supporting our Herschel work we weren’t particularly optimistic of a good outcome, especially since  additional cuts to research grants were announced last December.  In fact the rolling grant application went in last year, but the process is extremely lengthy. Three of us had to go to Swindon last October to present the case to the grants panel. The panel had apparently completed its work by December, but when new cuts were announced they had to revisit their decisions. That’s why we were only informed at the end of February of the level of support that we would get from April 1st this year.

In fact we received two announcements, one detailing what we would have got had the panel’s original recommendations been followed, then another showing the result of the additional 15% cut decided in December. In the first we were cut from 6 PDRAs to 5, but in the second an additional position was cut leaving us with 4 surviving from the previous grant. Moreover, STFC has basically abandoned the rolling grant concept entirely, and refused us permission to let the previous grant roll out. We had no choice but to accept the new grant, which means that we have insufficient funds from 1st April 2010 to honour contracts already issued to two scientists. Not a pleasant situation to be presented with. We’ve managed to find a way of coping to the extent that nobody will be made redundant in the short-term, but it’s still a time of great uncertainty for those involved.

For my own part, the circumstances are a bit better. The panel did award me an extension of my grant to enable me to merge my research with the rest of the programme by the next review date. They also – unexpectedly, I must admit – gave me a small uplift in my existing funding. I’ll be OK, at least for another 3 years.

Overall, we’re disappointed. The outcome wasn’t as good as we’d hoped but, then again, it wasn’t as bad as we’d feared. Taking into account the standard grant I hold, we’ve gone down from 7 PDRAs to 5. I’ve heard rumours of much more drastic cuts elsewhere, and I’m sure other departments are feeling the pain much more than we are right now. I don’t have a clear picture of what has happened nationally, so I’d be grateful for any information people might be prepared to divulge through the comments box as long as you don’t betray any confidences!

The whole business of securing grant funding can be deeply frustrating, and sometimes the  decisions seem bewildering. However, I’ve been on these panels before and I know how hard it is, so I’m never tempted to whinge. In fact, I’m going to be joining the panel again for this round. Not that I’m looking forward to it very much!

However, I can’t resist ending with a comment about the current management of STFC. It really seems quite absurd to be cutting grant funding at precisely the time that Herschel and Planck are starting to deliver huge quantities of exquisite data.  I say that as a scientist of course, not a civil servant. However, the prevailing mentality at STFC – instigated by the Treasury – seems to be that science part of their remit is much less important than the technology and the facilities. Although the Science Minister Lord Drayson recently announced a proposal that purports to fix some of STFC’s difficulties, this seems more than likely to keep grant funding at a miserably low level for the indefinite future. The STFC management’s readiness to rewrite the rules governing rolling grants, cut funding at absurdly short notice, and raid the grant budget in order to solve problems elsewhere has convinced me that there will be no improvement until there are people at the top that recognize that it’s science that matters, that science is done by people, and that the way to manage those people is not to treat them the way they are doing now.

Especially if they want people to provide free advice to their panels…