Thought for the Day

No time for a lengthy post today, as I’m off to London for (at least part of ) meeting at the Royal Astronomical Society.

However, yesterday I came across the following quote from John Womersley, Director of Science Programmes at the Science and Technology Facilities Council:

“The quickest way to get out of the economic dilemmas is to be able to evolve scientifically and that requires a scientifically trained workforce,” Womersley explained, adding that only 20 to 30 percent of astronomy is about understanding the universe. “The rest is about training people.”

Apparently this sort of message “works with government” and “intellectual purity” doesn’t.

I find this a profoundly uninspiring message for those of us who happen to think astronomy is worth doing for its own sake, i.e. that astronomy has intrinsic scientific value. John Womersley might well be right in saying that the Treasury isn’t interested in “pure science”, but where did the figure of 20 to 30 percent come from, and what does this say about the sinking status of astronomical research in the UK’s system of science funding? I fear the worst for British astronomy over the next few years, as the funding squeeze on STFC takes hold if this is what senior STFC managers really think about astronomy.

Isn’t there anyone at STFC prepared to champion the science, rather than pushing the spin-offs and training angle all the time? The latter are important, but they add to, rather than replace, the case that the pursuit of scientific knowledge is vital for our intellectual and cultural development as a society.

Another thing to point out is that STFC doesn’t actually train anyone. All the training John talks about is done by university staff. So if >70% of astronomy is about training then surely that’s an argument for a huge increase in university research grants, fellowships and studentships? Or is the idea that STFC provides the telescopes and universities provide the training in exchange for being allowed to use them?

And isn’t funding, say, the ESO subscription a staggeringly expensive way of training folk for industry or commerce? In any case the biggest barrier in the UK to having a scientifically educated workforce is actually the lack of physics teachers in state schools and the very poor quality of the science part of the national curriculum. Won’t the Treasury spot that fallacy?

It may of course be that many of you share John Womersley’s view. I’d be interested in the results of the following straw poll


38 Responses to “Thought for the Day”

  1. Surely most astronomy grads eventually move into occupations that are not astronomy related – and hence we are training people. Yes, astronomy is science for science sake, but one of the byproducts is a scientifically trained graduates entering the workforce.

    I believe this should be a strong selling point for science – especially astronomy which is a well known feeder into university. But if governments want the work force, it needs people working in those sciences.

    I don’t find this uninspiring at all.

  2. I suggest you amend the poll options. I didn’t answer since I think breakthroughs in pure science and having a scientifically trained workforce are both equally important albeit in very different ways.

  3. Mr Physicist Says:

    Surely, the message should be that the “science is the training” and not try and create some artificial measure (e.g. 20-30%). Astronomy is not just about observing the universe – it is also agout building hardware, writing software, developing new digital techniques, etc. The great thing is that these are transferrable skills, but the driver is the science. This means there is *100%* value all around, whether the student goes on to become a professional astronomer, a whizz in the city or sets up a new high-tech company.

    • Agreed.

    • If someone wants a programmer though they will hire a programmer, not a PhD astrophysicist….why not just do a computer science MsC? Unless they want this in combination with some other skill the physicist has (e.g. ability at very high level maths). I’m not sure this is going to convince people we need astronomers or particle physicists if we argue they have programming skills.

      In my experience most physicists can “program” in that they can make something run and do something, but really this is not the same as being able to write good quality code and well designed oftware or understanding anything much about how computers work. Only a small (maybe 10-20%) subset of people I know in physics who write any sort of computer code have the latter skills. Which is presumably what a software company is really after?

  4. “And isn’t funding, say, the ESO subscription a staggeringly expensive way of training folk for industry or commerce?”

    peter – if you really think this – then surely you also agree that the ESO (ESA? CERN?) subscriptions are a “staggeringly expensive” way to support “our intellectual and cultural development as a society.”

    my (admittedly simplistic) view is that astronomy has 5 main benefits: 1) we help attract undergraduates onto physics (& astronomy) degree courses – so we’re a loss-leader for physics; 2) we might potentially save the world one day by finding the killer NEO; 3) we produce a modest number of highly-trained postdoctoral researchers for other areas of the economy; 4) we help intellectually develop society (as you say); 5) some of the technical/software developments for astronomy have had useful spinoffs.

    whether these are enough to justify the investment in infrastructure or people is clearly debatable in some people’s view.

    • if you really think this – then surely you also agree that the ESO (ESA? CERN?) subscriptions are a “staggeringly expensive” way to support “our intellectual and cultural development as a society.”

      At 50p per person per year for the ESO subscription, the answer to that question is “no”! But think how many physics teachers you could train for the same money…

      But I did pose that statement as a question and I’m actually not sure of the answer.

  5. I agree that the answer you give to the question will depend on precisely how you interpret “training” (i.e. to what level) and what is meant by “important” (i.e. to whom).

    My own opinion (for what it’s worth) is that for the UK as a whole, economically and in other ways, it would be a greater benefit to have more, better educated, people with UG science degrees, than more people with PhDs.

    In an ideal world, of course, we’d love to have both…

  6. John Womersley Says:

    The “20-30%” number was just a rough guess at the fraction of students who end up staying in the field. So by that measure, the bulk of what we do is indeed training – but it is training that is only possible because of the inspirational power of the science, as others have pointed out.

    I think it would be interesting to run two more polls here:

    1. Which of these do you youself think is more important?

    2. Which do you think the government thinks is more important?

    The fact is that there’s a potential mismatch between what scientists want from the government (freedom to do research, good support, no political interference…) and what government wants from scientists (impact on the economy, defence capability, international competitiveness, enhanced prestige and, untimately, their own re-electability…). This tension is nothing new. It has existed ever since Vannevar Bush invented the idea of large-scale government support for basic science in 1945. Nonetheless, most of the time the resulting unspoken bargain has unfolded to the great mutual benefit of both parties – the science community has benefited from significantly higher levels of funding support than activities that are seen as purely “cultural”, because governments have, by and large, understood that science is more important and does something more for the country. That’s something that most scientists can understand and, I hope, support. Part of the role of a Research Council is to serve as the interface and interpreter between science and government and hopefully to explain to each group that, while the other may speak a different larguage, everyone benefits from the relationship.

    Anyway, in the current funding situation I want to make sure to use absolutely all the tools at our disposal to protect the quality of our science base and get the best funding outcome. I hope there’s no argument about that.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      20-30% of students stay in the field?

      20-30% of what kind of students? Undergraduates? Ph.D. students?

      Stay in the field in what way? Most Ph.D. graduates who stay on in the field will do so for only one or two postdoctoral contracts, before having to leave because of the extremely poor career prospects. The number of Ph.D. students who stay in basic research in the long term is very small, much smaller than 20% or 30%. The number of undergraduates who enter basic research and remain in the long term is vanishingly small.

    • John,

      I agree with what you say, but I’m a bit surprised you chose that particular figure. Over the next few years the number of astronomy PhDs staying in academic research will clearly reduce anyway…

      The budget for the Arts and Humanities research council is £100 million per year, so the government clearly does place some value on such things…


  7. John,

    I agree that what we want and what the governmentwant is potentially different. I also think we have the right to “fight” for the best possible settlement for our area. In making the case we should also use all possible arguments – that fact the we educate future scientists who will contribute to the economy, spins off and technology development, social and cultural benefits, etc. We also,however, in my view, have an obligation to inform policy and to attempt to convince the governement, for example, that their views on the value of science are wrong, or somewhat misguided. I’m slightly concerned that we are putting a lot of effort into working out what the government wants to hear, and not enough effort into trying to modify government policy and reaching some more realistic consensus on the value of science and research.

    I’m not suggesting that the latter doesn’t take place at all. The Science is Vital campaign is presumably exactly of exactly this. There may well be a lot of this going on in the background, and I’m just not aware of it. I just feel that we have to be careful that we don’t try so hard to justify ourselves and what we do iin terms of what the governement want to to hear, that we end up being forced to operate in a way that we don’t believe is correct and that doesn’t ultimately benefit anyone.


  8. Mr Physicist Says:

    I still have problems with this idea that it is the “training” that is important to government and central to the argument. As has been pointed out eleswhere, there are many alternative training providers…. and you would not invent astronomy just to train programmers or futures analysts (for example). Sure, its still useful, but its not the dominant reason or argument for astronomy to be funded.

    The reason government should invest in pure science is to advance knowledge. By doing this, we eventually discover things that are important in their own right, but also might solve some of the grand challenges we all face. I am sure Vannevar Bush was helped by the climate of World War II where the Manhattan Project, radar, nuclear energy, etc had firmly put science on the map with many governments.

    • John Womersley Says:

      Absolutely – we should be investing in science to advance knowledge, and also because we need scientific progress to address the grand challenges that we face. However, I suspect that the main contribution that astronomy as a subject makes to addressing these grand challenges is through its ability to attract young people into science in the fisrt place. That is by no means a negligible contribution nor is it something to denigrate.

      Of course Vannevar Bush wanted to exploit goodwill towards science and towards public funding based on the second world war experience. But in setting up the US national labs, and the NSF, the governments of the time (and in the UK too) were convinced by the same experience that they needed to keep a cadre of physical scientists available for future war work. Edward Teller (boo hiss) was pretty clear that he regarded particle physics merely as a hobby that the scientists could pursue until they were needed for something more important. Fortunately, we’ve now moved on from his concept of what science skills were for.

      By the way, I also note that skills was the first point mentioned in the key messages produced by the Science is Vital campaign. So let’s not manufacture a disagreement out of something where we actually all agree and where we are all happy to use the message when it works.

  9. >> and you would not invent astronomy just to train programmers or futures analysts (for example)

    The goals is not to have astronomy as a training course to train programmers – it’s training in scientific thinking that can be taken into other professions. I think we should be celebrating our ability to excite an interest in science in young people, draw them to university and have them leave (at some point in their career) with the ability to think scientifically. We have to instill in our students that you are not a failure if you don’t get a faculty position at the end of the day as you have skills that the country needs and a way of thinking that we know leads to progress.

    >> The reason government should invest in pure science is to advance knowledge.

    We know this – but a government hears similar arguments from so many areas – fluffy goals in the future. Unlike ballet, we can produce tangible outcomes in what we do *now* – the act of being a scientist – and if you removed us from society tomorrow then the country will suffer (and I know science is not the only field that can say this, but we are on better footing than many fields).

    At these times, I think the last thing we should do is try to retreat into ivory towers.

  10. Grumpy Old Woman Says:

    In the context of making the case to government, while the justification of many fundamental sciences on grounds of the downstream spin-offs to industry is hard because there can be quite a time lag and the lines are not always obvious, it should not be forgotten that a large proportion of the money invested upstream in creating, maintaining and updating the facilities – whether CERN, ESA, ESO, ESRF etc – feeds back into the economies of the Member States in the form of industrial contracts. Not only does this give a pretty high return on the investment, but the fact that many of these contracts ar involved in developments at the cutting edge of technology spills into the economy that way too and also leads to spin-off products, technology transfer and so on. This is an aspect that space science seems to cover rather better than astronomy – major players like Astrium employ quite a lot of people and governments are aware of it.

  11. Woken Postdoc Says:

    I’m skeptical of the low retention rate in science. Only 20 to 30 percent of PhDs remain in research? Was this figure derived from the RAS survey a few years ago, which count astronomers overseas as drop-outs? I suppose the true retention rate depends on the funding climate, and the university culture that raised a particular cohort of students. Where I came from, over half of us have stayed in astrophysics, but spread worldwide. OTOH, I’ve worked in places where maybe only 10 percent of students stay in research long-term.

    I don’t object to the attrition, so long as it’s voluntary. However it sickens me whenever I see a very bright student lose spirit and leave, especially if that student outshines some of the senior staff. A minority of unimpressive specimens gain tenure through a succession of flukes or patronage, and then misguide or discourage their own students disastrously.

    The career structure is flawed: there needs to be some possibility of attrition of dead-weight “permanent” staff. We need meritocratic mechanisms to provide mobility *downwards* as well as upwards. The most unimpressive lecturers and readers should be demoted to postdoc status (in a job swap) whenever they’re overtaken by a significant number of the nearby postdocs.

    • John Womersley Says:

      We do our own career path surveys roughly every 5 years. Very roughly, across the whole STFC programme, half of our PhD students go on to a postdoc and of those, roughly half ended up in a permanent position. Hence the 20-30% figure. I agree that this may be time dependent and it may well be lower now than it was a few years ago.

    • 20-30% of Ph.D. students go on to get a permanent position in academia?

      I don’t recognise that figure at all. I have argued in previous discussions on this blog (for example, here and here) that the proportion of Ph.D. students in astronomy and space science in Britain who go on to get permanent positions in academia is close to 5%, certainly below 10%.

      I’ll go further, I believe that figure of 20-30% of Ph.D. students going on to get a permanent position in academic science is wrong (at least for astronomy and space science). It is mistaken. It is factually incorrect.

    • John Womersley Says:


      you’re absolutely right, in the steady state each professor can only replace herself with one student and that gives you a calculable – and pretty low – retention rate. However, some of our students go off and get jobs overseas, some are working for ESO, ESA and so on, and university hiring rates are not always stable. There’s also a potential sample bias here – students who are still in academia may well be more likely to respond to our surveys.


    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I would argue that the actual figure is vitally important in determining the character of the research community.

      A community in which only 30% of people entering on Ph.D. study would eventually (ten to twenty years later) get a permanent job in academia is a healthy one. Only the best people would stay in academia, and people would have to prove themselves in open competition based on ability.

      A community in which only 5% of Ph.D. students would eventually get permanent positions is, however, a community in crisis. Careers would be enormously overcompetive, with only meagre rewards for strong success, and career failure for those who only perform very well. Success would come more from luck or patronage than from ability. Nearly all researchers would fail in their career aspirations, or leave for greener pastures overseas.

      My fear is that we have the later case. That is based on my observations of other people’s career outcomes in several university departments, as well as calculations based on numbers of studentships and vacancies for permanent jobs.

  12. >> The most unimpressive lecturers and readers should be demoted to postdoc status (in a job swap) whenever they’re overtaken by a significant number of the nearby postdocs.

    Many of us faculty would love the freedom of a postdoc without the teaching and administration duties (which suck up a huge amount of time). But giving up the permanence and salary would, of course, be very hard.

    And be careful of labeling the dead wood – some of them have duties that would make you cry. There’s more to being an academic than publishing.

    [Please note that I am not saying this is dead wood out there]

    • Freedom of a postdoc? Over the years I had three research council P.D.R.A. positions and didn’t get much freedom (at least not in two of them): much of my activity was directed, and often in areas I felt were wholly unproductive. If only I’d had more freedom, I could have done some really cutting-edge science.

      As a lecturer, I found a large fraction of my time was taken with teaching, teaching preparation and administration. The time available for research was limited.

      The people who do get freedom are people on fellowships and those lucky postdocs who work for enlightened grant holders who give them the freedom to fulfill their potential.

    • Most postdocs I know would quite happily do less research and have a permanent job….and not be constantly stressing about how they will pay the mortgage next year.

      The “freedom” of postdocs probably is great for 3 or 4 years when you are young and have no respnosiblities (family, house etc) but many people are doing 10 years+ of them. At some point the system should be saying this guy/girl is good enough at the job and make them permanent. But it does not happen except for a lucky few and the rest have to carry on with temporary contracts with the threat of being forced to relocate to the other side of the country/world at any moment. This seems to be a unique problem to the university system and there is very little (obvious) will power to do anything about it. A friend of mine quit his postdoc last year to go and work for an investment bank – is that really what we want to encourage young scientists to do?

      There seems to no will from people on the either side of the fence to do anything though.

  13. “Surely most astronomy grads eventually move into occupations that are not astronomy related – and hence we are training people. Yes, astronomy is science for science sake, but one of the byproducts is a scientifically trained graduates entering the workforce.”

    True, but while an undergraduate degree and, in some cases, a doctorate is good training for non-academic or even non-physics jobs, 10 years of being a postdoc with as many contracts is not. It might benefit the business world, though, in that after so many years of suffering, some folks are willing to work for less than they are “worth” in return for job security.

  14. >>> 10 years of being a postdoc with as many contracts is not.

    Why do people do this? Is it because the move from academia is seen as failure? They have been given no decent career advise? I think a lot of this could be solved with proper career advise at the start.

    • telescoper Says:

      Surely being forced to do something other than your chosen career can hardly be regarded as a success?

    • Mr Physicist Says:

      Surely, it is because they hang on in the hope that they will get a job in the field that they cherish. The problem is that there is no guaranteed career path in science (unlike medicine) and its never clear when to call it quits or hang on and wait for the job just around the corner. I am not sure where this “proper career advice” would come from as I suspect most career advisers would not encourage going into a postdoc position in the first place.

    • There could be a “guaranteed career path”. This varies from country to country. In Germany, the situation is particularly bad. In the early days, it is easiest to get funding where one already is, which leads to nepotism. To counteract this (throwing the baby out with the bathwater), senior appointments almost always have to be external. This means hanging on via short-term contracts in one place, often possible only because the spouse has a decent job, then moving at 45 to somewhere else, where the spouse perhaps has no job. More complex than it could be. A better model is the tenure-track concept, which exists in the Netherlands, for example. People go elsewhere early (also extreme: Dutch students are practically forced to go abroad), but then get a tenure-track job relatively early. Not (yet) permanent, but they know a) it can be if they don’t goof up and b) they are not forced to move.

  15. We have seen several powerful arguments above in favour of the funding of astronomy, space science, particle physics and fundamental nuclear physics. These have been both cultural and economic.

    However, of all of these, I remain sceptical about the argument that training people to Ph.D. standard in basic science generally has a significantly positive economic effect. When we meet many people in industry and business who recruit graduates, we are often told that they regard people with Ph.D.s, and particularly postdoctoral research experience, as being “over-qualified” or “over-specialised”. They often argue that people with Ph.D.s, if recruited, will expect higher salaries than the companies offer and will soon leave for more lucrative employment in competitor companies. Of course this argument is wrong, but graduate recruiters still believe it.

    We should remember that people who win Ph.D. studentships are among the very best and brightest graduates of our universities. They are gifted and would be the people of most interest to graduate recruiters were they to enter employment instead of opting for postgraduate research. We must ask whether recruiters are more interested in them after three or more years of research in some precise area of basic science.

    There is also the counter argument that companies wish to employ people with the specific skills required by their industries. Companies manufacturing semi-conductor components want people with Ph.D.s in solid-state physics, not active galactic nuclei. Computer software companies want people with programming experience in languages of value in business, not in Fortran. It could be argued that funding the training of large numbers of bright people to Ph.D. standard in astrophysics or particle physics means that they are unavailable to research for Ph.D.s in applied physics or engineering. This may harm industry.

    The problem here is that if I’m not convinced by the value of large numbers of basic science Ph.D.s to the general economy, Treasury civil servants may not be convinced either.

    • Speaking from experience, I disagree. Many employers want people with real-world programming experience (which, for many, means they don’t hire computer-science graduates!) and often this is not gained until doing a doctorate. It’s not so much particular low-level skills but rather the high-level logical thinking. And, of course, a good Fortran programmer can write Fortran in any language. 🙂

      There is no chance of getting the best and brightest earlier. Many or most of the best and brightest hope for an academic career. (If they were in it for the money, they wouldn’t have studied a science in the first place.) They only move outside of academia when they have no chance of staying inside academia (which can be due to things other than lack of ability).

  16. >>> Surely being forced to do something other than your chosen career can hardly be regarded as a success?

    I don’t believe it is a real failure either – many people have career aspirations that are not met and people end up doing other things (and I know quite a few people who have moved from astronomy in to the business world and most wished they had made the jump earlier).

    >>>I am not sure where this “proper career advice” would come from as I suspect most career advisers would not encourage going into a postdoc position in the first place.

    It should come from us – and we should be deathly realistic about this. There is no way that there will ever be enough faculty positions for all of the PhD astronomers we produce. We should, therefore, tell people from the outset that they are more than likely going to end up “out there” and to start thinking about it sooner rather than later.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Of course there will never be enough faculty positions for all of the people with Ph.D.s in astronomy, and neither should there be. The issue here is that a community where there are long-term jobs in the research community for 1 in 3 people with Ph.D.s is a community that can function reasonably. A community where there long-term jobs for only 1 in 10 or 1 in 20 is a community in crisis, and one where career advancement is determined more by luck and patronage than by ability.

      What makes the situation in universities even worse, at least here in Britain, is that there is very little support for people to transfer from academia to business. University careers services are concerned primarily with undergraduates: they have difficulty in understanding the problems of people with doctorates, and have no comprehension of the problems of postdoctoral researchers having to leave academia. Research councils offer no information (such as lists of graduate recruiters or recruitment agencies with an interest in recruiting people with Ph.D.s or postdoctoral experience). The whole system is unplanned and dysfunctional.

    • Why is there an assumption that the career outcome for every Phd in academia needs to be a lecturer? Not every post doc wants a lecturer job (or even the majority). They just want to have a more stable and secure job.

      Part of the solution would be permanent positions on the post doc salary scales. I mean when a group rehires the same guy 3,4 or even 5 times over an 7-15 year period in what way is this any sort of “contract work” anyway? Use of short term contracts should be for specific time limited projects, not for open ended long term needs. Maybe its specific to particle physics – but I see many more senior people who have been doing postdocs for 10 or even 20 years. Presumably because they are good at what they do there is a need for them – so why not simply take the next step and give them proper permanent jobs like in every other professional career?

      It seems to be we have already reached a situation where the majority of people in academic particle physics do not become lecturers but stay long term on the lower salary scales doing valuable work. So why is it the PTB cannot reorganise things a bit to make their life easier and give them permanent positions to do this needed work?

      • telescoper Says:

        In fact current UK employment law gives the same status to anyone who has been employed for more than 4 years at the same institution, regardless of whether this is on an open contract or a series of fixed-term ones. It’s perhaps also worth reminding readers that in the UK there isn’t really such a thing as full security of tenure for academic positions. If a university decides to close a group down, anyone can be made redundant.

        The problem about university research is that it relies on grant income for support. Since research grants are issued only for a few years, universities are reluctant to extend contracts beyond that for which funding is guaranteed. Hence the series of short-term contracts.

        With the recent big cuts in STFC grants and their explicit refusal to honour rolling grant commitments already made, the situation for PDRAs and the like is surely going to get worse not better for the foreseeable future.

    • “I don’t believe it is a real failure either – many people have career aspirations that are not met and people end up doing other things (and I know quite a few people who have moved from astronomy in to the business world and most wished they had made the jump earlier).”

      That depends. Some people are quite happy and if anything wish they had made the jump earlier. Some are not as happy but see the benefit of earning real money. Some people never get over it, especially when permanent jobs go to people who, by any relevant criterion, are less qualified. Especially painful is when someone less qualified gets the job who is known for having had several sexual affairs with people later responsible for hiring said person. No, I won’t mention any names.

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