Decline and Fall

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.


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19 Responses to “Decline and Fall”

  1. Grumpy old sod Says:

    STFC was created to do two things: spend money funding the wider University research community, and spend money supporting its own facilities and operations. We shouldn’t be enormously surprised that on careful reflection it finds its own needs are more important than anyone else’s. This is exactly what the Regulatory Impact Assessment predicted: see point 25 of http://www.berr.gov.uk/files/file36094.doc The very fact STFC calls its own places ‘campuses’ speaks volumes about its conflicted interests. I wonder what the facility and ‘campus’ spending would look like on that diagram? The funding to STFC campuses is planned to go up sharply in STFC’s 2011-2015 delivery plan, while grants slowly decay with inflation.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Quite. The biggest problem with STFC is that it fails to understand the importance of university-based research, which is the real driver of scientific progress in the UK. The current management of STFC has gone out of its way to alienate the HE sector, not just by cutting new grants but even reneging on existing commitments.

  3. Anton Garrett Says:

    Fred Hoyle spoke in his 1994 autobiography of battling against the same thing decades earlier (chapter: The 39th Step).

  4. You say it isn’t easy to “establish what fraction of STFC’s budget should be spent on its “core” science and how much on managing facilities”. Purely for information, the Delivery Plan identifies the following split based on the government allocation known to date:
    Total STFC resource and capital* over four years = £1877.172m
    International subscriptions = £605.592m = 32.3%
    Domestic Facilities including Diamond VAT = £494.913m = 26.4%
    Grants and core programme = £776.667m = 41.4%

    Of the total, astronomy should receive £338.59m = 18%

    * Capital allocations for the grants/core in the out years are still only indicative from government

    The specific astronomy allocations are identified, with the same caveat on capital, in material provided to the Select Committee and published here: http://bit.ly/hWFwJw

    cheers

  5. Bryn Jones Says:

    What scientists require out of a funding system is a level of stability so that they can plan for the future, plan to make use of new opportunities and plan their future career development. What has been most appalling about the funding situation over the past few years is the instability.

    A decade ago the United Kingdom chose to back Gemini for access to 8-metre telescopes, the Anglo-Australian Observatory for wide-field optical spectroscopy, UKIRT for near-infrared work and La Palma for further general optical capacity. Then the decision was taken to pull out (regrettably) of the AAO, and (rightly) to join the European Southern Observatory. Then the STFC decided to pull out of Gemini South, then Gemini altogether, and abandon UKIRT for VISTA. Now it is finding it difficult finding funds to maintain access to La Palma.

    It is absolutely right that there are changes in priorities. It is absolutely right that the UK should withdraw from some old facilities to take advantage of new opportunities. But these need to be signalled several years in advance to allow the scientific community to plan.

    The extent of the chaos was shown most acutely to me personally when I completed the detailed specifications of some observations on Gemini a few years ago. I went into work the following day and learned that the UK had been expelled from the Gemini project as a consequence of the STFC trying to renege on agreements it had made to continue in the medium term as a partner in the Gemini project. (This was driven by the funding crisis.) It looked as though I had lost my observing time. Then the crisis was averted for a while and we were back in Gemini, so my observing time was not lost. Now we are leaving Gemini in a more organised manner.

    Government needs to ensure something approaching medium-term stability in funding, and research councils must make the case for this. Currency fluctuations have been only one factor in this.

    While there has been a great deal of criticism of the STFC, some of it very justified, I feel there has been insufficient criticism of scientific management at levels above the research councils. Science ministers seem broadly supportive of astronomy (though they often neglect a commitment to basic science, as opposed to some vague idea of industrial spin offs). Fundamentally, there does seem to me to be a significant problem within the senior civil service. This concerns a lack of support for basic science and a total inability to ensure stability in funding. Might the word inept be appropriate here?

    • telescoper Says:

      I quite agree. It’s the Whitehall Mandarins who are really to blame; politicians are putty in their hands. In an ideal world we’d have a Science Minister who knew something about science and was able to turn the tables on them.

  6. “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?”

    I have heard on the grapevine some people of the condensed matter persuasion in my department say the same about particle physics – waste of time. not proper physics etc.

  7. John Peacock Says:

    One point to make about Andy’s graph. There could be a temptation to regard the close proportionality between academic and RA numbers from 2000 to 2006 as representing some sort of natural ideal, or even a causal
    relation. But I recall joining the PPARC Science Committee in 1999, at which time there was complete unanimity around the table that the grants line was under-resourced: too much world-class research wasn’t getting funded. We wanted to boost the number of RAs by at least 20%, but the brutal lesson of the spreadsheets was that there was never any flexibility in the facilities and subscriptions, and the desired rise in grants kept getting hacked back in order to balance the books. But as science funding rose through Labour’s term, this increase finally became possible. Thus in 2005 or so, we finally got the funding in the grants line that was appropriate for the academic numbers of 1999. Things would have been fine-ish if academic numbers hadn’t gone up; they did, but I don’t believe that was driving the increase in RA numbers. So now the number of RAs per academic is half what it was in 2005 – but that was already 20% too low. So basically to achieve the ability to fund world-class research that Science Committee wanted in 1999, the numbers of RAs needs to rise by a factor 2.5.

    • telescoper Says:

      I agree that RA numbers have been way too low for a long time; the rise to 2005 not excessive but necessary to get maximum science value from the investments.

      Setting aside the low priority assigned to actual science within the current STFC management, the main issue is how to find money for RAs when there are big projects screaming for big money. To put it brutally, should we pull out of, say, SKA and use the money on grants. Or ELT? Even if we get a supportive Chief Executive something on that scale would have to be done to restore the balance.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I would argue that if more manpower is needed to exploit current facilities (which it is), it would be better to increase the number of 3-year fellowships rather than research assistantships. Research assistants are certainly needed to perform routine work on major projects, but there is an acute need to support people who can establish their own research programmes and take the lead themselves (and not just for a period shortly after PhD completion as the current postdoctoral fellowships allow).

    • Bryn – I agree (as a postdoc) with you. I see a lot of younger people who can (and do) take the lead in there own research programs getting fed up with the fact they cannot progress in their career to more secure jobs (and then they give up and go and work for banks instead – which is interesting because I can remember these people as fresh faced PhD graduates saying they would never do that. Then they got families/mortgages etc and realised job security and career opportunties needs to come first).

    • and I wonder if it is not a better use of taxpayers money to pay these young people to do science, instead of driving them into working in banks, which a lot of people think have a lot to answer for their behaviour in relation to our current economic woes?!

    • Mark has mentioned the elephant in the room: the careers crisis.

      My point about fellowships versus research assistantships concerned the need for early- and mid-career researchers with initiative and a desire for project leadership to have the freedom to set their own agendas. My point was about the need for people with drive, intelligence, organisational skills and self-initiative to follow their own leads. Over the years I have had three research council PDRA positions and, due to a variety of very diverse circumstances (including supporting broader projects), I did not feel I had the freedom to set agendas in some of these. This was a very frustrating experience, particularly because I felt I could have sustained a very much stronger publication output had I held fellowships instead (which would have been at the same cost to research councils). I’m interested that Mark has seen some PDRAs being given the freedom to succeed.

      I had attempted to avert my gaze from the domestic pachyderm, because I felt the careers crisis is such an important issue that space would not serve it properly here. Any discussion of the demographics of the British astronomical community must refer to the small number of long-term positions against the large number of people completing PhDs. Only 1 in 10 or 1 in 15 new PhDs can make it to a long-term position in astronomical research. The others must find, sometimes after a great deal of searching, something else to do.

      One of my concerns is that luck and patronage are too important in determining who has the early success to succeed in this system, rather than giving excellent people the freedom to prove themselves. Another is the extreme imbalance in numbers between training young people for research and long-term research jobs: there should be an imbalance, but not to the absurd degree that we have.

  8. John Peacock Says:

    But it never was “pull out of big project X and put the money in grants”. It was always “we could fund grants sensibly if only project X could be Y% cheaper” (where Y is <<10). But with international projects, we have always lacked the leverage to achieve Y% or anything like it. Look at just about any of the big things that the UK is involved in: I would bet that the same science return could be delivered for very much less money, if only they could be handed to the UK and subjected to the same discipline and pressure that we apply to the things that have been completely under our control.

  9. Bryn Jones Says:

    I suspect that the current size of the British astronomical community is partly due to the policy of providing large numbers of PhD studentships that has been adopted by the STFC and its predecessors. Astronomy (including planetary science) attracts lots of good-quality applicants for PhD places; PhD students therefore carry out lots of good work. University physics departments can see that establishing a small number of academic posts in astronomy can generate sizeable, active research groups. Established academic staff will want to apply for grants to keep research programmes begun by PhD students going.

    Funding large numbers of PhD studentships in turn encourages more academic positions and pressure to obtain funding for more PDRAs.

    There seems little point in the STFC complaining about the size of the UK astronomy community and the pressure for funding if it is itself responsible.

  10. “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.”

    Are these numbers absolute or per capita (i.e. adjusted for the size of the population)? If the former, it says precious little about “quality” (assuming that this metric measures quality at all, of course).

  11. A while back, I picked up Simon Singh’s popular book The Big Bang. Like Asimov’s The Neutrino (where the particle makes its first appearance half-way through the book), there is a lot of background. I came across this quote, attributed to Tycho Brahe: “An astronomer must be cosmopolitan because ignorant statesmen cannot be expected to value their services.”

    My first impression, after 50 pages or so, is that it gives a clearer and more detailed while at the same time compact view of the history of astronomy. Interestingly, he discusses the lack of observed stellar aberration as an argument the ancient Greeks used against the heliocentric model of Aristarchus, while he doesn’t mention this in the context of the Platonic model at all, putting it down to Tycho not being able to go all the way. I’m sure I’ve read from credible sources that aberration was the main reason Tycho came up with his model, and he was certainly not one to be bound by tradition otherwise. So, the omission is curious. On the other hand, IIRC this is the first I’ve read about the ancient Greeks using it as an argument against Aristarchus.

    I’m not sure how firmly his tongue was in his cheek when he speculates that Tycho might have been able to make such good observations since he could remove his nose and hence align his eye better.

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