STFC Consolidated Grants Review

It’s been quite a while since I last put my community service hat on while writing a blog post, but here’s an opportunity. Last week the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) published a Review of the Implementation of Consolidated Grants, which can be found in its entirety here (PDF). I encourage all concerned to read it.

Once upon a time I served on the Astronomy Grants Panel whose job it was to make recommendations on funding for Astronomy through the Consolidated Grant Scheme, though this review covers the implementation across the entire STFC remit, including Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics (Theory), Particle Physics (Experiment) and Astronomy (which includes solar-terrestrial physics and space science). It’s quite interesting to see differences in how the scheme has been implemented across these various disciplines, but I’ll just include here a couple of comments on the Astronomy side of things.

First, here is a table showing the number of academic staff for whom support was requested over the three years for which the consolidated grant system has been in existence (2011, 2012 and 2013 for rounds 1, 2 and 3 respectively).  You can see that the overall success rate was slightly better in round 3, possibly due to applicants learning more about the process over the cycle, but otherwise the outcomes seem reasonably consistent:


The last three rows of this table  on the other hand show quite clearly the impact of the “flat cash” settlement for STFC science funding on Postdoctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) support:

Constant cash means ongoing cuts in real terms; there were 11.6% fewer Astronomy PDRAs supported in 2013 than in 2011. Job prospects for the next generation of astronomers continue to dwindle…

Any other comments, either on these tables or on the report as a whole, are welcome through the comments box.


13 Responses to “STFC Consolidated Grants Review”

  1. dear peter

    as always the situation is more complicated than it might appear.

    there was indeed less funding in the 2013 round than the 2011 and 2012 rounds – but that was intended and was in anticipation of different volumes of request (as we do not have 33% of the community submitting to each round) – in part driven by the timing of bridging requests required to set up the consolidated grants.

    the hope is that we will have roughly flat-cash for each of the rounds, but this of course addresses neither inflation nor the continued growth of the astronomy area in the UK – which see 1-2 new groups formed each year.

    ian [with my AGP chair hat on]

    • telescoper Says:


      I thought the reason for the different amount of money in the different rounds was to allow for the big instrumentation grants?

      But I do take the point; a fairer assessment of the effect of ongoing erosion would be to look at the average RA numbers over the next 3-year cycle.


      • yes – the instrument groups are part of the reason for the differences between the funding needed in each round.

        once the current round is announced (which should be very soon) i will send an update to astrocommunity – and i’ve got a slot booked at the next astroforum to present the outcome. i think its fair to say that the RA numbers are at least stable.


  2. “Constant cash means ongoing cuts in real terms; there were 11.6% fewer Astronomy PDRAs supported in 2013 than in 2011. Job prospects for the next generation of astronomers continue to dwindle…”

    Shouldn’t that be the opposite? Fewer PDRAs means better job prospects for those who do get a grant, since there will be less competition for the few permanent jobs (though still far fewer jobs than applicants, even after correcting for the fact that most people apply for more than one job).

    Or do you see PDRAs themselves as the “next generation of astronomers”? 😐

    Most PDRAs don’t get permanent jobs in astronomy. Fewer might actually be better, provided a) the money thus saved goes somewhere else in astronomy, such as more permanent jobs etc and b) one makes sure that only the best, and not the most robust, stay on.

  3. Chris Brunt Says:

    In the report, it is proposed (Fig 2) that the outcome announcement date will move to December in the next few years, with the submission deadline staying in February.

    I understand the enormity of the review task, but doesn’t this seem a little long? It means that we will go back to the situation of advertising our UK positions after the big US NSF-funded deluge in November/December.

    Is anyone AGP-related able to comment on the December announcement date, given that the peer-review meeting is scheduled for July?

    • dear chris

      i wouldn’t give too much credence to that figure – it was intended to illustrate the PPGP(E) schedule and isn’t the model for AGP.

      AGP’s goal remains to have the announcements out by early-november. this is hopefully sufficient for people to advertise in AAS. however, i appreciate that the AAS deadlines have been shifting forward, so we’re aiming at a moving target.

      it is not feasible to compress the assessment schedule any further without wiping out all of august for the panel (some of whom already meet in mid/late-august – with most of the meetings in early/mid-september).

      similarly we decided against moving the submission date earlier into january or december (as this would ruin the applicant’s christmas and put more work into the typically busiest academic term).


      • Alan Heavens Says:

        The details of deadlines and announcements are indeed a matter for the individual grants panels within constraints set by practical issues in consultation with STFC. That figure was illustrative, but the main point is to announce the grants well before the end of the previous grant, which was not the case for Particle Physics grants.

  4. here is the schedule from this year (not sure if the formatting will work):

    Application deadline Feb 12
    AGP briefing & kick-off meeting Feb 21
    Applications sent to reviewers Mar 28
    Reviewer comments sent to applicants Apr 28
    All applicants responses to reviews in May 15
    Introducer questions sent to applicants Jul 23
    Applicant responses to Introducers in Aug 1
    AO/AT meeting Aug 19-21
    SS/PL meeting Sep 3-5
    Merging meeting Sep 18
    UKSA SPAC meeting Oct 15
    Science Board meeting Oct 23
    Announcements November

    the time between the merging meeting and SPAC/SB is needed to get the detailed costings and so agree the final cut-off. the big gap is the ~9 weeks across the exam period + early July when the panel collate all the inputs and draw up their preliminary assessments and questions for the applicants. we’ve looked hard at this and don’t think it is feasible to shave substantially more time off the process – without introducing failures – which are more disruptive than having a slightly slower-than-perfect schedule which is achievable.


  5. John Peacock Says:

    Peter: The numbers in your tables don’t seem to be consistent. If I take the number of academics from your first table, and the number of awarded RAs from the second, I get the following figure of merit (RAs per academic, which is the main thing we care about):

    2011 applicants=187 RA=77 41%
    2012 applicants=209 RA=71 34%
    2013 applicants=150 RA=68 45%

    These are smaller than the 57%-59% in Table 1, but feel more realistic to me. 59% is nearly 2/3, and I can’t believe that the fraction of AGP academics with PDRA support is anything like this high. What am I doing wrong?

    • telescoper Says:


      I was also confused about the precise meaning of the columns in Table 1. However, the numbers in Table 2 seem to make sense. The number of PDRAs per funded acacdemic is about 0.58, which means some projects would have less than one 3-year PDRA awarded per academic (and indeed some would be FEC-only)…

    • I think the key is in the denominator, it is a ratio of PDRAs per *funded* applicant. So the ~30% of staff who don’t get FEC don’t make it into this number.

  6. John Peacock Says:

    And on the subject of the changed schedule for announcing the grant, I’m not in favour of the new proposals. They’ll just make life harder for applicants, without addressing the real problem.

    We just got notice of our 2014 CG award, 6 months before the end of the current grant. It would have been completely unfair to leave our postdocs uncertain of their fate, so we long ago took the small gamble of issuing contract extensions. I would say that a PDRA should know at least one year in advance if they will need a new job, and moreover this has to be in phase with the academic cycle. So any postdoc not to be funded out of our new CG (starting April 2015) would have needed notice of this plus a final 1-year contract starting in September 2013 in order that they could have applied for a new job to start in around September 2014. This requires a decision on the new grant 14 months sooner than current timings. The changed deadlines won’t produce this, so what’s the point? All it achieves is to force people to apply for a new grant before they can really see how the old one is working out. It will reduce the quality of the information AGP needs to make its decisions.

    The solution to this problem is the one we implemented in Edinburgh. We persuaded our Head of School that it was most unlikely that we would lose 2/3 of our CG funding in one go, and therefore there was no risk at all for the School to agree to allow us to issue PDRA contracts that extended as much as 1 year beyond the CG renewal date. But my understanding is that many departments won’t do this, and this is the real problem that needs to be fixed. The only way I can see this working is for STFC to issue letters guaranteeing a minimum level of future funding post-renewal. This would depend on the size and history of the group: for a sufficiently large CG, I would suggest 1/3 of current funding, tapering to maybe 1 guaranteed PDRA for a CG with 4 current positions. For smaller groups, even a guarantee of 1 PDRA might tie the AGP’s hands too much, so this is not a perfect solution – but it would be a start. Universities have to hold the risk of paying for PDRAs during the renewal period, and STFC should be doing everything it can to help and encourage them in taking up this responsibility. But changed deadlines are not the answer.

    • John:

      To be clear – there is no proposal to change the schedule for announcing the AGP grants – these will still hopefully involve outcomes known in November for a grant start the following April (based on a February submission).

      If institutes are willing to offer contracts which run to the following October (so 6 months of underwriting) then this should be sufficient notice to allow PDRAs to apply for new posts if their STFC funding is withdrawn. This was the motivation for pushing the AGP schedule to achieve November outcomes.

      The issue of tapering of awards is more difficult (the main strength of the previous rolling grants). There are a number of ways to achieve this end result (I assume the instigators of CGs thought that the “core” posts might have this effect, but we weren’t allowed to use them to build in a wedge of commitment for a fraction of a grant into year 4). We could remove the need for institutional underwriting by moving the grant start dates from April to October (keeping the rest of the schedule as it is), but at the cost that it adds 6 months more between the proposal and when the science is actually funded. However, the idea that CGs are in any way responsive is pretty far fetched.



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