Archive for Astronomy Grants Panel

Service Complet

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , on December 3, 2013 by telescoper

Just time for a quick post from the London to Brighton train, having spent the day at my last ever “Plenary” meeting of the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council which was held at the Institute of Physics. This meeting marks the end of the annual grants round; in January there’ll be a meeting to kick off next year’s business.

I’ve been on this panel for four years now, so I think I’ve done my bit. Time for some new blood to replace those of us who have been stood down.

Anyway I just want to say a big public thank you to the STFC staff, especially Kim, Diane, and Colin for doing their best to keep the panel members in order, as well as to Theory sub-Panel Chair Tom and overall Chair Andy who are also stepping down.

Better is the end of a thing than the beginning thereof. I refer to the day, not the AGP, because it began with a major wobbly in Victoria station on the way to the IOP but ended with a couple of pints and a nice chinwag in the pub round the corner..

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.

AGP Matters

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , on September 20, 2012 by telescoper

Well, just made it back to Cardiff following the (hopefully) final meeting of the  Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) for this year’s round at the Science and Technology Facilities Council HQ in Swindon. It’s been a difficult process – though perhaps not quite as difficult as last year’s round which was completely overloaded with applications. I struggled a bit extra this year because I seem to have caught some sort of nasty bug during my recent travels. No doubt I’ve now infected the rest of the panel via coughing and spluttering too…

Anyway, we got through the business at hand, which basically involved merging two ranked lists produced by the sub-panels to produce an overall priority order for the proposals received.  What happens with this list now is that the good folk at STFC carefully calculate the costs of each proposal as they work down through the list and keep going until the money runs out. We don’t know for sure at this stage where the line will fall, but it’s pretty clear that some very good proposals won’t make it. That’s the way it is. There just isn’t enough money to fund all the best research.

I suppose that’s why I always have mixed feelings at the end of an AGP round. It’s good to see the process in operation, because it convinces one that everyone concerned is doing their best to achieve a fair outcome, but it’s very sad that some proposals will fall just short with potentially terrible consequences for those whose livelihoods depend on STFC funding. This accounts for the not inconsiderable quantity of gallows humour displayed by AGP members.

Of course the AGP doesn’t actually award grants. It makes recommendations which are then endorsed (or not) by the STFC Science Board. So although we’ve now done our job, it will take a while until the formal grant announcements start appearing, in November probably.

Anyway, I’ve been on the panel for 3 years now, which is the normal sentence term for an AGP member, so I have the feeling I might be “rotated” off after this round, whereupon it will be up to some other mug  esteemed researcher to take my place performing this thankless task valuable bit of community service.

And on the third day…

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , on September 6, 2012 by telescoper

So here I am, brain the size of a planet, stuck in a corridor in Polaris House in  Swindon for while the rest of the Astronomy Grants Panel of the Science and Technology Facilities Council considers applications on which I have a conflict of interest. We’ve had two very busy days so far, hence no time to post yesterday, but we’re on track to get through the order of business by the end of today as scheduled. Now I’m at a bit of a loose end I’ve been catching up on emails and other stuff I have had to ignore for the past couple of days.

And now there’s even time for a brief blogette.

It’s a stressful business being on these panels, not just because it’s a lot of work but that everyone involved knows how important the outcome is, for science in general and in terms of the consequences of success or failure in obtaining funding for individual researchers.    Under the current system of “Consolidated Grants”, anyone unsuccessful in this round will effectively be locked out of STFC funding for 3 years. That seems very harsh to me. However, we have to work with the system we’ve got and make the best we can of it.

Anyway, bearing in mind that this is a personal blog and not an official mouthpiece for the AGP, if anyone out there has any comments about the system please feel free to vent your spleen via the comments box. As long as you keep it reasonably polite.

Astronomy Grant Outcomes

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on June 28, 2012 by telescoper

While this is by no means an official outlet for news from the Science and Technology Facilities Council nor the Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) thereof, but I am on the AGP so I thought I’d take the opportunity to pass on a bit of news to the UK community, or at least those members that read this blog.

An email  by Colin Vincent of STFC  was circulated this evening via the ASTROCOMMUNITY email list, which includes the following:

As part of the process for improving the feedback to the community of outcomes we have just published a more detailed listing of the recommendations for all projects. This can be found at

We hope that the community will find this helpful. This information supplements what is already available in STFC’s ‘Grants on the Web’ pages.

The link included there takes you to a page that includes a general description of how the AGP works and what it tries to do, and also for the first time (as far as I’m aware) a link to a document that contains a ranked list of all the projects rated fundable, whether funded or unfunded.

Speaking personally, i.e. not in my capacity as an AGP member, I think making this amount of detail public is an extremely good move, as I think it makes the process much more transparent. There’s just a chance, however, that the actual list might ruffle a few feathers here and there, and probably in other places too.

As always, please feel free to comment through the box below, but if you do so please remember that this is a personal blog and I’m passing this on as a community service. I can’t respond on behalf of the AGP, so please don’t ask me to!

UPDATE:  29th June 2012. The document containing the AGP outcomes has been removed from the STFC website. Don’t ask me why…


Posted in Uncategorized with tags , on September 20, 2011 by telescoper

Well, dear readers, I  am up at the crack of dawn in order to journey forth to Swindon, for  three days of hard labour on the STFC Astronomy Grants Panel for the duration of which I will be confined to a dark dungeon in Polaris House. Given the severity of the sentence  I very much doubt that I’ll have the time or the energy to blog while I’m there so, unless it all gets too much for me and I have to seek solace in a blog post,  there will now follow a short intermission.

Normal service will be resumed as soon as possible.

Astronomy Grants: Past, Present, and Future

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , on February 3, 2011 by telescoper

Just time to put my community service hat briefly in order draw the attention of all friendly astronomers to the report on the 2010 STFC Astronomy grant round that has been circulated by the AGP Chair, Andy Lawrence (aka the e-Astronomer).

There is a lot of important information in this report, not only about the statistics of the last round but also about the new grants system that will be in operation from this year onwards so you really should read it carefully, especially if you’re planning to submit a grant application in 2011.

The report has been circulated to the astrocommunity mailing list, so most of you out there will have seen it but for those of you who haven’t you can find it on Paul Crowther’s website here.

I haven’t got time today to add detailed comments of my own – it’s a UCAS day in Cardiff today (among other things) – but I may do so in future. However, please feel free to comment/react/moan but please remember not to shoot the messenger!