Archive for RCUK

Scotland Should Decide…

Posted in Bad Statistics, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on September 9, 2014 by telescoper

There being less than two weeks to go before the forthcoming referendum on Scottish independence, a subject on which I have so far refrained from commenting, I thought I would write something on it from the point of view of an English academic. I was finally persuaded to take the plunge because of incoming traffic to this blog from  pro-independence pieces here and here and a piece in Nature News on similar matters.

I’ll say at the outset that this is an issue for the Scots themselves to decide. I’m a believer in democracy and think that the wishes of the Scottish people as expressed through a referendum should be respected. I’m not qualified to express an opinion on the wider financial and political implications so I’ll just comment on the implications for science research, which is directly relevant to at least some of the readers of this blog. What would happen to UK research if Scotland were to vote yes?

Before going on I’ll just point out that the latest opinion poll by Yougov puts the “Yes” (i.e. pro-independence) vote ahead of “No” at 51%-49%. As the sample size for this survey was only just over a thousand, it has a margin of error of ±3%. On that basis I’d call the race neck-and-neck to within the resolution of the survey statistics. It does annoy me that pollsters never bother to state their margin of error in press released. Nevertheless, the current picture is a lot closer than it looked just a month ago, which is interesting in itself, as it is not clear to me as an outsider why it has changed so dramatically and so quickly.

Anyway, according to a Guardian piece not long ago.

Scientists and academics in Scotland would lose access to billions of pounds in grants and the UK’s world-leading research programmes if it became independent, the Westminster government has warned.

David Willetts, the UK science minister, said Scottish universities were “thriving” because of the UK’s generous and highly integrated system for funding scientific research, winning far more funding per head than the UK average.

Unveiling a new UK government paper on the impact of independence on scientific research, Willetts said that despite its size the UK was second only to the United States for the quality of its research.

“We do great things as a single, integrated system and a single integrated brings with it great strengths,” he said.

Overall spending on scientific research and development in Scottish universities from government, charitable and industry sources was more than £950m in 2011, giving a per capita spend of £180 compared to just £112 per head across the UK as a whole.

It is indeed notable that Scottish universities outperform those in the rest of the United Kingdom when it comes to research, but it always struck me that using this as an argument against independence is difficult to sustain. In fact it’s rather similar to the argument that the UK does well out of European funding schemes so that is a good argument for remaining in the European Union. The point is that, whether or not a given country benefits from the funding system, it still has to do so by following an agenda that isn’t necessarily its own. Scotland benefits from UK Research Council funding, but their priorities are set by the Westminster government, just as the European Research Council sets (sometimes rather bizarre) policies for its schemes. Who’s to say that Scotland wouldn’t do even better than it does currently by taking control of its own research funding rather than forcing its institutions to pander to Whitehall?

It’s also interesting to look at the flipside of this argument. If Scotland were to become independent, would the “billions” of research funding it would lose (according to the statement by Willetts, who is no longer the Minister in charge) benefit science in what’s left of the United Kingdom? There are many in England and Wales who think the existing research budget is already spread far too thinly and who would welcome an increase south of the border. If this did happen you could argue that, from a very narrow perspective, Scottish independence would be good for science in the rest of what is now the United Kingdom, but that depends on how much the Westminster government sets the science budget.

This all depends on how research funding would be redistributed if and when Scotland secedes from the Union, which could be done in various ways. The simplest would be for Scotland to withdraw from RCUK entirely. Because of the greater effectiveness of Scottish universities at winning funding compared to the rest of the UK, Scotland would have to spend more per capita to maintain its current level of resource, which is why many Scottish academics will be voting “no”. On the other hand, it has been suggested (by the “yes” campaign) that Scotland could buy back from its own revenue into RCUK at the current effective per capita rate  and thus maintain its present infrastructure and research expenditure at no extra cost. This, to me, sounds like wanting to have your cake and eat it,  and it’s by no means obvious that Westminster could or should agree to such a deal. All the soundings I have taken suggest that an independent Scotland should expect no such generosity, and will get actually zilch from the RCUK.

If full separation is the way head, science in Scotland would be heading into uncharted waters. Among the questions that would need to be answered are:

  •  what will happen to RCUK funded facilities and staff currently situated in Scotland, such as those at the UKATC?
  •  would Scottish researchers lose access to facilities located in England, Wales or Northern Ireland?
  •  would Scotland have to pay its own subscriptions to CERN, ESA and ESO?

These are complicated issues to resolve and there’s no question that a lengthy process of negotiation would be needed to resolved them. In the meantime, why should RCUK risk investing further funds in programmes and facilities that may end up outside the UK (or what remains of it)? This is a recipe for planning blight on an enormous scale.

And then there’s the issue of EU membership. Would Scotland be allowed to join the EU immediately on independence? If not, what would happen to EU funded research?

I’m not saying these things will necessarily work out badly in the long run for Scotland, but they are certainly questions I’d want to have answered before I were convinced to vote “yes”. I don’t have a vote so my opinion shouldn’t count for very much, but I wonder if there are any readers of this blog from across the Border who feel like expressing an opinion?


Open Access Update

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on April 9, 2013 by telescoper

Very busy today with meetings. It’s a pleasant job introducing myself to all the new staff we’ve been appointing, but it does take quite a bit of time!

Anyway, I’ve just got a few moments  for a quick post while I eat a sandwich – sorry for the crumbs – in order to pass on some news about Open Access. The main thing is that, after a brief consultation last month, RCUK has (yet again) revised its policy on Open Acsess. The new guidance can be found here and there’s a Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) supplement here. There’s even an explanatory blog post here.

Here’s an excerpt from the latter:

One of the most high profile additions to the guidance that we were asked for was, through Stephen Curry’s blog and subsequent letter, clarification that journal impact factors are not taken in to account when the Research Councils make funding decisions.

It’s good to see a science blogger making a real difference to policy! One can only dream.  Incidentally, I did post a little commentary on his post on here too and I’m very glad to see this clarified. Impact Factors are, frankly, bollocks. Perhaps that’s why so many publishers are obsessed with them?

I won’t copy the whole policy document here, but it is perhaps worth including the “Key Points to Note”:

  • This policy applies only to the publication of peer‐reviewed research articles (including review articles not commissioned by publishers) and conference proceeding sthat acknowledge funding from the UK’ s Research Councils.
  •  The Research CouncilsUK (RCUK) policy supports both ‘Gold’ and ‘Green’ routes to Open Access, though RCUK has a preference forimmediateOpen Access with the maximum opportunity for re‐use;
  •  Funding for Open Access arising from Research Council‐supported research will be available through a block grant awarded directly to research organisations;
  •  RCUK recognises that the journey to full Open Access is a process and not a single event and therefore it expects compliance to grow over a transition period anticipated to be five years; RCUK will undertake a comprehensive, evidence‐based review of the effectiveness and impact of its Open Access policy in 2014 and periodically thereafter(probably in 2016 and 2018);
  • When assessing proposals for research funding RCUK considers that it is the quality of the research proposed, and not where an author has or is intending to publish, that is of paramount importance;
  • RCUK is mindful that the impact ofits policy on different disciplinary areas is likely to be varied and has therefore made allowance for a different pace of adjustment by permitting different embargo periods across the discipline supported by the Research Councils. We will also be mindful of these differences between disciplines when monitoring the impact of the policy and, in future processes, when looking at compliance.

This is all very much more encouraging than the original guidance, but it remains to be seen whether it will evolve further.

P.S. A new Open-Access-O-Meter is available here. Just type in the Research Council funding your research, the journal you wish to publish in, and hey presto!

Updated Guidelines for Open Access from RCUK

Posted in Open Access with tags , on March 6, 2013 by telescoper

I’m about to head off on a short trip, so only have time for the briefest of brief blog posts today. However, at least I have a timely topic. In yesterday’s post about the RCUK Open Access Policy, I mentioned that they were revising their guidelines. Well, today the new guidelines have been published. That qualifies as timely in my book!

You can find the new policy here (PDF file).

I haven’t had time to read them carefully yet, so please feel free to do so on my behalf. Then someone can tell me through the comments box if the suggestion I made yesterday – to donate all the RCUK open access funding to the arXiv instead of handing it out to profiteering publishers – would be allowed under the new guidelines…

What to do with Open Access funding in Physics and Astronomy

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on March 5, 2013 by telescoper

I’ve been too busy to keep up with the ongoing activity relating to Open Access recently, and I don’t really have time today to do anything other than a brief post on the topic because I’m in the middle of yet another recruitment process and am exhausted by the day’s interviewing.

I do have time to say just a couple of things. One is that it appears that RCUK may be about to back-pedal on its poorly thought out guidelines on Open Access. I hope the new guidance is a significant improvement on the old policy.

Open Access reared its head during a meeting I attended yesterday. RCUK, which is the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, last year announced that it will set aside £17 million next year, and £20 million the year after that, to pay for Gold Open Access publication of the research it sponsors. These funds will be made available to universities in the form of block grants to enable researchers to pay the infamous APCs  (“Article Processing Charges”). The average cost of an APC has been taken from the Finch report (estimated as £1727 plus VAT). Yesterday I was informed of the allocation of funds for Open Access to the School of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the University of Sussex arising from these block grants. The cash sum involved is too small to pay for Gold Open Access for more than a handful of papers produced within the School, so difficult decisions would have to be made about who is allowed to pay the Author Processing Charges if this pot of money is used in the way RCUK envisages.

Of course, what RCUK should have done was given universities and other research institutions funds to set up and maintain their own Green Open Access databases or international repositories like the arXiv. Throwing money at  Gold Open Access is disastrous way of proceeding. It’s not only ruinously expensive but also unsustainable. In a few years’ time it is inevitable that the traditional academic publishing industry will be bypassed by researchers doing it for themselves. All the money spent propping up the fat cats in the meantime will have been wasted.

Instead of  splashing money around for Gold Open Access,  I think RCUK should mandate that all its research be published in Green Open Access mode. As I’ve mentioned before this would cause considerable fallout not only for the academic publishing industry but also for the learned societies, which largely survive on the income generated subscriptions to their range of overpriced journals.

Nevertheless, we have the RCUK funds and, as Head of School, I’m supposed to decide how to spend them. Even if I could force myself to grit my teeth and agree to fork out out the money in APCs to the Academic Publishing Racketeers, I can’t think of any sensible basis for deciding which papers should be published this way and which shouldn’t. In any case, at least in particle physics and astronomy, most papers are compliant with the RCUK policy anyway because they are placed on the arXiv. I therefore propose not to pay out a single penny of the RCUK OA funds for Gold Open Access, but simply to donate the entire sum as a contribution to the running costs of the arXiv.

I urge Heads of Physics and Astronomy departments elsewhere to do the same with their allocations.

RCUK is throwing money down a gold-plated drain

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , , , , on November 9, 2012 by telescoper

Right. Now I’m annoyed. Annoyed enough to dash off a quick post before getting the train to London to see this year’s RAS Gerald Whitrow Lecture.

RCUK, the umbrella organisation for the United Kingdom’s seven research councils, has announced that it will set aside £17 million next year, and £20 million the year after that, to pay for Gold Open Access publication of the research it sponsors. These funds will be made available to universities in the form of block grants to enable researchers to pay the infamous APCs  (“Article Processing Charges”). The average cost of an APC has been taken from the Finch report (estimated as £1727 plus VAT).

It’s astonishing that RCUK have fallen for this trap. What were they thinking of? The Finch report was clearly hijacked by the vested interests of the academic publishing industry who see the Gold Open Access model as an easy way of maintaining their profit margins at taxpayer’s expense. The new RCUK scheme will simply divert funds away from research into a subsidy for wealthy publishing houses (and, in some cases, the learned societies that run them). The actual cost of processing an article is nothing like £1727 and is any case borne by the people doing the work, i.e. academics who perform the refereeing usually for free. An APC at this level is simply a scam. That the RCUK has fallen for it is a disgrace.

What RCUK should have done was given universities and other research institutions funds to set up and maintain their own Green Open Access databases or international repositories like the arXiv. Throwing money at  Gold Open Access is disastrous way of proceeding. It’s not only ruinously expensive but also unsustainable. In a few years’ time it is inevitable that the traditional academic publishing industry will be bypassed by researchers doing it for themselves. All the money spent propping up the fat cats in the meantime will have been wasted.

However, despite its obvious stupidity, the RCUK did give me one idea. I’ve blogged before about how much learned societies such as the Institute of Physics “earn” from their own publishing houses. In effect, these outfits are living on income provided to them by hard-pressed university library budgets.  In such cases it can be argued that the profits at least remain within the discipline – the IOP does many good things with the money generated by its publishing arm – but is this actually an honest way of supporting the activities of learned societies?

Anyway, it seems clear to me that the financial model under which most learned societies, including the IOP, operate will not operate for much longer, as more and more researchers go for Green Open Access and more and more institutions cancel subscriptions to their ruinously expensive journals. How then can they survive in the long term?

Instead of  splashing money around for Gold Open Access,  RCUK should mandate that all its research be published in Green Open Access mode. That would pull the rug out from under the learned societies, but why not replace the funding they are syphoning off from journal subscriptions with direct block grants. Such grants would have to be audited to ensure that learned societies spend the money on appropriate things, and would probably amount to much less than such organizations currently receive. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think there’s a strong case for the IOP to be downsized, actually.

So there’s my suggestion. No RCUK subsidy for the academic publishing industry, but direct subsidies for the learned societies and Green Open Access to be compulsory for all RCUK funded institutions.

How’s that for a plan?

Open Access, of the Closed Kind

Posted in Open Access with tags , , , on July 16, 2012 by telescoper

Last night a story began circulating that the government, through RCUK, was intending to move quickly on the matter of open access to research outputs. This morning there’s a press statement from RCUK, the text of which is here:

Research Councils UK (RCUK) has today, 16th July 2012, unveiled its new Open Access policy. Informed by the work of the National Working Group on Expanding Access to Published Research Findings, chaired by Professor Dame Janet Finch, the policy at once harmonises and makes significant changes to existing Research Councils’ Open Access policies.

Professor Douglas Kell, RCUK Champion for Research and Information Management commented: “Widening access to the outputs of research currently published in journals has the potential to contribute substantially to furthering the progress of scientific and other research, ensuring that the UK continues to be a world leader in these fields. I am delighted that, together, the Research Councils have been able to been able both to harmonise and to make significant changes to their policies, ensuring that more people have access to cutting edge research that can contribute to both economic growth in our knowledge economy and the wider wellbeing of the UK.”

Drs. Astrid Wissenburg, Chair of RCUK Impact Group and RCUK representative on the National Working Group on Open Access commented: “As the bodies charged with investing public money in research, the Research Councils take very seriously their responsibilities in making the outputs from this research publicly available – not just to other researchers, but also to potential users in business; charitable and public sectors; and to the general public. Working with other funders such as HEFCE, DFID and the Wellcome Trust, this new policy signifies a move to a sustainable, affordable and transparent model of making outputs from the research that they fund more openly accessible.”

The new policy, which will apply to all qualifying publications being submitted for publication from 1 April 2013, states that peer reviewed research papers which result from research that is wholly or partially funded by the Research Councils:

  • must be published in journals which are compliant with Research Council policy on Open Access, and;
  • must include details of the funding that supported the research, and a statement on how the underlying research materials such as data, samples or models can be accessed.

Criteria which journals must fulfill to be compliant with the Research Councils’ Open Access policy are detailed within the policy, but include offering a “pay to publish” option or allowing deposit in a subject or institutional repository after a mandated maximum embargo period. In addition, the policy mandates use of ‘CC-BY’, the Creative Commons ‘Attribution’ license, when an APC is levied. The CC_BY licence allows others to modify, build upon and/or distribute the licensed work (including for commercial purposes) as long as the original author is credited.

The Research Councils will provide block grants to eligible UK Higher Education Institutions, approved independent research organisations and Research Council Institutes to support payment of the Article Processing Charges (APCs) associated with ‘pay-to-publish’. In parallel, eligible organisations will be expected to set-up and manage their own publication funds. The Research Councils will work with eligible organisations to discuss the detail of the new approach to funding APCs and to ensure that appropriate and auditable mechanisms are put in place to manage the funds.

Along with HEFCE and other relevant Funding Bodies, we shall monitor these policies actively, both to review their effects and to ensure that our joint objectives on Open Access are being met.

The RCUK policy on Access to Research Outputs is available here .

Although this seems like a victory for open access, it isn’t really. If it’s a victory for anyone it’s a victory for the  cartel of  ruthlessly exploitative profiteers that is the Academic Publishing Industry. For what the RCUK proposal involves is shifting the “cost” of scientific publishing from journal subscriptions to “Article Processing Charges”, which means authors will have to pay upfront to have their work  considered for publication. And when I say “pay”, I mean pay. It’s anticipated that the average APC for a paper will be around £2000. That’s why they call it “Gold” Open Access, I suppose.

An APC of this size  is indefensible. Scientific papers are nowadays typeset by the author and refereed by other academics. The cost to the publisher is tiny. That they need such an extortionate amount to maintain their profit levels just demonstrates the extent to which they’ve  been ripping us of all these years. Worse, having to pay up front  excludes scientists who don’t have access to the funds needed to pay these charges. This isn’t open access, it’s just a slightly different form of the old racket.

Moreover, I understand that no new money is coming to pay these charges. RCUK is finding the funds quoted above from its existing budget. That means that research somewhere will be cut to pay the additional cost of running the new system alongside the old. Better in my view to cut out the publishers altogether, and let universities and researchers do everything themselves. In astrophysics, we’re most of the way there already, in fact.

I for one have no intention of ever paying an Article Processing Charge. If the journals I publish in insist on levying one, I’ll just forget about the journals altogether and put my papers on the arXiv. I urge my colleagues to do the same.

A Shared Disservice

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 5, 2012 by telescoper

If you’ve never heard of the Shared Services Centre then you’re a very lucky person. If you have heard of it, and especially if you’ve had any dealings with it, then the following excerpt  from the SSC website description of itself will make you either laugh or cry:

The UK’s seven Research Councils, working together as Research Councils UK (RCUK), set up a shared services centre to reduce spend on administration. Sharing and standardising processes simply frees more funds for keeping the UK at the forefront of research and innovation.

Each year the Research Councils invest around £2.8 billion in research into understanding and improving the world around us. They’re involved in everything from tackling superbugs or studying social trends to analysing the geo-climate of the Antarctic. So, operating efficiently benefits our whole society.

What is more, sharing services does not mean compromising quality. The RCUK Shared Services Centre Ltd (SSC) is dedicated to providing exceptional standards of service in Human Resources, Finance, Procurement, IT IS and Grants administration. Our people achieve this by sharing their skills, knowledge and our vision:

‘Professional people working together, delivering quality services for the benefit of the research community’

The italics are mine. I added them  to sections that made me laugh out loud.  In fact almost all the above description of the SSC is complete tripe. The organization is a  fiasco. It has cost more than twice its original budget to implement and since its inception the quality of research administration has deteriorated beyond all recognition. The only thing I’ll say about the statement quoted above is that George Orwell would have been very proud.

This has serious consequences for those dependent for funding on the Research Councils, including the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which has been forced to use the Shockingly Shambolic Catastrophe to administer the grants it issues.  The time taken to process and issue grants is now far longer than it was previously, when such tasks were done by people who actually knew (and cared about) what they were doing.

I’m told by reliable sources that the whole SSC debacle is such an embarrassment that staff employed by the Research Councils have been forbidden to say negative things about it and have instead to pretend everything is just hunky-dory lest the mess damages the reputations of their political masters in BIS.  The result of this strategy is that BIS now think the SSC is doing a fabulous job and are going to expand its activities across other departments. If nobody blows the whistle on it, the SSC behemoth will gradually take over the entire government and turn everything into crap. Or perhaps that has already happened?

Anyway, I’m far too old to play David versus Goliath in this particular battle. I’ll leave that to the continuing efforts of, e.g., Private Eye. But I will give you a tiny – and not particular important – illustration of how useless the SSC really is. I’m one of those people who has to fill in a self-assessment tax return every year. It’s not too difficult to do because I retain a chap to organize my accounts and in any case   income I receive on top of my main salary is usually documented in the various P60s I get at the end of each tax year. Except this year I didn’t get a P60 for the work I did for STFC on the Astronomy Grants Panel. Such payments are also administered by SSC, and it is their statutory responsibility to provide a P60, but despite repeated attempts to extract one, I didn’t get it  in time for the January 31st deadline. I therefore filed my return with estimated figures and an explanatory note.

Finally SSC replied. It seems they had decided to send my P60 to my old address in Nottingham, along with a number of other items of correspondence. Why they did so I have no idea, as I moved from there in 2008. I told STFC my new address at that time, and have been receiving various bits and bobs from them at my correct address since then. Moreover, SSC have been sending items here too, so they do have the right details. Only it seems I’ve been getting letters from Finance, whereas the tax stuff is dealt with by the dreaded Human Resources. As seems inevitable with large bureaucracies, the different parts clearly do not communicate with each other.

Anyway, to cut a very long story very short, after I filed my tax return I finally received an email from SSC explaining what had happened. It also said that it was not possible to issue a duplicate P60, but they were attaching a statement of earnings and tax paid. Only there was no attachment. I emailed back to ask what had happened to the attachment. Three days later I got a reply with the attachment. The email began “Dear Professor Collins…”.

Curiously the attachment – when it finally was sent – arrived in encrypted form “for security”. A bit of a waste of time, methinks, when they’ve been posting confidential documents to the wrong address for more than three years!

I’ve corrected my tax return in the light of the new information they sent, but I may still be liable for some sort of surcharge. It’s clearly the fault of the SSC, but there’s no symmetry in tax affairs. If Joe Bloggs is late or makes an error, he gets stamped on by the Inland Revenue. If a government agency messes up it probably gets away scot free.

This is all small potatoes of course, but the dire state of their record-keeping in a trivial case like mine makes me worry about what might be going wrong with more serious things…

I have the feeling that there might be one or two people out there with SSC stories of their own. Do feel free to share them via the comments box.

Public Attitudes to Science

Posted in Biographical, Science Politics with tags , , , , on May 10, 2011 by telescoper

Another quick bit of news to catch up on concerns the publication (on May 2nd) of a study by Ipsos MORI into Public Attitudes to Science. I have a special interest in this study because in fact I took part in it, in the role of a sort of science observer at the session held in Cardiff, which I blogged about in November 2010.

The study was not based on a particularly large sample – only 2103 people – but the results are quite interesting (and perhaps surprising). You can download the full report here, including a mention of yours truly on page 121, but it’s worth mentioning a few of the headline results for those of you who haven’t the energy to read the entire document. For example,

  • 82%  thought that “science is such a big part of our lives that we should all take an interest”
  • 88% thought that scientists “make a valuable contribution to society”
  • 82% thought that scientists “want to make life better for the average person”

On the other hand

  • 51% thought  they see and hear too little information about science
  • 56%  do not feel well informed about scientific research and developments
  • 66% think that scientists should listen more to what ordinary people think.

These last three numbers compare unfavourably with corresponding figures from an earlier survey done in 2008. I’m not sure whether the results are surprising or not, but the results were considered sufficiently important for a Press Release from the Department for Business Industry and Skills (BIS) along with a response from RCUK which make interesting reading. Minister David Willetts is quoted as saying

Science, technology, engineering and maths are vital to economic growth. It’s encouraging that people are increasingly interested in research and new developments. However, more disappointingly, at the same time they feel less informed. People want more information and to engage with these subjects in a way that’s relevant to them. That’s a very clear message which Government has an important role in responding to.

The RCUK statement includes the following

RCUK is committed to working with researchers to encourage them to engage the public with their work. Along with the other UK funders of research, RCUK has underlined this commitment by putting in place the Concordat for Engaging the Public with Research. The Concordat aims to create a greater focus on and help embed public engagement with research across all disciplines in the higher education and research sectors. By establishing an ongoing dialogue between the research community and the public, society can benefit more fully from the outputs of research. A copy of the Concordat is available here.

While it’s good to see a high-level endorsement of the importance of outreach and public engagement, it remains to be seen how well this message propagates to individual departments and research groups, not all of which take these activities as seriously as they should in terms of rewarding staff taking part in them.

I also think that part of the difficulty lies not with scientists, but with the mass media who  seem reluctant to accept that there is a significant demand for in-depth  science coverage, e.g. on television.


Beware the “Efficiency Factor” ..

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , on March 22, 2011 by telescoper

That sigh of relief we all breathed when the flat-cash settlement for UK science funding was announced last October is now looking decidely premature. For one thing the rate of inflation has climbed to 5.5%, its highest level for 20 years. That’s going to be eating away at the money available for doing science at a much higher rate than we thought it would 6 months ago.

If that weren’t bad enough we now learn that the Dark Lords of the Treasury have been beavering away in the background to come up with a way of squeezing science still further, via so-called “efficiency savings”. Now they have announced their plans under the suitably Orwellian title Ensuring Excellence with Impact.

The full document is (probably deliberately) written in almost unreadable Treasury-speak; after all, you don’t want the lambs to know too much about their impending slaughter. Hidden amid the jargon, however, is a grim message. That grant money you thought you had might not be yours after all.

Some of what is written in the RCUK document was expected. For example, there will be no indexation of grants for the next two years as the public sector pay freeze bites. However, another part of the plan is to tackle the so-called “estates” and other “indirect costs”, the contribution Research Councils pay universities to support basic infrastructure. At the moment, universities cost this themselves. In fact, whenever I’ve applied for grants I have to leave this to other people to fill in as I have no idea how it is calculated. However, different Higher Education Institutes (HEIs) charge at vastly different rates. RCUK has noticed this and will henceforth place HEIs into efficiency groups, with the more expensive being the least efficient. Depending on which efficiency group your HEI is in, the indirect costs will be subject to a squeeze. In other words an “efficiency factor” will be applied.

But this won’t just apply to new grants. Cash you though you had already will be clawed back. Here is a quote from the summary:

To ensure that these changes to indirect cost rates do not present an administrative burden to research organisations, and reflecting the time it takes to prepare an application, existing grants will for this purpose be classed as those submitted via Je-S1 before 30th June 2011. Rather than apply reductions to each individual awarded grant, a top slice will be applied by the Research Councils to research organisations’ portfolio of funding after the 1st July 2011. The percentage of this indirect cost efficiency top slice will be dependent on the efficiency group that a research organisation is in.

Reduced rates of indexation will be used both as part of the efficiency factor for indirect costs and for other elements of grants that are indexed in line with current policies. Reduced rates of indexation for other elements of grants, other than the indirect costs element, will be introduced on 1st April 2011 in line with usual Research Council policies. The indexation changes will be greatest during the first two years to coincide with the period of Public Sector pay restraints, but will be gradually relaxed as the effect of savings being applied to new grants contributes greater efficiencies. The indexation savings will be applied to both new and existing grants. For new grants, new indexation rates will be used for grants awarded from 1st April. For existing grants that have been awarded with different indexation arrangement, i.e. those awarded on or by 31st March, the changes will become part of the “top-slice” by institution.

This is scary. It means money already in departmental and university budgets and used for future planning is going to disappear pretty quickly. How this is going help “Ensuring Excellence” I have no idea, but I have to admit it’s going to have some “Impact”.

Be afraid. Be very afraid.


The STFC Delivery Plan

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on December 20, 2010 by telescoper

Excuse the very quick and sketchy post on such an important topic, but I’ve got a lot of things to do before the dreaded Christmas lunch.

This morning the allocations of funding for the research councils were announced. The statement accompanying the ensuing Delivery Plan for the Science and Technology Facilities Council can be found here, while the plan itself is here. You’ll probably also want to read Paul Crowther’s analysis here.

Other research councils have also published their plans; you can find the one for EPSRC here.

The headline announcement reads:

After transferring responsibility for space science to the UK Space Agency, STFC’s overall baseline allocation for 2011-12 for resource funding (previously termed “near-cash”) is £377.5m rising to an allocation of £381.14m in 2014-15. This excludes administration which will be separately allocated. Our capital baseline allocation for 2011-12 is £91m, with an indicative allocation for the remainder of the spending review period reducing to £68m in 2014-15.

So not at all bad news for resource funding, but the implications of the capital cut are unclear (at least to me).

I haven’t had time to read the entire document, but did have a quick look at the crucial Appendix D which shows how each discipline is expected to fare:

  • Particle Physics expenditure will rise from £133M to £148M over 4 years
  • Astronomy expenditure will fall from £77M to £69M over the same period
  • Expenditure on Synchtron facilities (e.g. Diamond Light Source) will increase from £42M to £56M.

Within an approximately flat-cash settlement, therefore, Astronomy is a clear loser (although much of the cuts in expenditure relate to decisions already made, such as withdrawal from the Gemini Telescopes). Confusingly, much of the increase in Particle Physics expenditure relates to an increase in the CERN subscription, which I thought was supposed to be falling …

As far as I understand it, the plan also maintains grant funding at the current level (although it will move into the new consolidated grant system as quickly as this can be achieved).

Anyway, that’s all I’ve got time for right now, and comments/reactions/corrections/clarifications are very welcome through the box below.