Archive for the Science Politics Category

ERC Starting Grant Statistics

Posted in Politics, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on January 10, 2022 by telescoper

Today the European Research Council (ERC) announced the first round of winners of Starting Grants under the new Horizon Europe programme. The results make for interesting reading. Some 397 grants were awarded worth a total of €619 million, i.e. about €1.5 million each on average, all intended for researchers in the early stages of their careers. A complete list of award winners can be found in this PDF document. Congratulations to all of them!

Here is the breakdown by host country:

You will see that Ireland has secured 8 (half in social sciences & humanities, and half in science). That’s not bad for a small country, and is comparable with Denmark, Norway and Finland. The only two funded in Physical Sciences & Engineering in Ireland are both at the University of Limerick.

The big shock, however, is that the number of grants to be hosted in the UK is down sharply on previous Starter Grant rounds. In previous years that I can remember the UK was at the top of the awards table. Now top spot goes to Germany, with the UK in third place, only just above the Netherlands. I wonder what the reason could be for that?

You might be surprised that the UK is listed at all because it is not in the EU has not signed an association agreement with the European Union. Switzerland, also not in the EU, has been awarded 28 grants but these are not eligible for funding because negotiations on association have ended without a signature. According to the ERC website:

As a result, host institutions established in Switzerland are not eligible for funding. Exceptionally for this call, since it was already closed before the termination of the negotiations between the EU and Switzerland, the proposals submitted with Swiss host institutions and which have been selected for funding may remain eligible if their host institution is replaced with a legal entity established in an eligible country.

This looks like a cue for other institutions to start poaching! Israel and Norway are non-EU countries have agreements in place.

The situation with the UK, as far as I understand it, is that negotiations towards an association agreement are currently snarled up with issues surrounding the Northern Ireland Protocol component of the UK’s withdrawal agreement from the European Union. If an agreement is signed before contracts have to be issued (in April) then the grants to UK institutions will be funded by the EU. If not then not.

In addition, successful applicants established in a country in the process of associating to Horizon Europe will not be treated as established in an associated country if the association agreement does not apply by the time of the signature of the grant agreement. 

In this case, however, the UK Government will fund these through the UKRI budget. So they say.

On the other hand, these grants are portable and some winners may decided to change host institution to avoid any uncertainty. Cue some more poaching?

Another thing that is striking is that although 46 UK institutions are intended hosts for such funding, only 12 of the grantees have UK nationality.

It follows that many of the UK’s grantees are from elsewhere, either in the EU or outside. It is possible under this scheme for awardees to relocate to institutions in member countries from non-member countries, which accounts for the large number of “Others” in the plot.

Notice the opposite applies to Italy: there are 58 Italian grantees but only 28 grants will be hosted in Italy.

Here is the breakdown by gender:

Anyway, you can read more about the statistics in this PDF document here.

Four Years in Maynooth

Posted in Biographical, Maynooth, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , on December 1, 2021 by telescoper


In recent times I’ve found myself remarking quite frequently on this blog how much the Covid-19 pandemic has played havoc with my perception of the passage of time, and I come to reflect on that again now that today (1st December 2021) marks four years since I started work at Maynooth University. So much has happened in that period it seems very much longer since I first arrived here.

I started off working part-time here in Maynooth and part-time in Cardiff, commuting once a week to and fro across the Irish Sea until July 2018. That was a very tiring experience that brought it home very forcefully that I don’t have anywhere near as much energy as I did when I was younger.

I won’t deny that the past four years have had their frustrations. The teaching and administrative workload, especially since I became Head of Department in 2019, and even more so since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, has been very heavy and has made it difficult to be very active in research. That’s not helped by the lack of opportunities for funding in basic science, thanks to what I believe to be a very short-sighted policy on research funding by the Irish government.

On the other hand, I have great colleagues and the students are very engaged. There are few things in life more rewarding than teaching people who really want to learn.

I hadn’t realized when I arrived in Ireland that it would take the best part of three years to find somewhere permanent to live, but I managed to buy a house in the summer of 2020. I am very happy here despite the continuing restrictions due to the pandemic.

The thing I’m probably most proud of over the past four years is, with the huge help of staff at Maynooth University Library, getting the Open Journal of Astrophysics off the ground and attracting some excellent papers. Hopefully that will continue to grow next year.

I am also proud of having played a part in the successful application for a new SALI Chair which we will be advertising formally in the new year. That is just one of many new developments on the horizon here at Maynooth, which suggest the next few years should be very exciting for physics and astronomy at Maynooth.

So, after a few years of hard and at times dispiriting slog, things are definitely looking up. Meanwhile, in Brexit Britain, events have turned out exactly as I predicted:

The referendum campaign, followed by the callous and contemptuous attitude of the current UK Government towards EU nationals living in Britain, unleashed a sickening level of xenophobia that has made me feel like a stranger in my own country. Not everyone who voted `Leave’ is a bigot, of course, but every bigot voted for Brexit and the bigots are now calling all the shots. There are many on the far right of UK politics who won’t be satisfied until we have ethnic cleansing. Even if Brexit is stopped the genie of intolerance is out of the bottle and I don’t think it well ever be put back. Brexit will also doom the National Health Service and the UK university system, and clear the way for the destruction of workers’ rights and environmental protection. The poor and the sick will suffer, while only the rich swindlers who bought the referendum result will prosper. The country in which I was born, and in which I have lived for the best part of 54 years, is no longer something of which I want to be a part.

In other words I don’t regret for one minute my decision to leave Britain.

P.S. After I finish my term as Head of Department next year I am eligible for a sabbatical, so if anyone fancies playing host to an old cosmologist please let me know!

P.P.S. Solidarity to all my colleagues in UK universities who are, from today, taking part in strike action against pension cuts and deteriorating working conditions.

Great News for Astrophysics & Cosmology at Maynooth!

Posted in Education, Maynooth, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on November 29, 2021 by telescoper

I couldn’t resist a quick post in reaction to the announcement by the Irish Government of ten new senior professorial positions under the Strategic Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI). I blogged about this scheme here. Among the positions just announced is a new Chair in Observational Astrophysics or Cosmology at Maynooth University. You can find Maynooth University’s official response to the announcement here.

The pandemic has played havoc with my sense of the passage of time so I had to check my documents folder to see when we completed the application. It turns out to have been January this year; the deadline was 29th January 2021. It has taken much longer than expected to for the outcome of this, the second, round to emerge but I suppose it’s better late than never!

The key rationale for these SALI positions is clear from the statement from Simon Harris, the Minister responsible for Third Level education in Ireland:

“Championing equality and diversity is one of the key goals of my department. The Senior Academic Leadership Initiative (SALI) is an important initiative aimed at advancing gender equality and the representation of women at the highest levels in our higher education institutions.

We have a particular problem with gender balance among the staff in Physics in Maynooth, especially un Theoretical Physics where all the permanent staff are male, and the lack of role models has a clear effect on our ability to encourage more female students to study with us.

The wider strategic case for this Chair revolves around broader developments in the area of astrophysics and cosmology at Maynooth. Currently there are two groups active in research in these areas, one in the Department of Experimental Physics (which is largely focussed on astronomical instrumentation) and the other, in the Department of Theoretical Physics, which is theoretical and computational. We want to promote closer collaboration between these research strands. The idea with the new position is that the holder will nucleate and lead a new research programme in the area between these existing groups as well as getting involved in outreach and public engagement.

The next step will be to launch a recruitment campaign, and more details will be available when the position is formally advertised. Let me just say for now that we intend the position to appeal not only to people who have their own observational programmes (e.g. using facilities provided by ESO, which Ireland recently joined) but also working on data from space missions, multi-messenger astrophysics, gravitational waves, and so on.

The 2020 Decadal Survey

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , on November 4, 2021 by telescoper

Delayed by a year, the 2020 US Decadal Survey of Astronomy -full title Pathways to Discovery in Astronomy and Astrophysics for the 2020s – is now out.

It’s a hefty document of more than 600 pages so I haven’t had time to do anything but skim it. The top priority for NASA for the next decade seems to be a 6-m class space telescope capable of imaging Earth-like worlds orbiting sun-like stars, something that can’t be done with much larger telescopes from the ground though the plan does involve bringing very large ground-based telescopes (the Giant Magellan Telescope in Chile and the Thirty Metre Telescope in Hawaii) into service more quickly than currently scheduled. Any new space telescope won’t be built and launched on the timescale of course: it probably won’t fly until the 2040s by which time I’ll probably be retired,

I also noticed in the section on the Cosmic Microwave Background we have

Recommendation: The National Science Foundation and the Department of Energy should jointly pursue the design and implementation of the next generation ground-based cosmic microwave background experiment (CMB-S4).The panel suggests that third-generation CMB experiments aligned with CMB-S4―specifically, the SPO (South Pole Observatory) and the “nominal” version of the SO (Simons Observatory)―be high priorities for federal support.

The clarifications in parentheses are my additions.

The shopping list is a lot longer than these items however. There is plenty of discussion in the media already. See, for example, here. I may comment further if time allows.

UPDATE: there is a very user-friendly interactive overview of the survey here.

This is of course an American survey but Astronomy is a truly international enterprise so astronomers all round the globe will be studying it and trying to work out its implications for their own research environment.

And of course there’s a box below for comments from you!

Save Dublin’s Science Gallery!

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on November 1, 2021 by telescoper

Last week Trinity College Dublin decided to close the Science Gallery on Pearse Street owing to losses generated during the pandemic. It would be a terrible shame to lose such an excellent venue and the range of fascinating exhibitions it has hosted. The Irish Government has apparently intervened and a reprieve may be on the way but I think it’s important to demonstrate the strength of feeling about the decision.

There is a piece on RTÉ Brainstorm about the reasons why the Science Gallery should not be closed here.

There is a petition here for you to sign should you so wish. It has so far attracted over 3000 signatures.

From Maynooth to SFI

Posted in Maynooth, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 20, 2021 by telescoper

Last month I mentioned that I attended an event to mark the departure of Professor Philip Nolan at the end of his term as President of Maynooth University. Over drinks afterwards he wasn’t very forthcoming about what he was planning to do next, but yesterday news broke that he is to become the Director General of Science Foundation Ireland.

Amusingly, I see the slogan for SFI is ‘For What’s Next…’

Congratulations to Professor Nolan on this appointment! For the last 18 months, as well as being President of Maynooth University, he has been chairing the Epidemiological Modelling effort as part of National Public Health Emergency Team dealing with Covid-19. He won’t be starting his new job until January, so is now probably taking a bit of a rest.

The job at SFI will be a big challenge. Science in Ireland is in a dire state of under-investment, especially in basic (i.e. fundamental) research. Until recently SFI really only funded applied science, but recently seemed to have shifted its emphasis a little bit in its latest strategic plan.

Currently Ireland spends just 1.1% of its GDP on scientific research and development and SFI currently has a heavy focus on applied research (i.e. research aligned with industry that can be exploited for short-term commercial gain). This has made life difficult for basic or fundamental science and has driven many researchers in such areas abroad, to the detriment of Ireland’s standing in the international scientific community.

The new strategy, which covers the period from now to 2025, plans for 15% annual rises that will boost the agency’s grant spending — the greater part of the SFI budget — from €200 million in 2020 to €376 million by 2025. Much of this is focused in top-down manner on specific programmes and research centres but there is at least an acknowledgement of the need to support basic research, including an allocation of €11 million in 2021 for early career researchers. The overall aim is to increase the overall R&D spend from 1.1% of gross domestic product, well below the European average of 2.2%, to 2.5% by 2025.

Obviously this increase in funding is welcome and that is a big positive for the incoming Director General, but important strategic decisions will need to be taken about the overall balance of the programme. I wish Professor Nolan well as he takes over the helm.

JWST: Nice Telescope, Shame about the Name…

Posted in LGBT, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , , , on October 17, 2021 by telescoper
The JWST deployable mirror undergoing tests

I heard last week that the ship carrying the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) arrived safely in French Guiana and is now being prepared for launch on an Ariane-5 rocket at the European Space Agency’s facility at Kourou. Since the telescope cost approximately $10 billion there was some nervousness it might have been hijacked by pirates on the way.

I’m old enough to remember JWST when it was called the Next Generation Space Telescope NGST); it was frequently discussed at various advisory panels I was on about 20 years ago. Although the basic concept hasn’t changed much – it was planned to be the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope working in the infrared and with a deployable mirror – at that time it was going to have an even bigger mirror than the 6.5m it ended up with, was going to be launched in or around 2010, and was to have a budget of around $600 million. About a decade ago cost overruns, NASA budget problems, and technical hitches led to suggestions that it should be cancelled. It turned out however that it was indeed too big too fail. Now it is set for launch in December total cost greater than ten times the original estimate.

I know many people involved in the JWST project itself or waiting to use it to make observations, and I’ll be crossing my fingers on launch day and for the period until its remarkable folding mirror is deployed about a fortnight later. I hope it goes well, and look forward to the celebrations when it does.

There is a big problem with JWST however and that is its name, which was changed in 2002 from the Next Generation Space Telescope to the James Webb Space Telescope after James E. Webb, a civil servant who was NASA’s chief administrator from 1961 to 1968.

It’s not uncommon for scientific space missions like this to be named after people once the proposal has moved off the drawing board and into serious planning. That happened with the European Space Agency’s Planck and Herschel to give two examples. In any case Next General Space Telescope was clearly never anything but a working title. Yet naming this important mission after a Government official always seemed a strange decision to me. Then news emerged that James Webb had enthusiastically cooperated in a McCarthyite purge of LGBT+ people working in government institutions, part of a wider moral panic referred to by historians as the Lavender Scare. There have been high-profile protests (see, e.g., here) and a petition that received over a thousand signatures, but NASA has ruled out any change of name.

The main reason NASA give is that they found no evidence that Webb himself was personally involved in discrimination or persecution. I find that very unconvincing. He was in charge, so had responsibility for what went on in his organization. If he didn’t know then why didn’t he know? Oh, and by the way, he didn’t have anything to do with infrared astronomy either…

It’s a shame that this fantastic telescope should have its image so tarnished by the adoption of an inappropriate name. The name is a symbol of a time when homophobic discrimination was even more prevalent than it is now, and as such will be a constant reminder to us that NASA seems not to care about the many LGBT+ people working for them directly or as members of the wider astronomical community.

P.S. As an alternative name I suggest the Lavender Scare Space Telescope (LSST)…

Preprints in Applications – a plea to the ARC!

Posted in Open Access, Science Politics with tags , on August 25, 2021 by telescoper

I was astonished to discover (via this article) that the Australian Research Council has placed a ban on preprints veing cited in funding applications, and that many applicants have had applications rejected solely on the basis that they referred to preprints in them.

It beggars belief that anyone who actually understands modern scientific practice could come up with such a stupid idea. I can only surmise that the people who run the Australian Research Council are so out of touch with actual research that they don’t understand not only the silliness of this rule but also the damage being caused by it.

I have been on grants panels in the UK many times, and have reviewed many applications for other agencies too, and I can’t think of any that didn’t refer to preprints. It can take a year or more for a paper to appear in a traditional journal and in many fields research moves so quickly that citing results ahead of (formal) publication is the only way to present a true picture of ongoing research. Any author who doesn’t cite other authors’ preprints is either out of touch with ongoing research or presented an unbalanced view of the literature. I would further argue that, at least in astrophysics, any applicant who doesn’t have a clutch of preprints on the topic of the application can’t be sufficiently active to justify grant funding.

Results made available in preprints may not have been refereed but that is no reason to ban them altogether. Any experienced reviewer will know how to treat them. And don’t forget there are plenty of wrong results in the refereed literature too. I’d prefer a policy that banned applicants whose papers were not published in an Open Access form…

There is a petition here urging the Australian Research Council to revise its preprint policies. I urge you to sign it (as I have done). Be quick, though, as the deadline is 31st August 2021.

And in case you think this is a matter for Australians only, I disagree. Science is collaborative and many of the collaborations span many different countries. It is in all our interests to ensure that our Australian cousins don’t get held back by inane policies like this.

UPDATE: Nature has now covered this story.

IRC Starting and Consolidator Awards

Posted in Maynooth, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 9, 2021 by telescoper

Just a quick post to pass on the news that there are a couple of new funding programmes run by the Irish Research Council. The full description of these programmes can be found here, but here is an excerpt:

The Council is inviting applications at the early and mid-career level (Starting and Consolidator). Funding will be awarded on the basis solely of excellence, assessed through a rigorous and independent international peer-review process. Laureates will enhance their track record and international competitiveness. As well as the benefits for the laureate and their team, it is anticipated that the award will enhance the potential for subsequent ERC success as a further career milestone; indeed it will be a requirement of all laureates that they make a follow-on application to the ERC.

Fortunately the remit of the IRC is broader than Science Foundation Ireland, which has a narrow focus on research likely to lead to short-term returns, so it is more likely to appeal to those working in more speculative fundamental or frontier science, including Astrophysics. Unfortunately IRC has a lot less money than SFI.

An overview of the programme can be found in the following recording of a webinar that took place last week:

The way the call works is that you must first lodge an Expression of Interest with the institution to which you wish to apply, i.e. Maynooth University. That must be done by 27th August 2021. Full applications will then be due in November.

On LinkedIn

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on July 4, 2021 by telescoper

A former colleague recently contacted me with a request to join my “network” on LinkedIn.  That was quite hard to do as (at least until this morning) I was not on LinkedIn. That reminded me of a talk at INAM2019 a couple of years ago about the Astronomical Society of Ireland  which was about to be re-launched with a new website. One of the main reasons for doing this is that Ireland recently joined the European Southern Observatory and in order to capitalize on its involvement it is important to persuade the Irish government to invest in the resources needed (especially postdocs, etc) to do as much science as possible using ESO facilities. The idea was to improve the lobbying power for astronomy in Ireland. One of the suggestions made yesterday was that astronomers in Ireland should join LinkedIn in order to raise their profile individually and collectively.

I was not on LinkedIn at the time and didn’t get around to joining it mainly because I’ve always thought it was more for businessy types than academics. Anyway, in the light of recent events I decided it couldn’t do any harm to bite the bullet and set up a LinkedIn profile, which you can find here. It’s really a rather basic profile but I think I’ve set it up so that posts from here will be posted to LinkedIn too, so if you’re on it yourself you might want to add me. Or not. It’s up to you!

P.S. The only thing I have put under “Awards and Honours” is Winner of Beard of Ireland 2020.