Another Day, Another Panel..

I’m completely knackered, and my dinner’s warming up, so I’ll keep this relatively brief…

I got up at 5am this morning to take the train  to London  in order to attend the first meeting of the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) for this year. The deadline passed in early April, and the applications have now all been received by Swindon Office so now the AGP has to swing into action, like a well-oiled machine, to rank the applications and make recommendations as to which ones should receive funding.

This meeting was chaired by the new Astronomy Grants Supremo,  the e-astronomer (although on STFC business he uses his pseudonym, Andy Lawrence). The real hard work comes in a succession of meetings later in the year, but this one was basically in order for us newbies to learn the ropes and to get a bit of background before we get going. Actually, I’ve been on such panels before – I chaired the Astronomy Theory Panel a few years ago, before moving to Cardiff – but it’s all changed quite a lot and I’m actually glad  I had the chance to learn about the new procedures. It was nice to see the other people involved too, some of whom I didn’t know before and some of whom I’ve known for years (often from other panels). When you get older as an academic, life turns into a Succession of  Panels. Sigh. I wonder if there are Panels in the Afterlife?

The backdrop to this round was provided by the deep cuts in Astronomy research that emerged from last year’s STFC  Prioritisation Exercise. We heard a summary of the Financial Position that was shocking in its magnitude as well as depressing in its likely long-term effects. In 2008, STFC funded “new” 92 postdoctoral research positions across the UK making the total number of astronomy PDRAs at that time about 295 (a PDRA usually lasts three years). In 2009 the number of new positions dropped to 69, and projections suggest a  number of about 60 this year. This will put the number of astronomy PDRAs at about 180, just short of a 40% cut with respect to the 2008 number. Moreover, last year saw a significant reduction in the number of rolling grants by about a third, although many of these carried on at a reduced level as standard (3-year) grants. Projections suggest that current funding levels will see 70% of the UK’s rolling grants unrolled in this way; this figure is higher than for this round because of  short-term injection of cash from RCUK – the famous £14 Million – that ameliorated the cuts this year and the fact that this year’s grant funding had slightly more money in it than other years of the three-year cycle for historical reasons. A full report of last year’s grants round should be available on the STFC website soon.

UPDATE: It is there now.

Of course it remains to be seen what happens in practice, and how this compares with projections of this sort. I won’t be able to say much on this blog about the process from now on – for reasons of confidentiality – but I can assure everyone reading this that everyone on the AGP wants to fund excellent science and will do everything they can to make the system work in a way that achieves this in the fairest possible manner. It’s inevitable, though, that in these tough times some excellent research will not be supported. That’s the thing that makes these Panels so stressful.

Anyway, apart from my growing apprehension of the scale of the task in front of us, the trip to London was otherwise pleasant. A lovely train journey in the sunshine through the beautiful spring greenery of Wales and England was very relaxing, and I even got tomorrow’s lecture written on the way. The meeting took place in a cramped and stuffy room at the Royal Institute of British Architects, a building of such poor design that you might think RIBA would disown it. Come to think of it, no. It probably won an award. Crap buildings so often do.

Oh, and the caterers forgot to supply our lunch on time too. Eventually we got a few measly sandwiches at about 2pm. Not impressive. Still, the main meetings will all be in Swindon. What a delight.

The way home wasn’t such fun. One of the engines of the train conked out shortly after leaving Paddington so we couldn’t go at proper speed and I got back to Cardiff 20 minutes late. It was still sunny, though, and I’d just put some lovely new music on my iPod so I wasn’t too bothered.

Now my dinner’s ready. And this has been 700 words. That’s not particularly brief, even by my standards…

One Response to “Another Day, Another Panel..”

  1. Peter – just checking to say that I have nothing to say. But nothing better to do cos I am still stuck on the train home.

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