Archive for February 7, 2011

Decline and Fall

Posted in Education, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on February 7, 2011 by telescoper

There’s an interesting discussion going on over at the e-Astronomer Andy Lawrence’s blog about truth, lies and astronomy grant funding.

The centrepiece of Andy’s post is the following graph, which is based on the most accurate available figures, showing how the number of postdoctoral research associate (postdoc) positions funded (first by SERC, then by PPARC, and then by STFC) in Astronomy has evolved over the last couple of decades, along with the number of permanent academic staff employed in UK universities.

To be precise it shows the number of new postdoc posts funded each year; since a postdoc position typically lasts 3 years, the total number of postdocs at ay time is roughly 3 times the number shown.

A few things are immediately clear. One is that both the number of academics and the number of postdocs grew steadily over the period covered by the graph, until 2006 after which there was a steep decline in the number of postdocs to a level substantially lower than the number funded in 2000. It’s not a coincidence that STFC was created in 2007.

The numerical growth of the UK astronomical community coincided with a  general expansion of the number of academics in the University resulting from the growth of funded student  numbers, but it also was also accompanied by improved access to large facilities. It also happened to be a time of high achievement by British astronomers, who played major roles in large projects that uncovered many deep secrets of the Universe, such as the existence of cosmological dark matter and dark energy.

Further details of the achievements of UK Astronomy over the last decade are given by our own Bill Frindall, Paul Crowther (see his page for references):

Astrophysics: UK space science (astrophysics) is ranked 2nd in citations (1999-2009), while UK physics ranks 5th internationally (1997-2007). According to Section 3 of the RCUK Review of Physics, combining these two categories places the UK 2nd to the USA overall – see bibliometric analysis. According to the IoP Survey of Academic Appointments in Physics, the UK astronomy academic community grew by 14 per cent in the 5 years leading up to 2008, compared with 12% for physics overall. From 2003/04 to 2007/08 physics departments expanded by 14%, equal to the wider UK average for all disciplines (see Sustainability of the UK research workforce report from RCUK. Undergraduate applications (admissions) to physics grew by 19% (11%) between 2002-2007 according to the DIUS Research Report 08-21. Astrophysics formed one of the case studies for a CSHE (UC Berkeley) science communication report from Jan 2010.

All this expansion didn’t come cheap, of course, but in my view  it was entirely justified on the grounds of scientific excellence. That used to count for something among the science policy makers, but those times seem to have gone. Not that the collateral benefits were negligible, as you can see from the above.

I’ll grant that it is not easy to establish what fraction of STFC’s budget should be spent on its “core” science and how much on managing facilities, but I think the balance has obviously gone way too far in one direction. I’m not the only one to think so. The probably deliberate decision to clobber astronomy grants flies in the face of the Institute of Physics Review of International Perceptions of UK Physics, carried out in 2005, which says

In summary, the state of astrophysics and solar system physics is relatively healthy at this time. Morale is good in the research community, particularly among the young, and wise investments seem to have been made since the 2000 review. Attention will need to be paid over the next five years to foster the astronomical observing community so as to recoup the investment in large telescope access.

STFC has done many things since its creation in 2007, but fostering the astronomical observing community is definitely not amongst them. Instead it has slashed the postdocs needed to collect, reduce and analyse the data coming from the facilities we paid so much to access.

I still don’t know what UK astronomy did to deserve the kick in the teeth it received in 2006 which precipitated the steep decline shown in the graph. Remember that this was before the credit crunch, which really took hold in 2008, so the cuts imposed STFC were clearly not in response to that. The message consistently being put out by the STFC Executive at the time was that it was spending “too much on science exploitation”, i.e. on doing science, and that a larger slice of the cake needed to be devoted to facilities and operations.

I suspect that the backlash against astronomy was led by senior figures in the Treasury who did not, still do not, and probably never will, see science as worth doing for its own sake rather than as a way of subsidising industry. I suspect also some senior figures in  UK Physics were not sorry to see the astronomical arrivistes get their comeuppance. I have encountered a number of distinguished physicists – usually of the condensed matter persuasion – who clearly resented the new wave of astronomers arriving in their departments. As long as they bring in more students, take on heavy teaching loads and don’t ask for expensive equipment then astronomers are fine, but what they do isn’t really proper physics is it?

But precisely who it was that was behind the strange demise of British astronomy is now not the main issue. The real question is what can be done about it starting from where we are now.

As things stand under the current STFC leadership, the grant line will stay roughly level in cash terms for the next three years. Adding in the effect of inflation that means the number of postdoc grants will slowly dwindle. Better than the last few years, but hardly grounds for celebration. The steady attrition of grant funding will eventually push many excellent university research groups over the edge and prematurely terminate many promising scientific careers.

STFC will be looking for a new Chief Executive very soon, and that raises at  the admittedly faint hope that some things might change for the better. What we need is a someone  who is prepared to champion fundamental research because he or she actually believes in it;  the  bedgrudging attempts of the current Chief Executive simply don’t convince in this regard.

Whether we get someone who fits the bill remains to be seen. If we don’t the future for UK astronomy looks very bleak.