Archive for March 26, 2013

Being on the panel…

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , on March 26, 2013 by telescoper

As well as all the University of Sussex business I’ve been having to take care of over the last couple of months or so, I’ve also been trying to find time to keep up with the new round of applications to the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. I had originally thought that the 2012/13 round would be the last one on which I served, but I must have misbehaved in some way because it appears that my sentence has been extended for another year.

The latest duty required of panel members has been to assign reviewers to the new proposals, which means reading each case and trying to think of appropriate experts to assess them in detail. Normal procedure is to contact such people informally in the first instance, with Swindon Office following up by sending the actual documents if and only if they agree. fortunately, most people out there in astronomyland are very public spirited and it’s usually not that difficult to find willing reviewers.

In the course of contacting potential referees this round I had a couple of replies from people who were apparently already considering the possibility of volunteering to be on the panel next year and who therefore asked me what it would be like. I thought I’d make a few comments here in case anyone reading this blog has toyed with similar thoughts.

Basically, my view is that the AGP is extremely hard but also extremely interesting work, and it’s also the chance to work with a very friendly and cooperative group of people. From that point of view I think it’s well worth doing. Plus, of course, the wider the range of people who participate in panel work the fairer it is likely to be.

In fact, if it weren’t for the friendly company the three-day meetings in Swindon during which the final recommendations are drawn up would be truly horrendous. These meetings are extremely pressured, by the way. If I recall correctly the volume of grants to get through corresponds to about £10,000 per minute of discussion time.

On the other hand, the job is not without its frustrations. Most important of these is that there simply isn’t enough money to fund all the top-rated research proposals. Established researchers who have become used to having a steady stream of research grants are not spared this stark arithmetic. I think most people are mature enough not to take it personally when a grant application is turned down, but there are exceptions. I’ve been beset at more than one RAS dinner by disgruntled senior scientists complaining about various aspects of the AGP process. Sometimes these have been fair criticisms (e.g. about the quality of feedback) but others have been quite disturbingly ill-informed, to such an extent that I don’t think the persons concerned had even read the grant guidance…

Anyway, if you’re wondering whether to put yourself forward for nomination as a member of the AGP then please do, because the process needs to engage the community it tries to serve. If you do join up, though, just be prepared to suffer a few of the odd slings and arrows. As for me, this is definitely my last year. I have a few enough friends already, and I can’t afford to lose any more.