Archive for grant applications

A Quite Interesting Approach to Refereeing

Posted in Television with tags , , , , , on January 4, 2012 by telescoper

Last night I was struggling to compose a clue for the latest Azed Crossword competition (No. 2065) so I gave up and switched on the TV. I ended up watching an episode of QI, a popular entertainment programme in the form of a panel game, hosted by Lord Stephen of Fry. The title stands, I think, for Quite Interesting, rather than the active principle found in chinese medicine, which is an extremely useful word to know in Scrabble if you have a Q and no U.

Anyway, one of the features of said television programme is that if guests answer a question not only incorrectly but also in a manner that’s predictable, stale or  hackneyed,  in such a way that it matches a pre-prepared list of such responses, then a claxon sounds and a penalty of ten points is applied. If you want to hear the claxon…

Press Here

These forfeits are so frequently applied that it is by no means uncommon for the winner of the quiz to have a net score which is negative.

Anyway, watching this it occurred to me that it suggests a quite interesting way of livening up the business of refereeing  grant applications, especially since in these difficult times a good outcome of an application to renew a  geant might well be minus two PDRAs!

It’s quite easy to come up with a list of tedious clichés that you’re likely to find in a cosmology application, e.g. “We have now entered an era of precision cosmology…”,  “Generic inflationary scenario”, “inspired by string theory”, “assuming a linear bias”, etc etc. From now on I’m going to press the buzzer every time I read such a phrase and subtract the resulting penalty from the score assigned to the proposal.

However, it would be unfair to apply this idea just to cosmology proposals. In order to make it more generally applicable, perhaps my loyal readers might suggest, through the Comments Box,  similarly worn out, trite or banal terms appropriate to their own specialism?



Astronomy Grants: The Harsh Reality

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 8, 2011 by telescoper

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….


I Did Expect the Spanish Inquisition…

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , on October 14, 2009 by telescoper

So that was it. D-Day.

Our application to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) for a rolling grant to cover the next 5 years of astronomy research went in a  few months ago. Over the summer we got feedback from independent referees. But today was the crunch. The dreaded panel visit.

In the old days the grants panel used to visit the applicants at their own institute, chat to the postdocs and staff, help themselves to free food, and generally get a feel for the place over a period of a couple of days. Now, all that cosiness has gone. Nowadays the applicants visit the panel.  Mohammed and the Mountain and all that (except I’m not sure which is which).

A large group of astronomers are involved in this application, but STFC rules permit only three representatives to make the pilgrimage to Swindon in order to testify in front of the experts. I was among the chosen few, although I was not particularly grateful for this honour.

This would have been stressful enough, but there is grim talk of slashed budgets and looming financial disaster for UK astronomy. The successful launch of Planck and Herschel in May, followed by the exceptionally promising snippets of data that we’ve been getting, has strengthened what was already a very strong case. These events should have given us all the cards. The trouble is, it looks like the casino has gone bust.

We were all a bit nervous, I can tell you, as we travelled to Swindon on the early train from Cardiff. Steve Eales is Principal Investigator on the grant and he’s a self-confessed morning person so he went on a ludicrously early train in case something happened to delay him. Derek Ward-Thompson and I followed on a more sensible one, but we all got there safely and on time in the end.

We started with a presentation by Steve which he delivered in superb style, keeping exactly to time but also ticking all the boxes we were asked to cover in the instructions we got. The science updates from the last 6 months are really impressive, and it was all made even more dramatic when he told the panel that the new Herschel images they were seeing were not public and therefore that they shouldn’t look at them.

Then we were due for 45 minutes questioning by the panel. I thought it might be something like Blind Date because there were three of us to do the answering. Question Number One for Contestant Number Two, that sort of thing, except that we anticipated slightly more technical questions and we weren’t expecting Cilla Black to be there.

But there weren’t many questions at all. In fact, I had only one question (on the cosmology part). It was curiously anti-climactic after having had a near-sleepless night worrying about it. This could mean either that they’d already decided to close us down, that they’d already decided we were brilliant, or that they already knew there was no money so there wasn’t any point in asking anything.

So 25 minutes into the 45 allotted we were shown the door and headed back to Cardiff by train. It was like Monty Python in reverse: we did expect the Spanish Inquisition, but it never happened…

We jabbered nervously on the return journey because the adrenalin was still going, speculating about what it all meant but not coming to any real conclusions except that Steve had given a great presentation and that we had all answered the questions as well as we could have been expected to. It’s all out of our hands now.

The trouble is that we’re not likely to get a new grant announcement until April 2010, which is actually when the grant is supposed to start. The postdoctoral researchers we currently employ will have to wait until then to hear about possible extensions to their contracts. Perhaps by April  the management will have sorted out the current STFC crisis so we can get on and do some science with the wonderful new data.

On the other hand, perhaps not….