Astronomy Grants: The Harsh Reality

Time, I think, to return to my role as selfless servant of the astronomical community, with a bit of news about astronomy grants. I was prompted to do this by the following cartoon (from the excellent PhDComics) which I saw this morning:

It’s all completely untrue, of course. *Cough*.

Anyway, as you will probably  know, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is introducing a new system of grants this year and the deadline for the first set of applications for the new “consolidated grants” was 4th May, which passed last week while I was away on holiday. Just before leaving I attended a preliminary meeting in London of the Astronomy Grant Panel, of which I am a member. In fact, I delayed my departure specifically in order to attend the meeting. The things I do for science.

At the meeting we discussed a number of issues relating to the new system in order to be ready to get on with the business as quickly as possible when the applications are all in. The timetable is very tight if we’re going to be able to get our recommendations finalised in time for STFC to make announcements in October, as is planned. Thew new system is  going to mean a huge amount of extra work over the summer for the panel members, doing what was always a thankless task in the first place.

Of course I’m not going to write anything on here about the actual process of assessing grants, and certainly not about individual proposals or outcomes. Anything that’s not confidential about the procedure is already explained quite clearly on the STFC website too, so there’s not much point going over that again here. It would also be inappropriate for me to give the impression that anything I put on here is in any way the official AGP (or STFC) line.

What I can do, though, is make a few comments about the current situation using information that is already in the public domain or is otherwise not a breach of confidentiality. The most important observation relates to the following figure, borrowed from the e-astronomer (who also happens to be Chair of the AGP):

The graph shows the number of astronomy postdoctoral research positions funded by STFC (or its forerunner PPARC) as a function of time. The steep decline in recent years has been widely discussed. My own view is that it will be disastrous in the long term if steps are not taken to rectify it soon. The  STFC budget for astronomy grants is fixed for the next few years at a level corresponding to about 60 per year, similar to the number announced in 2010/11.

Now the new consolidated grants will incorporate existing roling grants (which were reviewed on a three-year cycle) and standard grants (which usually lasted three years). A large number of positions announced in 2008 will therefore be hoping for renewal this year. On top of those there will be proposals requesting new positions and other rolling grants coming into this round before their usual renewal date in order to merge with others from the same institution.

I don’t know the actual numbers applied for this year – and couldn’t tell you even if I did – but it’s not unreasonable based on the figures shown in the graph above to estimate that  about 100 PDRA requests will be made, and possibly many more. A significant fraction of these (perhaps 2/3) will be people employed on existing rolling grants hoping to be continued in a new consolidated grant from 2011 onwards.

I probably don’t have to spell it out any further, but it’s clear from the graph that the arithmetic is very tough. Even without any new requests this year, only about 2/3 of the positions funded in 2008 can survive. In reality there may be more than 100 souls standing on deck, but the lifeboats can only hold 60….

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31 Responses to “Astronomy Grants: The Harsh Reality”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    So 40 excellent people already in research posts in astronomy in the United Kingdom will be out.

    Where will they go? Will some be able to escape to research positions in a better-funded country with better science policy planning? How will the rest find careers advice to enable them to switch careers? Will employers in industry and business be interested in them, or will they again regard these experienced scientists as being “over-specialised” or “over-qualified”?

    What will the STFC do to help with a problem of its own creation?

    The answer to that last question is easy: nothing.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Bryn

    Not exactly. Not all the positions that will inevitably be unfunded are existing filled ones. Some of the awards made in 2008 will have ended anyway, by normal staff turnover and some of the positions being requested this round are new requests.

    However, the fact remains that the funding is insufficient to support more than about 2/3 of the number PDRAs awarded in 2008 and if there is a significant number of new requests the success rate will fall still further.

    Peter

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, true. Although, the loss of posts means that people working elsewhere who would have filled them will have to find some other way to earn a living.

      I’m still puzzled why postdocs do not complain more about the system and campaign for some rational planning regarding careers and the demographics of the research community.

    • Bryn – we do complain. No-one listens.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Mark,

      Maybe, but not to the right places. I didn’t see any written evidence from postdocs to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology inquiry into astronomy and particle physics.

      I don’t see any joint statements to the media from postdocs about their poor career prospects, particularly contradicting statements by academics and research councils when they try to persuade undergraduates that there are feasible careers in academic research.

    • The last time there was a concerted campaign of complaint we got the ‘concordat’ which is largely a set of motherhood statements & additional training opportunities that most postdocs, focussing on the academic career that is their goal, feel just get in the way of doing research.

      What is needed is better career advice at earlier stages and a reduction in PhD production – something that as an academic Joe I know will be painful. Meanwhile the need for trained people in industry who are not ‘overspeciized’ can be addressed by increasing the number of funded MSc places. See appendix to the RAS careers paper from ~2005.

      Above all the frequently inevitable departure from academia must be a positive choice to do something else. I know only too well the damage that comes when it isn’t.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Dave has made several points above, all excellent, absolutely correct and to the point.

      (Although I would add that the concordat process might have some use if research groups actually implemented it uniformly, rather than follow it only in the cases of preferred individuals; many academics seem to be unaware of its existence.)

    • telescoper Says:

      Dave,

      I agree, but I think we’re in a minority. I feel very strongly that we produced far too many PhDs – many of them doing drudge projects – and not enough taught Masters students.

      We should scrap the MPhys/Msci undergraduate degrees, and replacing them with a standard 3-year BSc, a two year taught Masters, and a 3-year PhD, with decreasing numbers in each stage.

      Peter

    • telescoper Says:

      Bryn

      I think it’s true that many academics are unaware of the existence of the concordat, but senior university management certainly know about it. I can think of an example where an academic was forced by his employer to change the way he was “managing” a postdoc when they found out he was flouting the concordat.

      Peter

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Peter,

      Yes, I agree. Senior management seems to be fully aware of the concordat. The problem is that academics within research groups often are wholly ignorant of it. I am sure that my career opportunities would have been appreciably better had the concordat been implemented in word and spirit at departmental level. Of course, the concordat is mostly nice words that do not address the main causes of the career crisis, but its implementation might create more of a level playing field where people could compete on more equal terms than at present, even if the numbers game mean that only a tiny fraction of people could survive.

      Bryn.

    • Stuart Says:

      A few years ago several hundred postdocs and postgrads in astronomy & particle physics signed a petition, related to the funding cuts, that was forwarded to the government. The government reply was more or less a copy and paste regurgitation of previous statements and initially consisted of page 1, page 1 again, then page 3.

      Given whoever had drew up the statement couldn’t even be bothered to check the pdf they sent contained the correct pages, its a fairly safe assumption that no one in Whitehall was particularly concerned by what young scientists had to say.

      That said, there appears to be no effective organisation of postdocs (and postgrads) in the UK. As I understand it, postdocs can join the UCU, but that appears to be too large to be particularly concerned with the needs of a very small proportion of its membership.

      An interesting comparison would be the achievements of the postdocs at the University of California who were able to secure significant improvements in pay & conditions after unionising.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      It is excellent that a petition was sent, although there is a tendency within government for petitions not to be taken that seriously. It is, however, an excellent start.

      A new organisation, the UK Research Staff Association, has been formed to represent the interests of postdoctoral researchers. Whether it will have a positive influence will be seen with time, although I suspect that it will not have the teeth to lobby in the way that is needed.

      The University and College Union does indeed include postdoctoral researchers. The bulk of its membership is academic lecturing staff, and as a trades union its activities are concentrated on lobbying for the interests of lecturing staff, be they in research-led or teaching-only universities and colleges. The UCU has only a rather small membership among postdoctoral research staff. UCU is very concerned about short-term contracts, but my feeling is that it tends not to appreciate the extent of the acute problems facing research staff, or their causes (such as the funding system and the extreme imbalance between numbers of PhD studentships and long-term posts). The focus of the UCU might change if more postdocs joined, but it might need a mass recruitment campaign among postdocs to bring this about.

      There is also the possibility of postdocs joining a different trade union, such as Prospect, but the UCU is formally recognised by universities to represent academic lecturing and research staff.

      I have felt for a long time that a lobbying campaign for postdoctoral researchers could have a beneficial effect, perhaps a Research Careers Campaign. It could submit formal written statements in response to government consultations and parliamentary select committee inquiries. It could issue statements to media organisations. It could lobby the scientific societies to persuade them to argue for the interests of research staff. It could produce its own formal reports on various aspects of research careers. It could respond with hard facts when research councils draw up policies affecting the career opportunities of researchers based on incorrect data about the demographics of the research community.

    • Peter: We seem to be divided about 50-50 here on the issue of more/less PhD students and the importance/unimportance of supporting people through the early stages of their postdoc careers (at least as demonstrated by our response to the AF vs. PDRF issue), so I think we might not be in such a small minority as you think.

      The MSci/BSc/MSc issue stems at least partly form A-levels now being so crap you need 4 years to get to the point we were at after 3. A one year taught MSc stage for all potential PhD students, with only a fraction getting through, could be a good compromise.

      Bryn: With the merger that formed UCU, those active in research at postdoc level, or even faculty level, in the organisation is quite small. UCU is dominated by further education and the less research intensive new universities because there are just way more of them. I don’t see research staff getting much out of them. Local or national interest groups like that at UC are the best way to go but, with the goal academic posts being so scarce, who’s going to spend a lot of their postdoc time forming a union? It’s a tough problem!

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Dave,

      Yes, I agree about the character of the UCU, representing mostly lecturers across a diverse university and college sector.

      I agree that organising postdocs at university or department level would be the best option, although this might be as branches of a larger campaign. I’m uncommitted about whether it would be a campaigning organisation or trades union, but universities do recognise UCU (and only UCU) to represent academic and research staff.

      Bryn.

  3. Albert Zijlstra Says:

    Indeed, career prospects for PDRAs are a concern. This is not only related to the grant line squeeze. The number of new lectureships is more relevant. In the past, a fair number of people found employment at observatories and this has also become more difficult. It is a fact that in our field, it is helpful to be able to work abroad. But there are still other possibilities. I worked for a publishing company after my first postdoc.

    PDRA positions should be seen as temporary. Four years working for one supervisor is probably enough – staying longer benefits the supervisor but not the postdoc. A perpetual PDRA position is great fun but not much of a career.

    Albert

  4. Monica Grady Says:

    Welcome back after your hols. 3 blogs in 24 hr – you must have been suffering withdrawal symptoms!

    M
    X

    • peter: it might be helpful to point out that some of the “new” consolidated grant requests will come with a dowry of (real) committed resources for the early part of their durations. so, while the oversubscription in this round may appear high, some fraction of the new requests won’t be making the 100-vs-60 situation worse. we should also note that the cut this round are part of the same cuts which were applied to last year’s round (although now compounded by the confusion from the new grants process and the SSC). …not that any of this makes the outcome any better.

      • telescoper Says:

        Yes, that’s a good point. I was just guessing how many really new requests there might be, allowing for those apparently new ones that have already been counted.

        The funding situation may turn out to be a bit less bad than what I’ve suggested here, but it’s still not going to be good.

  5. I rather suspect that a reason for postdocs’ relative inactivity when it comes to lobbying is that (a) few want to be seen as a “trouble maker” and organise a campaign (b) campaigning takes time and career-minded postdocs are already full up with the research they hope will lead to a permanent job (c) they are numerate – there are lots of them and little money in the pot. Its clear to them that lots of tinkering can be done but that there is no feasible solution which can give each of them a good chance for a career inside a UK institution.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, that is spot on, absolutely right in all respects.

      I remember when I was a postdoc being reluctant to be too outspoken about the career structure for fear of upsetting people. Career progress for academic research staff usually depends on getting support, even patronage, from an established academic. Minimally, this means getting a good reference for future job applications. It means being accepted as an equal member of research collaborations. More significantly, it means winning the formal support of a department in applying for a fellowship, a critical hurdle on an academic career.

      Of course, career opportunities are so poor in academic science in Britain that only a small minority of people employed as postdoctoral researchers today will make it to an academic career. Campaigning could not improve this situation without appreciable cuts to the numbers of PhD studentships and more funding for long-term positions for older researchers; those are long term objectives which are unlikely to be won early enough to help current research staff.

      However, campaigning could improve working conditions for research staff. It could ensure that the several years spent working as a postdoc could be more fulfilling, enjoyable and scientifically productive than at present. It could help to ensure access to basic resources essential for success in research (for example, to have travel and equipment funds actually controlled by the postdoc, rather than by a grant’s principal investigator who forgets to spend them). It could give postdocs valuable experience that would help in finding careers outside science (for example, experience of controlling budgets, leadership in project planning, experience of formal supervision of junior staff).

      Above all, campaigning might win access to basic career advice to help the inevitable transition to another career outside academia and outside science.

    • Given that many postdocs don’t want to make a fuss for the reasons you outline – perhaps the solution is people who have left to pursue other careers to try and bring publicity to the issue – they have nothing to lose by making a nuisance of themselves to academics, universities and research councils. Of course that relies on the goodwill of people who also have nothing to gain by campaigning anymore, because they were already forced into alternative careers.

    • One very specific suggestion here – that postdocs should be able to manage money – is a very good one. This can happen in the US where money follows observing time on at least NASA facilities, but there is a huge reluctance to allow this here – with considerable consequent loss of scientific output. A past PPARC chair even misled a commons select committee when he claimed that no UK research council let postdocs have money – the ESRC did and does.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      I fear that the inability of postdocs to handle budgets (unless a grant holder invites the postdoc into the process informally) leaves them poorly placed to compete for jobs in business and industry against people who left academia after degree study. Most talented people who go into industry or business straight after graduating will have built up considerable experience of budget and personnel management by the age of 28-35. In contrast, people of a similar age and talent who went through PhD study and then postdoctoral academic research will not have that experience. That makes the transition from academia to other employment even more difficult.

      I’m also concerned that effectively prohibiting postdocs in Britain from competing to win funding can disadvantage them when competing for research and lecturing jobs against people who have worked in countries where postdocs can apply for funding. Who is likely to be appointed when two candidates of similar ability and with similar publication records are competing for a job, if one of them has worked in the United States and is able to list several grants on their CV?

  6. Dave Carter Says:

    You could also ask academics who have taken early retirement, and can no longer be silenced.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      Yes, people who have left the university system can lobby to improve the research career without fear of any consequences.

      However, it would take much more than criticism from a few people who have moved on to pressurise policy makers to transform the research career system. It requires constant criticism from those directly affected as well. Only they can create the opportunities to apply pressure, which often means writing joint letters or appointing spokespersons to talk to the media.

      Certainly, however, those people who have left academic research, but still have an interest in science policy, have a duty to lobby for a better system. (And if science policy makers do not like this, they should try to fix the system.)

  7. Iain Steele Says:

    I suspect you will find many who have left university based research after being a postdoc actually turn out to be quite happy once they have done so. Therefore expecting them to say to the government “I wish I was doing what I used to do rather than the equally valid thing I am doing now” seems strange.

    The fundamental problem is that only acceptable career path we present to PhD students is to become academics just like us, with anything else being seen as “second best”. This is bound to lead to problems.

    • I would say most postdocs I know are well aware of other careers, because they know lots of people who went into them after phd, or after 1 or 2 postdocs.

      So the real problem is lots of good people want to do research, and the universities trained them to do that. And then there are no secure jobs, except for the lucky few who somehow get a lectureship.

    • Also many postdocs don’t want to be a manager – so why is the only career route in universities the lectureship?

      In most other professions if you don’t want to be a manager you can stay at the coal face on a lower salary in a *secure* job. it seems a bizarre anomaly to me this is not true in science. I see so many post-docs in late 40’s or even older, that clearly lots of people are forging careers as researchers only. But its not properly catered for.

  8. Dave M. Says:

    Regarding giving postdocs control over funding I’m in broadly in favour but with some reservations. It should be done as part of an existing grant rather than a special grant to them unless the project doesn’t require that the postdoc had formal responsibility for other staff members. There is a large turn-over of postdocs and, given the limited contract times of postdocs, there would otherwise be many uncompleted projects. From conception to full dissemination, a project can take several years, and many/most projects get delayed to some level.

    Another reason why I’m a bit negative to the idea of postdocs getting control over budgets etc. is that I’d rather postdocs spent their time focusing on the research. PhD training is weak in the UK (compared to many continental systems). The postdoc period is often necessary to bring our lot up to speed. Also, it could give rise to a generation of managerialist postdocs and we have already too many managerial-types a on the academic staff. I’d prefer that those applying for permanant physics do so on their research merits rather than research management merits.

    Giving postdocs more control over budgets and some management experience is clearly desirable. However, for the above reasons I think it should be carefully thought through.

  9. […] Astronomy Grants: The Harsh Reality « In the Dark […]

  10. […] prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it […]

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