Taken for Granted

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…

51 Responses to “Taken for Granted”

  1. Tim Harries Says:

    I think that is pretty good result for Cardiff given the circumstances. I have heard a case of a postdoc being given 6 weeks notice after his roller post was not renewed, even though he had an expectation of two more years funding. I agree that STFC is pulling out of the rolling grant business.

  2. Mr Physicist Says:

    These grants dont really “roll” any more and are badly named – more like “start/stop” grants. The 2 years grace was an essential component enabling people to be treated properly and give them the chance to plan their future in the event of managed withdrawal, cuts… call it what you want.

  3. I had heard that the money given to STFC from the other research councils was to enable it to cover its commitment. I know some (me included) took that to mean that it would cover the roll-outs for those rolling grant positions that would not get re-funded; clearly we were wrong.

  4. “we have insufficient funds from 1st April 2010 to honour contracts already issued to two scientists”

    What does this mean? If there is a contract, then there is a legal commitment. Did the contracts state that they are contingent on funding? If not, and the employee took the legal route to hold up the contract, where would the money come from?

    “We’ve managed to find a way of coping to the extent that nobody will be made redundant in the short-term”

    Does this mean that the money to honour the contracts was channeled from some other source?

    Despite other disadvantages, the old rolling-grant scheme in the UK was far superior to the way soft-money positions are funded in many other countries. A shame to see it go.

  5. telescoper Says:

    Phillip,

    PDRAs employed on research grants have contracts with the University not with STFC. It’s the University that has to deal with the mess however it can.

    I don’t think it would be appropriate to say any more about individual employment contracts here.

    Peter

  6. Anton Garrett Says:

    I agree that anybody with a legally binding contract (and perhaps a family to support) should not meekly resign merely because the university that employs them says Sorry, we haven’t been given the money. That would be a basic matter of contract law rather than an ’employment tribunal’. Of course their contract might have a “subject to receiving continuing government grant” clause, in which case Bad Luck. But if not, I’d grunt “Sack an administrator instead of me, then!”

    Peter: Speaking in general terms, do postdoc contracts at most universities include a “subject to receiving continuing rolling grant” clause?

    Anton

  7. If more of this happens then universities are going to get sued by postdocs for broken contracts eventually. I know STFC has get out clauses in their grants, but the universities don’t so will be vulnerable. This is just going to make them even less keen on astronomy, particle and nuclear physics.

    We are so screwed.

  8. I am pretty sure mine has a standard we can give 2 months notice clause. For sure they cannot say STFC is not funding me after April 1 and get rid of me at this stage, they have to give me 2 months notice.

    I am quite alarmed because I assumed if my rolling grant contract was not renewed it would still continue to the end of my current contract – however this post makes it sound like not only will my funding not be renewed, but funding for my current contract will be removed? I assumed I would have plenty of time to find a new job. Now it appears that will not be the case.

  9. telescoper Says:

    Mark,

    I can’t comment on individual circumstances, and I think they vary from institution to institution, but PDRAs have a contract with the University that employs them and such contracts usually contain clauses outlining the employees rights in terms of severance, notice period and so on. Even if STFC withdraw funds then the University must fulfil its contractual obligations in this respect. Contracts can be severed, but only after due notice and only when certain conditions have been met.

    I am aware of a number of cases where STFC has withdrawn funding for existing contracts, leaving Universities to deal with the financial and personal consequences. I think we’re all doing our best to find ways of ameliorating this, but it’s still a terrible situation for many people.

    Lord Drayson recently announced that he thought the UK was going to be “the best place in the world to do science”. Not if your science is astronomy, it isn’t.

    Peter

  10. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    As far as I am aware, PDRA contracts don’t usually include such specific clauses but as I just replied to mark, they do contain stipulations about redundancy, notice periods and the like. A contract can be severed before it’s planned termination date, but only after proper procedures have been followed, and due notice given. The employee may also be entitled to compensation in the form of a severance payment.

    Peter

  11. Hi,

    Yes you are right – after looking it up my university have to give me 3 months notice + compensation for unused annual leave. So even if STFC cut my job at least I have 3 months grace to find something new (though likely not in physics research given all the cuts).

  12. Any postdocs feeling worried about severance in these circumstances and wanting some advice or help on employment law might want to consider joining UCU and discussing things with their local representatives.

    • telescoper Says:

      Dave,

      Indeed, but I would say that most departments that I’m aware of are in any case doing much more than the statutory minimum to help staff placed in difficulty by such developments.

      Peter

  13. Bryn Jones Says:

    These recent events involving a reduction in the number of STFC rolling grants is yet another worsening of a situation that has been intolerable for a few decades. British research councils (in the case of astronomy, the STFC today, before that PPARC, and before that SERC) have consistently undervalued, or neglected, the human aspect in research policy. They created career situations that were intolerable, with research staff being treated very poorly. Over the years, in British astronomy alone, many hundreds of highly-gifted researchers have worked on short-term contracts which came to their ends with the researchers being made redundant, and most eventually had to face finding new careers. The Councils did this because they could get away with it.

    Some astronomical research groups have had rolling grants and these have given medium-term continuity to research projects and research staff (but not long-term continuity). However, many research groups do not have rolling grants. I myself held three research council PDRA jobs, in different universities, and all of these were on standard grants which ended; none of those departments had astronomy rolling grants at the time I was there. An application was made for a new grant towards the end of one of these but the grant was not awarded. For another, the grant holder intended to apply for a new grant to keep me employed, but the standard grants round was cancelled (in the old PPARC days) because of a temporary funding crisis. In all these cases, the end of the contract left my projects incomplete, and these projects were mostly abandoned. I would say that a majority of the research I carried out during my career was not published because of the ending of short-term contracts, and some of this work was my best. And that is the norm.

    It strikes me that senior policy makers, and even some academics, do not appreciate how poor the career situation is in academic basic science. A central problem here is that the people most affected do not complain enough. I do wonder whether things might improve slightly if there were a research careers campaign to lobby for a slightly fairer system. Researchers need to organise and lobby.

    • telescoper Says:

      I was thinking about the research staff concordat, actually. I haven’t had time to go through it to the extent to which STFC may have in breach. I’d be interested to hear any views on this.

  14. Bryn Jones Says:

    Yes, there is the Concordat on research careers. The trouble is that it is in reality a lot of fluff. The truth is that research councils, higher education funding councils, universities, university departments, research groups and grant holders routinely ignore the principles in the concordat, except in the small number cases of where there is a favoured individual they wish to support preferentially. The concordat is a declaration of good practice and no more. It is not legally binding. It is more often ignored than honoured in any useful way.

    I can’t imagine that the STFC would care if it was in breach of the concordat in the case of cutbacks in rolling grants, and would use some of the woolliness in the wording to excuse itself.

    The point of the concordat is that various organisations look as though they are doing something to improve the catastrophic situation with research careers, while in reality ignoring the problem.

    All the same, there might be some possibility of adding a little further embarrassment to the STFC by pointing out that it is breach of the concordat during cutbacks, and that extra pressure might give a useful extra push.

    • telescoper Says:

      The research concordat has been extensively re-written in recent years, but the result seems to be that it is even more nebulous.

      It is sadly true that some departments and individuals ignore the protocols contained within the concordat, but in my experience higher levels of university administration take it more seriously and can bring pressure to bear when its terms are violated. It may likewise do good if, e.g., RCUK were made aware of any breaches by STFC.

  15. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m sure I could produce a long catalogue of instances where the STFC is in breach of the concordat or its spirit, if I really wanted to do so. It wouldn’t do much good.

    But the concordat does have some use in lobbying, particularly where there are other political factors present.

  16. “It strikes me that senior policy makers, and even some academics, do not appreciate how poor the career situation is in academic basic science.”

    I once tried to discuss this over dinner at a conference with a quite well known academic and policy maker (i.e. someone who makes decisions about other people’s income), a U.S. astronomer. My impression was that he didn’t even see that there was a problem. One response, and this is almost a direct quote, was: “As long as the best people are chosen when a position is advertised, where is the problem?” I quickly started talking to someone else when I realised that there was no hope. All of his statements implied that anyone who who complained about the system must be doing so because he’s not good enough and so has to worry about his job.

    The problems are obvious, even assuming that the best applicant always gets the job: 1) The best person might not even apply, because he can’t afford to, so giving the job to the best applicant doesn’t mean giving it to the best potential applicant. 2) Employment structures like these mean that people spend a large fraction of time during their most productive years worrying about getting the next job, when there is a conflict doing stuff to get them the best next job rather than the best science, working on the side to get by financially etc. Even apart from social considerations, it is simply more “bang for the buck” in astronomy if people can concentrate on their work rather than on avoiding unemployment.

    When I was a student in Hamburg, I would have liked to stay on as a doctoral student there, but considered going elsewhere not only because (whether or not it’s true) many people said it would be a good idea to go elsewhere but also because, due to the German unification (meaning the funding agencies were now responsible for all of Germany but a) didn’t have more money and b) were under pressure to give more support to folks in the former East Germany), we knew grants wouldn’t be as easy to come by as in the past. A colleague suggested contacting Professor X, who had just recently become a full professor and seemed like a nice guy. I agreed, so he rang up Professor X to see about the possibilities of working with him. His response, again almost a (translated) direct quote, was: “He can go ahead and start, and if, after a year, it looks like he is doing good work, then we can think about applying for a grant.” Needless to say, I didn’t take up the “offer”. (At the time, my then wife was pregnant, so I had, apart from myself, her, the baby and my stepdaughter to support. But even if I had had only myself to support, I would have had to turn down the offer. Even if I had been independently wealthy, I would have turned it down, since I don’t think it’s a good idea that only the independently wealthy have a chance at a research career, even if in this hypothetical situation I would have reduced my own chances. (I have had quite well known astronomers tell me that they would no longer be in astronomy had they not married a rich person.))

    I later wrote a letter (this was in the days when email wasn’t so prevalent) to Professor Y, a very well known astronomer. I received a personally signed response and it was obvious from the letter that he had read the stuff I sent to him and seemed genuinely sympathetic to my cause, but had no funds available at such short notice. (I should note that between X and Y 1) one externally funded grant proposal was turned down under very suspicious circumstances and 2) I was offered a university-funded position and the funding was withdrawn (by the university itself) at the last minute. (Because I had already been offered this position, even though I didn’t yet have a written contract I turned down a securely funded position at DESY (experimental particle physics having been, after astronomy, the main focus of my study of physics in Hamburg). So much for trusting the administration.))

    Professor Y then suggested I write to Professor Z, who would perhaps have more to offer me. Professor Z is not in the same league but still quite well known. I began by saying that I am writing at the suggestion of the [rather more famous] Professor Y. Professor Z didn’t even bother to write back, which I consider to be an expression of arrogance, especially considering that Professor Y did, even though I expected at most a response from a secretary and not a personal one from Professor Y.

  17. ” All of his statements implied that anyone who who complained about the system must be doing so because he’s not good enough and so has to worry about his job.”

    Then how do they explain that these post-docs are able to get re-employed time and time again if they are no good? I’m quite sure I could keep getting postocs for the next N (where N is a large number) years – I can see plenty of people around who have done this. But I have no desire to do this – as far as I am concerned people like this have already proved they are good enough at their jobs so I can’t see any good reason not to just give them permanent positions. Of course this would require to completely restructure the way post-doc positions are funded.

    I’ve really enjoyed being a postdoc for 5.5. years – but I can’t see myself doing it beyond a few more years unless the career structure is changed so that the only way to get a secure career is not to get one of the few lecturer jobs available.

  18. “Then how do they explain that these post-docs are able to get re-employed time and time again if they are no good?”

    They don’t explain it. They probably don’t hear most of the complaints. Even if they did, the response would be “See, you got another job, where’s the problem?”.

    There is the optimist who jumped out the window of the top floor of a skyscraper. As he sailed by the second floor, he cried “so far, so good”! The truly delusional can always put a “positive” spin on something. It even becomes self-perpetuating. A couple of decades ago, some journalists on television were debating whether the long-drawn-out system of primaries etc in the US presidential elections was a good idea. One said that it is, because it weeds out those candidates who don’t have enough stamina. The other asked why such stamina (as opposed to, say, having good ideas and being good at something other than raising money (or already having enough)) is important. The other required that it is obviously required to get through the primaries, not even realising the irony.

  19. Anton Garrett Says:

    The Concordat cuts both ways. It is useless if a situation has become hopelessly adversarial, but although it was probably introduced to make the ruling classes *appear* to care it can be used to exert moral pressure on them in negotiations, as Peter suggests.

    Academe will go through crises just like every other collective of persons. I get the impression that most European physicists would emigrate to the USA tomorrow but for the culture difference. Even there a generation of research students lost out in the early 1990s when world-class Russian full professors scrambled for humble postdoctoral positions in the West. The difference between that situation and the present one in Britain is that the problem of career structure over here is endemic.

    I agree with all the analyses of the problem above (Bryn and Phillip, in particular), but to me as a self-employed ex-university academic who still occasionally publishes research, the situation looks like this. A set of people have become addicted to sucking exclusively on a State teat that has been obviously drying out for some time, at least on a historical scale. How bad will it have to get before people do something constructive and start to seek and wean themselves onto other sources of funding? Everybody says that no-one will fund pure science, but how do you know if you don’t ask? Microsoft? Tesco? Banks? (Yes, banks; they are NOT poor and they desperately need good publicity.) If you want some confidence that this is not a crank suggestion but has a body of precedent (including in the recent past) and sound psychological theory behind it, read “Sex, Science and Profits” by Terence Kealey, who was for a long time a Cambridge University bioscientist, which is largely about the funding of science. (The title was obviously chosen by the publishers.) The only alternative I see is moaning, which doesn’t get anybody anywhere.

    Anton

  20. Anton Garrett Says:

    PS And cigarette companies – large, rich and unable to spend money on advertising in Europe. The prospect of a satellite with Rothmans or Benson and Hedges written on it might shame a few people in government too. When the latter say “We will not put any of our money in if you go down this route” you have to be courageous and say “At present we are dying the death of a thousand cuts, we would rather stick to our guns” and see if they are bluffing. Try to broker a meeting between government and tobacco. Even if government does mean it for one or two projects, academics MUST get off the path of 1000 cuts.

  21. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    There’s some truth in what you say but in fact State funding for science has generally done quite well over the last decade or so. The trouble with astronomy has been that universities have come to realise that it is good at bringing in students to study physics, so has been favoured by universities whereas government research funding – at least over the last few years – has been increasingly targetted elsewhere, e.g. nanoscience. If the current cuts are followed by deeper ones then a significant number of astronomy groups will no longer be financially viable which will precipitate a decline in physics at University level in this country.

    But I agree about other funding. One of the greatest cultural differences between here and the USA is that private individuals and big corporations do sponsor basic scientific research across the pond, but it doesn’t happen here. I’ve often wondered why companies are much more willing to sponsor opera companies than scientists. You’d think it would be good publicity to be associated with scientific excellence.

    Given that this isn’t going to change in the very short term, however, I think a better strategy for the immediate future is to try to make sure that government’s really understand what science is about and what is needed for it to work. The current system involves grey men who don’t know what they’re doing, manipulated by the Treasury for reasons they don’t feel the need to explain.

    Peter

  22. telescoper Says:

    I’d accept sponsorship from a Tobacco company, but my employer might not. I only like French cigarettes, though, and can’t really see myself getting sponsored by Gauloises.

  23. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Given that this isn’t going to change in the very short term, however, I think a better strategy for the immediate future is to try to make sure that government’s really understand what science is about and what is needed for it to work.”

    Do that *as well* as chatting up big companies and rich individuals – it isn’t an either/or. I know it takes time to chat up companies, but that is the time currently spent filling in government grant application forms.

    Re tobacco – If you told U Cardiff that you had gained a big research grant from a company whose product was wholly legal and which nobody *had* to buy, I think they would go along with it – especially if you could find another university that would be prepared to host you with the grant. Only brinkmanship of this sort by a few brave people will reverse the present downward spiral. I am saying all this because I would like to see it reversed.

    Anton

  24. Anton Garrett Says:

    If Gauloises offered to sponsor you but Cardiff said No, would you be fuming?

  25. telescoper Says:

    Anton,

    For lots of reasons, some of them malicious, I really like this idea.

    I think cigarette sponsorship would be like a breath of fresh air.

    Peter

  26. Anton Garrett Says:

    But do you think they would cough up the money?

  27. telescoper Says:

    Only one way to find out!

  28. Bryn Jones Says:

    The Bristol physics department is located in the H. H. Wills Physics Laboratory, built with money from the local Wills family which made its huge fortune from tobacco.

    Phillip made a very good point about some established academics believing that good people will always succeed in obtaining permanent positions, and that those people who do not get permanent positions fail because they are not quite good enough. I could attempt to use my own case to argue against this. I have now given up on an academic career having previously been a fixed-term lecturer. I would maintain that this is not because of lack of ability, and would cite in my defence the results of a mock research exercise carried out in my former university in which the four best research papers of each academic were assessed by an anonymous external panel. Although I do not know the results of the mock exercise in any detail, I do know enough to be certain that I came joint first, or first, in a successful research group of 12 academics, half of whom had chairs at the time. And I’ve had to give up.

    The reality is that to become an established academic, in the physical sciences at very least, a person needs (1) to be good, (2) to have patronage (from an academic or department), and (3) to have some luck. Many people who obtain permanent academic posts forget, or do not realise, about the support they received or the lucky breaks they had. The support and opportunities were there, and were not noticed. Many other people do not get that patronage or do not have that luck.

  29. > The reality is that to become an established academic

    and bravado – a number of the successful astronomers (and scientists) I know are shameless self-publicists, doing the conference circuit and essentially convincing everyone they are the bees-knees (although I must admit that I don’t know what is so good about a particular insects joints).
    These are good astronomers, but they are also good at letting people know they are. This spreads a ripple through the community (and one only has to watch the dynamics of the job rumour site to see it in action).

    Disclosure – I write this from a permanent position earned with sweat, hard work, and a serious dose of luck.

  30. Three months’ notice is pretty decent for any job in the real world – postdocs should read their contracts and understand the terms and conditions. Where it falls down, of course, is that the astronomy job cycle is highly concentrated around one part of the year – so if you are dropped just after the job round you are completely stuffed. In other fields of science this is not the case – jobs come up throughout the year in roughly similar numbers. This is something that that a professional organisation such as the RAS could try to lobby to change – however their interest in trying to improve conditions for junior astronomers seems to be close to zero. If the job round runs on a 12 month cycle, then postdoc contracts should reflect this.

  31. telescoper Says:

    Anna,

    I don’t know why you say that the interest of the RAS in this is “close to zero”. Are you a Fellow yourself?

    The RAS may not be all that effective at lobbying, but that is because it’s quite a small organization. I think younger folks are sometimes reluctant to join because they think it’s for established astronomers. The RAS Council tries very hard to do a good job for its Fellows, but it needs more younger members.

    Peter

  32. Bryn Jones Says:

    Cusp is right that self-promotion helps greatly with career advancement in science. A prerequisite for doing this, besides a substantial ego, is travel funding, which not all people have to a useful extent.

    AnnaW makes a good point about the cycle of postdoctoral positions in astronomy in Britain today producing a concentration of vacancies around one part of the year. This is something that has developed only within the past few years. Previously, the research council (then PPARC) had two grant rounds per year. This led to a fairly continuous stream of advertisements for postdoc jobs given the varying speeds with which money was transferred to universities’ bank accounts and positions advertised.

    The R.A.S. is genuinely concerned about careers issues, but may lack the resources for powerful campaigning. Perhaps the case for reform would be strengthened if researchers and academics on fixed-term contracts lobbied more. They need to make their voices heard, to policy makers and to elected representatives. People in positions of influence need to be told just how poor conditions are.

    • telescoper Says:

      I think you’ll find self-promotion is not usually allowed. Other people are usually involved on promotion panels.

  33. I used to be a RAS Fellow but resigned a couple of years back because as far as I could tell they no longer represented the interests of myself or many young scientists in the same position. I did my PhD in the UK and then headed overseas to do the postdoc round. Most young British astronomers do the same these days, and I think it’s fair to say that once you leave the hallowed isle you are pretty much out of the RAS loop (except for those annual requests for money!).

    It’s notable, for example, that there has been no dedicated statement from the RAS about the dire position of postdoctoral scientists after the cancellation of the STFC fellowship scheme and the hit to grants. It has been mentioned, of course, but only in and amongst other more general statements on the crisis. Talking to many young British astronomers in the UK and overseas there is a feeling that the lack of specific actions from the RAS on their behalf indicates that they have no interest in representing the next generation of faculty.

    I don’t doubt that they are concerned, but they need to find a way to be effective. A couple of sturdy letters to the Times, as far as I’m concerned, is not an adequate response to the crisis that is now hitting young astronomers – and certainly does not merit the annual fee that the RAS charge. I also agree that postdoctoral scientists should try to lobby on their own behalf, but again bear in mind that many younger Fellows are overseas (so cannot attend meetings), and are in a less secure position so less likely to kick up a fuss without fear of consequences. The senior officers of the RAS are in a much better position to do this.

    Thankfully in my case I’m now out of the loop permanently and settled in a faculty job overseas. However I now see the fallout from the other side, as I am in the process of hiring postdocs. The job market this year is brutal, and I am turning down fantastic applicants who in any other year would be snapped up. The RAS could and should be screaming at the top of its voice about this, particularly if it wants to retain younger members.

  34. Anton Garrett Says:

    At a guess, many senior people don’t speak out because they fear it will be seen by government as scientists biting the hand that feeds them, and they fear that government will respond vindictively. But the case *must* be made by the RAS and other learned societies, for the sake of people who are now where Anna was, or else the slow death by 1000 cuts will continue. The case must be made in forceful but polite language by leading scientists with moral courage. At the same time, other sources of funds should be sought.

    • telescoper Says:

      It is true that the voice of the RAS has been frustratingly muted over these cuts. I think there’s a belief among the people at the top that a softly-softly approach will prove more effective politically. I know that not all my senior colleagues approve of the fact that I’ve been so critical.

      I think they’re wrong, for the obvious reason that we’ve achieved nothing at all by not rocking the boat. Until the President and Council of the RAS start campaigning more effectively the Society will continue to be of marginal interest to younger members. There is an election coming up soon for new Council members, and perhaps that will bring in some more radical characters.

      The more younger people get involved, though, the more chance there is of changing the RAS into something that suits them better. A suggestion I made when I was on Council some time ago was to reserve some places on Council for PDRAs or PhD students to ensure more participation in policy making from younger members. As far as I know nothing came of it.

  35. Bryn Jones Says:

    AnnaW and Peter are right that the R.A.S. could do more to serve the interests of the younger research community. The R.A.S. Council, I would imagine, has a large number of issues to concern itself with, of which the careers crisis is only one major issue. Things might be improved if the R.A.S. formed some committee to speak for the interests of the younger members of the scientific community, including through lobbying, provided that the committee contained a majority of people with recent experience of fixed-term contracts. The members of the committee could concentrate their efforts on analysing the very many weakness in the current system, and petitioning for change, which the R.A.S. Council possibly cannot do due to the range of issues that concern it.

    I would also like to see a research careers campaign set up by postdocs to lobby for an improvement to the career structures across British basic science. That campaign could organise branches in each university. The campaign could issue statements, when appropriate, pointing out deficiencies in the opportunities available to postdocs and criticising genuine poor practice in universities. Too often the views of postdocs are ignored when formulating policy, be it by research councils, universities or ministers. A campaigning group could ensure that those views are articulated.

  36. Anton Garrett Says:

    On reflection, does the RAS charter extend to career issues or is it wholly about the science? Through the UTU and other academic trade unions is certainly an appropriate way to address this issue.

  37. MidCareerAstronomer Says:

    As someone who has worked in several different countries, like AnnaW, and has recently returned to the UK it it very depressing to see astronomy in the UK so mis-managed by STFC. My group has been hit extremely hard by the rolling grant, although we don’t know how that pain is going to be shared amoung the post-docs here yet. I worked in the US and took a large pay-cut and moved my family at my own expense to come back home. Now it is worrying to see my position under threat and the medium-term outlook so dire.

    It is a very frustrating time: there are the normal pressures (and desires) to get papers out, and this is what ultimately counts, but so much time is wasted applying for extremely competitive jobs (not to mention the things you’d like to more of if you really had the time like outreach). In particular the long wait for the results of the big fellowships (which I haven’t got) means you have to keep applying for 4 months until you know the outcome.
    Those who say only the good survive have been a) lucky, b) patronised and
    c) above average in self-promotion. As someone already short-listed for a lectureship (which I almost got) I consider myself good enough, but I’m now looking overseas.

    Regarding the RAS, it would be nice to join and go to London, use the library, walk in and out of meetings, but with a family to support 100quid is quite a lot especially on a postdoc salary. While it would be nice to have the time to start a campaign for improvement in career structure, it is extremely hard to find the time and it would be great if there was a professional organisation that we could join, and actively support, where this was happening.

    PS. I should also point out that the Institute of Physics is a much larger organization with perhaps a greater ability to deliver on career issues. Many astronomers (myself included) are in the IoP as well as the RAS.

    • telescoper Says:

      Hi, I understand your comments entirely, apart from those in the last paragraph. If you are employed as a PDRA your department should refund your travel expenses for attending RAS meetings. That goes for PhD students too. That happens in most places that I’m aware of. Of course, you do need to be convinced that it’s worth spending the time doing that and not all meetings will be relevant.

  38. Being an ex-pat, and having done my BSc and PhD in the UK, it is very sad to see the situation back in Blighty. I have often thought about ultimately returning back home, but it is looking less and less attractive, in terms of salary, grants, opportunities … basically everything. This is made harder by being a country where money is being spent on astronomy as part of the response to the GFC. I worry about the long term future of astronomy in the UK.

  39. As a British post-doc abroad, conversations initiated by young colleagues have followed a rather predictable direction over the past few months. They are annoyed at the waste of their time caused by the cancelling of the junior fellowships, they are concerned for the reliability of UK post-doc positions once they have supposedly been awarded. These are not UK post-docs in the UK – they are usually not even UK nationals. After the fiascos of the STFC fellowships+PDRAs over the last two years, the UK is no longer seen as a viable option by these top young international researchers. Even more than UK post-docs abroad, these researchers have no voice within the UK system – someone else needs to fight for them.

    As young astronomers abroad the RAS should be our obvious representative (whether we are fellows or not). It might be small, but if it didn’t exist the much more effective IOP perhaps would be more willing to fight our corner. History dictates, and we are stuck with it. I am still a member of the RAS, paying my dues whilst abroad to an organisation that does not represent me. Why? Because, unlike Anna, I feel that us all resigning once we realise their true colours is more the problem than the solution.

    In February, I even got sufficiently annoyed to draft a letter, but I didn’t send it for the following reasons (right or wrong….):
    1) the mess that is the STFC is a really very big mess, and a few moaning international post-docs is probably not worthy of RAS attention.
    2) it has probably only directly affected students/post-docs in a ~5 year academic age range. Perhaps not an enormous catastrophe.
    3) I needed a job, and to solve a 9-year long-distance 2-body problem.

    (3) has luckily been solved, so now I have time to be annoyed again, and think about solutions.

    “Things might be improved if the R.A.S. formed some committee to speak for the interests of the younger members of the scientific community, including through lobbying, provided that the committee contained a majority of people with recent experience of fixed-term contracts.”

    This is an idea I like – but how realistic is it? When I look at the list of candidates in this years elections, how many will be under 40 with some years experience abroad? More importantly, how many fellows under 40 will actually bother to vote (if they are even still members)?

    “a research careers campaign set up by postdocs to lobby for an improvement to the career structures across British basic science.”

    I like the idea of something with a much broader coverage. But organising post-docs is like herding cats. We spend 2-3 years in one country, then another, and another, plenty drop out, many are publishing so hard they can’t spare the time, in the end we get permanent positions and loose interest. However, with all the blog/twitter/facebook technology around, perhaps there is a way to get this to work?

    Young researchers with UK interests clearly need some form of representation. Now is the chance for the community to sort it out, while there are plenty of sufficiently annoyed students and post-docs around.

  40. Bryn Jones Says:

    In reply to Anton’s question, the R.A.S. bye-laws state that the object of the R.A.S. are “the encouragement and promotion of Astronomy, Solar-System Sciences, Geophysics and closely related branches of science.” That’s vague, but it could include a more campaigning role, subject to limits imposed by charitable status.

    The University and College Union in principle represents fixed-term staff in universities and it does campaign to reduce the number of fixed-term contracts in British universities. However, its campaigning tends to be of a rather general nature, and it tends not to engage with the particular problems of postdoctoral researchers in the sciences (where short-term grant funding, particularly from the research councils, is a major cause of the problems). Much of the work of the U.C.U. is directed at the concerns of lecturing staff. Only a small minority of postdocs and fellows actually join the U.C.U., possibly being put off by its lack of specific interest in their circumstances and by the substantial cost of membership (about 15 pounds per month). So the union does not represent postdoctoral staff particularly well.

    Vivienne makes a good point about the I.o.P. being an effective lobbying organisation. However, I do note that there are acute career issues in mainstream physics as well: the Institute has not created a career system in physics that is significant better than in astronomy and space research. My idea about a postdoc/careers committee within the R.A.S. is that it would be co-opted by the council, and therefore independent of the election procedure to the council; Vivienne rightly pointed out that the elections to the R.A.S. council tend not to select younger fellows. (I do remember Dave Clements stating an interest in improving careers when he stood (unsuccessfully, unfortunately) for the R.A.S. council last year.)

    An advantage of a formal research careers campaign over an informal association is that it would have more clout in the media. For example, when the Science Minister states that Britain is the best country in the world in which to pursue science, a campaign group could respond with a statement (and an accurate statement at that) that in reality Britain may be among the worst countries in the industrialised world in which to pursue basic research.

    Peter argues that British-based researchers should be able to claim funding from their departments to get to meetings, including R.A.S. Discussion Meetings. The reality is that grant holders hold the purse strings for postdocs (unless the system has changed since I was a postdoc) and, however supportive the grant holders may be in principle, it actually requires action by them to open the purse. And as a fixed-term lecturer, my department provided travel funding of about 400 pounds per year to academics. Nice though this was, it was not suffcient to be able to attend international conferences without finding other funds. And fixed-term staff are essentially unable to apply for grant funding to provide extra travel funds, at least without the collaboration of permanent staff in their department, because of the short-term character of their contracts and the timescale of the grant application/award process. I was invited to give a talk at an international conference, but estimated that it would cost 1200 pounds. Was I to pay the extra 800 pounds from my own bank account? I didn’t go.

    Hence my comments on the need for fixed-term staff to get patronage from permanent staff.

  41. The UCU, unfortunately, is only open to those working in the UK – so postdocs who work for overseas institutions cannot join. I suspect that this also cuts postdoc membership in UK – why join something if you think that you’ll have to move abroad in a couple of years to stay employed? This really only leaves places like the RAS and IOP to lobby on behalf of postdocs. I would strongly support adding something on scientific careers to the mission of the RAS.

  42. Anton Garrett Says:

    Anna,
    It would be remarkable if you cannnot actually join the UCU while overseas, rather than just accept that they cannot represent you. Not many organisations turn down free money. But I take your deeper point.
    Anton

  43. Vivienne Says:

    As noted by Bryn, the IOP has also not been overly successful in changing the career structure of young researchers in general. Looking at every other developed country in the world tells us that there is no easy answer to that (only France has a slightly more humane system, which they are rapidly changing as it is no longer viable and, arguably, rather unproductive).

    But the bad treatment of young researchers by PPARC/STFC in recent years is not necessarily the same thing, and seems to me to have been completely unnecessary.

  44. Bryn jones Says:

    I’m not sure that many research staff overseas would have much interest in joining the U.C.U. given that a majority of postdocs in Britain do not join because they feel, rightly or wrongly, it is not really worth the subscription.

    A central issue regarding deficiencies in the career structure in basic science in any one country is that the generally poor conditions in many other countries in the western world lessen the urgency to find solutions. The situation in astronomy in the United Kingdom in the past might have been particularly poor compared with most other countries given the unusually high ratio of PhD studentships to long-term jobs. However, poor conditions elsewhere lessened the pressure on research funders to address the issue.

    Perhaps research staff across the world have the duty to campaign for improvement in their own countries. Given the recent STFC disasters, researchers in Britain have the duty to shout the loudest.

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