The New Scheme for STFC Research Grants

Quickly donning my Community Service hat, I thought I’d pass on a little bit of news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to my avid readership (both of them).

You may recall that a few months ago STFC sent out a consultation document to its “community”, in which departments were asked to comment on three proposals for a new system of research grant funding.

Well, the Committee responsible for considering this issue has now reported back in a lengthy document that can be found here.

So which of the three options are they recommending, do I hear you ask? Well, actually, none of them.

What they are in fact recommending, in essence, is that in future there will only be a single three-year “consolidated” grant per department in each discipline (e.g. particle physics or astronomy). The security of the existing (five-year) rolling grants will all but vanish, although a vestigial element of this will be retained by allowing some part of the three-year allocation to be spent over a 4 year period. What will also be lost is the flexibility of the current standard 3-year grants to provide a small amount of funding for novel ideas by individual researchers. In the new system, all scientists in a given department will be allowed to apply only once every three years.

The proposal clearly sounds the death knell for any form of “responsiveness” in grant funding from STFC, further strengthening the impression (which has been growing for many years) the Executive wishes to impose a rigid top-down management on all its science programmes.

It looks to me like they have combined the least attractive aspects of the three proposals into a single scheme that is considerably worse, from the point of view of delivering science, than the sum of its parts. Nevertheless, STFC Council has endorsed the new proposal and it looks like it is now going to be implemented.

One might wonder what was the point of consulting on three alternatives and then implementing something completely different to all of them, but the answer to that appears to be simply the desire to save administrative costs.

I’m sure there’ll be comments and reaction to this announcement, so please feel free to add yours through the box below!


26 Responses to “The New Scheme for STFC Research Grants”

  1. My first impression is bang goes responsiveness and initiative in pursuing new ideas. Also I do wonder if this style of grant would benefit more established scientists much more than new blood.

  2. Would be interesting to know the statistics of the responses to the consultation just to se if they took any notice at all…

    Does this mean the end of normal responsive mode grants, and that everything goes into these consolidated blocks? This would mean that if something changes over the 3 year period – new staff, new projects etc. – then you’re stuck!

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Paul Crowther, Peter Coles. Peter Coles said: The New Scheme for STFC Research Grants: […]

  4. given that the document states that STFC should consider allowing consolidated grants from multiple institutions “in the same well defined research area (e.g. as a consortium)” – there doesn’t seem a logical reason for them refusing to allow a consolidated grant from a single institution “in the same well defined research area”. this would be the current “rollers” without the nominal (but non-existant) “rolling” aspect.

    looking at their administrative savings table – the real gain seems to be removing astronomy standard grants… so is there anyway those could be streamlined to reduce the administrative burden, while retaining the flexibility?

  5. Woken Postdoc Says:

    Typical. Even in the overview paragraphs are pre-loaded with the weaselly implication that grants will only be given for “exploitation” of STFC facilities and experiments. Gadgets will drive the national programme; individuality and inspiration are obsolete. Anyone with a bright idea involving non-STFC facilities is out of the game. Anyone engaged in theory will be held subordinate to the narrow, stale topics of relevance to the machines.

    Obviously, fellowships and postdocs are to be regarded as grunt-labour only. Apparently we’re destined to remain slaves “exploited” for repetitive digestion of the effluent from the “data pipelines” of mega satellites and cartel surveys. Whether or not these projects address any meritous scientific questions is of course irrelevant: everything would have been planned decades ago by shaggy old professors strategising in smoky rooms.

    • I couldn’t agree more with the first part. “Science” in the STFC mindset = stamp-collecting on an industrial scale. However, not sure about “strategising in smoky rooms”. I’ve never heard it called that before.

    • Woken Postdoc Says:

      I guess that in the unclear parts, what I could have suggested was this:

      * The terminology of “exploitation grants” fits (and exposes) the cavalier attitude of STFC and some senior academics who regard the students, postdocs and research fellows as expendable minions, rather than as successors worthy of investment and pride. Apparently there’s no shame in talk of “exploitation”; the hirelings are chess-pieces in empire-building games. Strategically-minded Big Professors enjoy getting their names automatically included on *numerous* consortium papers, even if they’ve long ago lost the ability to perform calculations themselves. It’s the exploitative ponzi scheme of modern mega-science.

      * Heads of some especially large projects develop a funny kind of megalomania. Successive new projects seem ever more grandiose — keeping the senior folk busy in conspiratorial cartel meetings, for years or decades. Postdocs and students are kept in the dark. Is this a culture of executive displacement activity? Are agonisingly slow mega-projects contrived as platforms to perform self-fulfilling prophecies of “leadership”?

      In their scientific meta-politics, the Big Professors always push and shove against other big-name factions, until eventually the famous players win cosy research empires. I understand that a sort of consensus was the normal outcome during PPARC’s happy era. Maybe the competition is more deadly today, in the epoch of STFC massacres? Anyway I guess that there’s still plenty of strategic conspiracies going on in confidential meetings (judging by the furtive body-language I see).

  6. Woken Postdoc Says:

    The business of “core” vs “non-core” presonnel is intriguing. I anticipate that some departments will do a bit of sneaky gaming: tactically redesignating postdocs when the time for grant renewal arises. Perhaps a “core” label will be exercised to systematise the kind of low favouritism that ordinarily cushions the postdoc who was an in-house graduate, or the not-so-bright adventuress who has been secretly pleasuring her boss?

  7. the recommended approach (at least from an AGP perspective) become easier to understand when you remember who the two “astro” members of the panel are: bode and merrifield. both are at institutions without multiple-RGs or significant SG communities (at the moment, i believe: although i guess LJMU now has).

    giving everyone a “non-rolling” roller with light-touch assessment might make sense in a perfect world, but it looks like a way of fossilising the existing structures. why not just give each HEFCE-supported academic some fraction of a PDRA and let them club together to hire one? a sort of voucher system for research.

  8. FWIW,

    Personally I think Stirling’s panel have ended up with the least bad option in the circumstances. Community responses were fairly proportionate across STFC’s research communities (half astro, a quarter pp etc.) and I gather varied between “we like RGs” (from those holding RGs) to “we like SGs” (from those holding SGs) so their final recommendations include some elements of each, albeit mindful of short timescales and

    a) addressing the 33% reduction in admin costs, so simply going down route of core-grants plus SGs would have led to a huge increase in SG applications

    b) SGs have not been what could legitimately be described as “responsive” every since the shift from two rounds/yr to one, since an April XX proposal would struggle to recruit someone before Sep XX+1 in practice.

    c) their proposed solution removes the (perceived) non-level playing field between RG and SG applications

    d) system should provide groups with a reasonable level of stability without having to artificially combine multiple SG applications into a single overarching RG theme, with support for core staff of 0+1+1+1 and non-core staff of 0.5+1+1+0.5 for years 1-4.

    • Paul, just because switching to a 1 round per year system severely damaged responsiveness, I don’t think we should really rush to tip soil over its corpse.
      I am concerned both by the emphasis on existing stfc facilities and the seeming sidelining of early career workers that would flow from stfc adopting this proposal. The basic chop down of a roller with some longer support for technical posts is fine, let’s face it, stfc cannot afford to commit money to years 4 & 5 anyway. No its all the other little bits that make this unpalatable.

  9. Tom Shanks Says:

    Hmmm – so a dept with an astronomy instrumentation roller, a theory roller and an observational roller will have to consolidate them into one 3 year astronomy grant. That’s going to leave a bit to negotiate back at the department after the grant’s awarded! Also how’s it going to be refereed?

    I suppose many such universities could be invited on board, get the grant
    in, and then set up a good old fashioned independent assessment process to divvy up the funding. Just kidding!

    • Why not let the entire astronomy community apply for a single consolidated grant and run its own peer review system from that point?

  10. […] I suppose the obvious news of the day for your friendly neighbourhood AGP chairman is the outcome of STFC’s Grant Mechanism Review. However, that discussion is well underway on Peter’s blog, so I suggest you check it out there. […]

  11. John Peacock Says:

    I was one of those who argued in favour of rollers as the principal mechanism. The new consolidated grants sound at first like a continuation of rollers, but without the previous degree of scientific homogeneity. I think this broadening has its merits: Tom Shanks worries about how to fit instrumentation, theory and observation into the same bucket, but equally there have been cases of groups having multiple rollers (say, theory and various technique-based observations) where there was definite science overlap, and it was frustrating to be on a visiting panel and not see the full picture of support. Anyway, more sensible to let partitioning of resources be done within a group by people who have some idea of what they’re doing.

    But the big deficiency of the new system is the lack of a roll into years 4/5. Kav says STFC can’t afford to commit to these years, but I disagree. With consolidation, you have to expect a degree of continuity: a whole group isn’t going to change its makeup inside 3 years, so you have to expect that the award on grant N will be within 20% or so of grant N-1. This sounds like a conspiracy to protect the status quo, but I don’t think it is: in the past some rollers have grown and others have shrunk. The system never featherbedded weak science, it just damped down statistical noise in funding awards. This continuity matters. Edinburgh is currently recruiting to replace rolling-grant PDRAs who left. Our current grant is due for renewal in March 2012, and if we had no guarantee of funding beyond 3 years, then we would end up offering contracts of not much more than a year – which is a guarantee of not getting the best person. The idea of a DIY year 4 by spreading your funding sounds superficially attractive, but what happens to money unspent after 3 years? If you lose it when a new grant is announced, no-one will take that option. It’s frustrating: once the new system beds down, most groups will keep their funding going at a roughly constant level. Much better if STFC just accepted this , and gave universities the financial reassurance that they could plan long-term and hire the best people.

    • The roll in years 4/5 has already gone out the window, of course. Last year’s new rolling grants were not given the option of continuing the previous grant in years 4/5. There simply wasn’t enough cash to do this, so many groups received announcements in February that funds they thought they had guaranteed would disappear from April 1st.

    • “and if we had no guarantee of funding beyond 3 years”

      …john – there is no guarantee of the year 4/5 resources any more – your HoD (you?) should have got a letter to this effect from STFC about 18 months ago?

      as peter points out – STFC have already applied such an approach to existing grants – shwoing that they have no legal commitments to the year 4/5 “award” (its the universities who write the staff contracts).

  12. John Peacock Says:

    Ian: I didn’t know that year 4/5 allocations no longer had official status (fortunately, I am only head of Edinburgh astronomy – not the overall School). In any case, we all know we live in a world where the universities hold the risk, and grants in any year can be pulled. But the existence of a notional allocation in years 4/5 seems psychologically important in persuading one’s own HR people to let you issue contracts that run into years 4/5. I suppose having the new system in which year 4 exists is some help, but I’d prefer more flexibility. Instead of “spread 3 years spend over 4”, why not “spend up to 1/3 of your award after year 3”. Then you have the option of offering a 3-year contract to someone when you are 1 year from renewal, which may be what you want/need to do in order to capture a particularly outstanding candidate.

    I repeat that it seems loony for STFC to insist on the right to shut down a consolidated grant in a step function. If you award a big group 5 PDRAs, how can they possibly be assessed to be worth zero only 3 years later? Either the first or second assessment would have to be totally wrong. Of course there has to be a mechanism for underperforming groups to fade away, but let’s accept that this takes a decade. If groups were told that consolidated grants would be renewed at no less than (say) 60% of existing value, this is a threshold that would not be approached very often, but would be a valuable
    source of stability and the ability to undertake long-term planning.

    • John,

      Your postdocs are lucky, when my position was supposrted by a rolling grant our department would not issue 5 year contracts so it made no difference. So much for psychology.

      I am not sure what you are trying to say in the second paragraph. If a big group is awarded 5 PDRAs they can be assessed to be worth zero really easily 3 years later if the new application simply isn’t good enough in comparison with other grants, especially with a diminishing pot of money. And you justofy it by repeating the word ‘excellence’ at every opportunity. Stability of groups is important but is only workable if the standard remains the same and, more relevent, the goal posts don’t shift (due to cash flow or anything else).

  13. Albert Zijlstra Says:

    The details of the funding mechanism are relevant only if there is funding to distribute. The outcome seems to favour stability over innovation, perhaps with some bias towards instrumentation (which needs stability). But is that stability is at a survivable level or is it the certainty of death? Will we keep grants only if we sacrifice the facilities, or, just as bad, the other way around?

    With the proposed scheme, a support mechanism to allow for innovation may become necessary within 1 or 2 year, as new opportunities appear out of nowhere. We like the unpredictable! A scheme with basic (consolidated) support for 6 years supplemented by individual grants might work better over time. (Not to re-open the discussion..) But do we have that time?

  14. […] already blogged about how the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is introducing a new system for grants which will make it impossible for individual researchers with good ideas to get money to start new […]

  15. […] new system of consolidated grants will be implemented for the forthcoming deadline (7th April […]

  16. […] it, the plan also maintains grant funding at the current level (although it will move into the new consolidated grant system as quickly as this can be […]

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