The Ernest Rutherford Fellowships Scheme

It seems timely to use the medium of this blog to pass on some important news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to those who might find it useful.

This week saw the unveiling of a brand new STFC scheme to be called the Ernest Rutherford Fellowships. These will be in some respects similar to the previous Advanced Fellowships in that each Fellowship will last for five years with 12 being offered by STFC each year, and will cover the salary costs of the holder for that period. An important new element, however, is that holders of these Fellowships will be able to bid for “significant additional funds to support their research”.

The announcement of this new programme is sure to be warmly welcomed by the scientific community because the previous Advanced Fellowships have been  a stepping stone to an academic career for many a budding scientist (including myself, in fact). There will however be some restrictions on eligibility that did not apply to previous schemes.

The first new restriction is to bring the scheme into line with the attitudes of Ernest Rutherford, in whose honour the new fellowships are to be named. One of the most frequently-quoted remarks by Rutherford is the following:

Don’t let me catch anyone talking about the Universe in my department

Obviously therefore it has proved necessary to close the scheme to astronomers and cosmologists. This shouldn’t prove too much of a problem, however, as the STFC press statement by John Le Mesurier makes it clear that the only notable recipients of Advanced Fellowships in the past are actually particle physicists:

Previous recipients of Advanced Fellowships include Professor Brian Cox who has done much to popularise/demystify physics through his recent TV series, Professor Ruth Gregory who was awarded the IoP Maxwell Medal for outstanding contributions to theoretical, mathematical or computational physics in 2006; and Professor Brian Foster who was awarded the IoP Born medal (for outstanding contributions to physics) in 2003.

The second new rule is intended to control the number of applications in order to make the selection of the recipients of these Elite Fellowships more manageable. The criteria applied to the previous Advanced Fellowship programme were very flexible, with the result that each round typically generated well over a hundred applications. This made the relevant Panel’s task extremely difficult. STFC has therefore decided to impose a restriction on the age seniority of the candidates in order to streamline the process.

To be eligible for an Ernest Rutherford Fellowship,  candidates must have completed their PhD between 5 years 11 months and 30 days and 6 years of the date of application. This is in addition to the usual requirement of being a white heterosexual male. According to rigorous investigations by STFC staff, this reduces the pool of potential applicants substantially. To one, actually.

The successful candidate (Dr Jamie B’Stard of Oxbridge University) will be eligible to bid for, and be given on the nod, additional ring-fenced funding to support those things that an Elite Fellow needs, both to carry out their research and to feel generally superior to everyone else (e.g. private jet, fleet of Rolls-Royce motor cars, and gold-plated taps in their private lavatory). Never in the history of British science will a physicist have been so generously endowed. The new scheme will allow science to compete in prestige and public acclaim with other forms of employment, such as in the banking sector.

To liberate the funds needed for this initiative it has inevitably proved necessary to make savings elsewhere in the STFC programme. After minutes of arduous deliberation it was decided, as usual, to pay for it by top-slicing the budget for research grants (this time by 95%). Unfortunately this means that no grants will be available for any other research within the STFC remit. However, as a gesture of goodwill, the Chief Executive of STFC has given the instruction that the remaining 5% of the now defunct grants line will be distributed to universities to help cover the cost of making all existing PDRAs redundant.

I hope this clarifies the situation.


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22 Responses to “The Ernest Rutherford Fellowships Scheme”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    I read the press statement a couple of days ago, well before 1st April, and the press statement said then that “Successful applicants to the scheme will have completed their PhD 5 – 6 years previously.”

    Does this really mean what it seems to mean? Does it really mean that people who completed their PhDs less than 5 years or more than 6 years before will not be awarded Rutherford Fellowships? Does this therefore mean that a researcher will only have one opportunity to apply for a fellowship?

    Would this not be ageism raised to be the foundation principle on which a whole fellowship scheme is based?

    Please, please, somebody tell me that the STFC statement is an April Fool.

    • most fellowships have age restrictions as far as i know – usually you must have received your PhD no more than X years ago. Not so good for late bloomers I guess.

      So the old STFC advanced ones were unusual in that they did not.

  2. Maybe I should wait to tomorrow to post this, but I am doing so today.

    “This is in addition to the usual requirement of being a white heterosexual male.”

    No joke: I know someone who is still in academia today because he received a fellowship from the money of a rich widow and the rules really were that the recipient had to be a white male. One wonders whether the purpose was to further science or to recruit toy boys. Maybe I should have posted this in the “just a gigolo” thread. 🙂

  3. Rhodri Evans Says:

    Isn’t ageismin in the Disunited Kingdom now illegal as of about a year or so ago?

    Do you think Michael Jackson was whitening his skin in an attempt to become eligible? Lisa Marie Presley can provide evidence for his “rampant heterosexuality”.

    Bryn – one could always keep doing more PhDs to repeatedly gain eligibility for this fellowship.

  4. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear All,

    The wording of the press release is both curious and inaccurate. While details are still being finalized, the eligibility criteria proposed for the Ernest Rutherford Fellowships are to be exactly those of the previous Advanced Fellowship Scheme that it replaces.

    Criteria based on age are most certainly illegal, but ones based on experience, as used in many fellowships schemes including this one, are not.

    To clarify on a query made in a separate tweet by Peter, the funding for the grant support of the Ernest Rutherford fellows is new funding which was allocated to STFC as part of the CSR2010 settlement, and is not taken from elsewhere in the STFC budget.

    cheers,

    Andrew (wearing hat as STFC ETCC chair)

    • can you clarify another thing – does the nominal £50k/fellow/year include their own salary or is this in addition? the press release is again ambiguous and looks as though it could be subject to double-counting…

  5. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Ian,

    It is definitely in addition to the Fellowship funding itself (which under FEC typically costs about twice that much, and will continue to include a baseline level of travel and equipment support to all Fellows).

    Those new funds will be allocated under a separate application process whose exact implementation is still under discussion. £50k/fellow/year is a substantial sum, though not quite large enough for all Fellows to be able to acquire postdocs. The awards will be made on a competitive basis amongst the Fellows.

    cheers,

    Andrew

    • telescoper Says:

      The logic is curious to say the least. Why should these Fellows need PDRAs? They have 100% of their time to do research anyway.

  6. Dave Carter Says:

    Sadly Peter, that press release was not written by the late, lamented John Le Mesuirier, but by Andrew of that ilk.

    • telescoper Says:

      Well I never. Good job the rest of it is meticulously accurate.

    • Dave Carter Says:

      Well its at least plausible.

      Seriously for a minute, these fellowships are in principle a good idea. I think the age range is too low, 5-10 years after PhD would be better as it can take people that long to realise their potential. We do need a mechanism to encourage excellent people to come forward with new ideas. Royal Society URFs are this in principle, though they are not so generous in terms of research funds.

  7. Dave Carter Says:

    sorry for the extra i in the name, thats me trying to type too fast.

  8. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear All,

    The press release has now been modified. The scheme is targetted at early career researchers (regardless of age), just as the AFs which it replaces. I have no doubt that the successful Rutherford Fellowship holders will be able to come up with inventive and compelling ideas to exploit these funds, especially at a time when contraction of the grant line has made it so difficult for less experienced researchers to obtain independent funding. [“No you can’t have any funding because you’ve got no track record. What do you mean, how do you build a track record? You get funding of course.”]

    Andrew

  9. Francis Says:

    This scheme now sounds very similar to the EPSRC Early Career Fellowships. Those are 5-year awards – same as AFs – but one can also request PDRAs, PhD students etc on the grant.

  10. Anton Garrett Says:

    If it’s an illegibility criterion then I am told that my handwriting qualifies.

  11. Bryn Jones Says:

    My concern is that any system that limits awards of fellowships to people within several years of being awarded PhDs is that scientific accomplishments at that stage in candidates’ careers can be determined as much by opportunities given to them as their own research or leadership abilities.

    Some talented people may spend one or more postdoctoral positions doing important support work for larger projects. Some may contribute to software development. Others may be may be involved in the commissioning of instrumentation. Those people will not be able to show their strengths through publishing research papers to the extent that people who are able to concentrate on full-time research may be able to do.

    Perhaps a problem here is that people who draw up schemes tend to assume that everything always works smoothly in university and research management. They assume that all PhD students have worthwhile PhD projects or have highly capable supervisors. They assume that postdoctoral researchers all have the ability to choose their own research projects and can spend all their time on research. They assume that projects always have the necessary data from outset. The reality is that luck, the degree of freedom and the competence of managers play a strong part in determining who is able to show early success in science. Imposing a tight time limit on a research career for the award of fellowships may end up selecting good, lucky individuals, rather than the best.

  12. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Bryn,

    To be clear, there is no upper limit on experience (other than that getting a permanent job ends eligibility), only a lower limit regarded as essential for the candidates to be able to demonstrate the qualities that the fellowships require.

    STFC also has a legal duty to make fair adjustments in favour of candidates who may otherwise be disadvantaged through disability or periods of leave such as maternity/paternity or care leave.

    Like the Advanced Fellowships that it replaces, the Ernest Rutherford fellowships are targetted at the most promising researchers of their generation, and the numbers are such that only a relatively small fraction of researchers will be able to achieve them. For context, each year there are 220 new PhD students, drawn from the pool of UK and UK-domiciled candidates, whereas there are only 12 AFs/Ernest Rutherford Fellowships for which applications come from worldwide.

    all the best,

    Andrew

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Andrew,

      Thanks for clarifying that.

      It looks as though the policy stated stated on the STFC website a few days ago that “Successful applicants to the scheme will have completed their PhD 5 – 6 years previously” has been dropped. If so, that is welcome.

      Bryn.

  13. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Dear Bryn,

    Indeed the press release had was completely inaccurate on that point, so we got it fixed. There was never any intention of such a criterion.

    cheers,

    Andrew

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I’ll just put the 5-6 year limit down to an early April Fool joke by somebody at Alpha Ursae Minoris Mansions.

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