Archive for Research Assessment Exercise

A Note to the Physics REF Panel

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , on April 23, 2014 by telescoper

I’ve just been skimming through an interesting report about the strength of UK physics research. One of the conclusions of said document is that UK physics research is the best in the world in terms of quality.

I couldn’t resist a brief post to point this out to any members of the Physics panel involved in the 2014 Research Excellence Framework. My motivation for doing this is that the Physics panel of the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise evidently came to the conclusion that UK physics research wasn’t very good at all, awarding a very much lower fraction of 4* (world-leading) grades than many other disciplines, including chemistry. I’ve never understood why the Panel arrived at such a low opinion of its own discipline, but there you go..

Physics departments across the country have fought very hard to recover from the financial and reputational damage inflicted by the 2008 RAE panel’s judgement. Let’s just hope there isn’t another unwarranted slap in the face in store when the 2014 results are announced later this year…

 

UPDATE: I’m grateful to Paul Crowther for pointing out a surprising fact based on a talk given by the Chairman of the Physics RAE Panel in 2008, Sir John Pendry. Here are the slides in full, but the pertinent fact is the distribution of 4*, 3* and 2* grades across disciplines shown in this table:

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You can see that they are in fact broadly, similar across disciplines. However, what is clear is that the highest scoring departments in Chemistry did much better than the highest-scoring in Physics; for example top of the table for Physics was Lancaster with 25% of its outputs graded 4* while top in Chemistry was Cambridge with 40%. Is it really justifiable that the top physics departments were so much worse than the top chemistry departments? Suspicion remains that the Physics scores were downgraded systematically to produce the uncannily similar profiles shown in the table. Since all the RAE documents have been shredded, we’ll never know whether that happened or not…

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Should UK Research Funding Be Reorganized?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 13, 2013 by telescoper

A couple of recent news items spurred me on to reflect a bit about the system of research funding in the UK. The first of these was an item I noticed a while ago in Research Fortnight about the (ongoing) Triennial Review of the research councils, and specifically, input from the Wellcome Trust to that review that was rather critical of the Science and Technology Facilities Council and suggested it might be dismantled.

For context it’s probably a good idea to look back to the formation of STFC in 2007 via the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Previously, PPARC had looked after particle physics and astronomy (including space science) and CCLRC had run large experimental facilities in other branches of science. The idea of merging them wasn’t silly. A large chunk of PPARC’s budget went on managing large facilities, especially ground-based astronomical observatories, and it was probably hoped that it would be more efficient to put all these big expensive pieces of kit under the same roof (so to speak).

However, at the time, there was considerable discussion about what should happen in general with science grants. For example, physicists working in UK universities in areas outside astronomy and particle physics previously obtained research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), along with chemists, engineers and even mathematicians. Some experimentalists working in these areas used facilities run by the CCLRC to do their work. However, astronomers and particle physicists got their grants from PPARC, the same organisation that ran their facilities and also paid subscriptions to international agencies such as CERN and ESA. These grants were often termed “exploitation”  or “responsive mode” grants; they involved funding for postdoctoral researchers and staff time used in analysing observational or experimental data and comprised relatively little money compared the the cost of the PPARC facilities themselves. PPARC also funded PhD studentships and postdoctoral fellowships under the umbrella of its Education and Training division, although needless to say all the Education and Training involved was done in host universities, not by PPARC itself.

The question was whether the new merged organisation, STFC should continue giving grants to university groups or whether the responsibility for doing this should be moved elsewhere, perhaps to EPSRC. At the time, most astronomers were keen to have their research grants administered by the same organisation that ran the facilities. I thought it made more sense to have research scientists all on the same footing when it came to funding and in any case thought there were too many absurd divisions between, say, general relativity (EPSRC) and relativistic astrophysics (PPARC), so I was among the (relatively few) dissenting voices at the time.

There were other reasons for my unease. One was that, during a previously funding squeeze, PPARC had taken money from the grants line (the pot of money used for funding research groups) in order to balance the books, necessarily reducing the amount of science being done with its facilities. If STFC decided to do this it would probably cause even more pain, because grants would be an even smaller fraction of the budget in STFC than they were in PPARC. Those EPSRC physicists using CCLRC facilities seem to have managed pretty well so I didn’t really see the argument for astronomy and particle physics being inside STFC.

The other reason for me wanting to keep research grants out of STFC was that the (then) new Chief Executive of PPARC, Keith Mason, had made no secret of the disdain he felt towards university-based astronomy groups and had stated on a number of occasions his opinion that there were too many astronomers in the United Kingdom. There are two flaws with this argument. One is that astronomy is essential to the viability of many physics departments because of its appeal to potential students; without it, many departments will fold. The other problem is that Mason’s claim that the number of astronomers had grown by 40% in a few years was simply bogus.  This attitude convinced me that he in particular would need only the slightest excuse to divert funds away from astronomy into areas such as space exploration.

It all seems a very distant memory now, but six or years ago UK physics (including astronomy) was experiencing a time of relative plenty. The government had introduced a system whereby the research councils would fund research groups on the basis of the Full Economic Cost of the research, which meant more money coming into research groups that were successful at winning grants. The government increased funding for the councils to pay for this largesse and probably diminished the fear of another funding pinch. Astronomers and particle physicists also felt they would have more influence over future strategy in facility development by remaining within the same organisation. In the end what happened was that STFC not only kept the portfolio of astronomy and particle physics grants, but also acquired responsibility for nuclear physics from EPSRC.

But then, in 2007, just after STFC came into existence,  a major financial disaster broke: that year’s comprehensive spending review left the newly formed STFC with a huge gap in its finances. I don’t know why this happened but it was probably a combination of gross incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive and deliberate action by persons higher up in the Civil Service. The subsequent behaviour of the Chief Executive of STFC led to a public dressing down by the House of Commons Select Committee and a complete loss of confidence in him by the scientific community. Miraculously, he survived, at least for a while. Unfortunately, so did the financial problems that are his legacy.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but that’s exactly what I am going to dp. Everything that happened was predictable given the initial conditions. You might argue that STFC wasn’t to know about the global economic downturn.As a matter of fact I’d agree. However, the deep cuts in the science budget we have seen have very little to do with that. They all stem from the period before the Credit Crunch even started. Although Prof. Mason was eventually replaced (in 20111), the problems inherent in STFC are far from solved.

The last Comprehensive Spending Review (2010) was less bad for STFC than some of us feared – with a level cash settlement which still holds. In real times the funds are now being eroded rather than being slashed further, but the situation remains very difficult because of past damage. I don’t think STFC  can afford to settle for flat cash at the next spending review. The new Supreme Leader  Chief Executive of STFC, John Womersley, said much the same thing at last night’s RAS dinner, in fact.

I know this preamble has been a bit long-winded, but I think it’s necessary to see the background to what I’m going to propose. These are the steps I think need to be taken to put UK physics back on track.

First, the powers that be have to realize that university researchers are not just the icing on the cake when it comes to science: they actually do most of the science. I think the new regime at STFC recognizes this, but I’m not sure the government does. Another problem is that  that the way scientists are supported in their research is a complete mess. It’s called the dual support system, because the research councils pay 80% of the cost of research grants and Higher Education Funding Councils (i.e. HEFCE in England) are meant to provide the other 20%. But in reality it is a bureaucratic nightmare that subjects researchers to endless form-filling and costs hundreds of millions in wasteful duplication. This was true enough of the old Research Assessment Exercise, but has been taken to even higher levels of absurdity by the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework, the decisions coming out of which will be more influencing by guesswork and institutional game-playing than actual research excellence.

The Research Councils already have well-managed systems to judge the quality of research grant applications, so do we really needed the REF on top of them?  The second article I referred to in the introduction, on a study showing that Research Council grant income, appeared in last week’s Times Higher. That study shows -at least at institutional level – that the two streams are pretty closely correlated. While REF/RAE income is awarded on a retrospective basis, and grant awards are based on proposals of future activity, it should be a surprise that people with a good track-record are also good at thinking up interesting new projects. Moreover, panels such as the STFC Astronomy Grant Panel (of which I am a member) certainly take into account the applicants’ track-record when assessing the viability of research proposals.

So if we don’t need two systems, what could we have instead? Moving grants from STFC to EPSRC, as some proposed in the past,  would go part of the way, but EPSRC has many problems too. I would therefore prefer to see a new organisation, specifically intended to fund blue-skies scientific research in universities. This organisation would have a mission statement that  makes its remit clear, and it would take over grants, studentships and fellowships from STFC, EPSRC and possibly some of the other research councils, such as NERC.  The new outfit would need a suitable acronym, but I can’t think of a good one at the moment. Answers on a postcard.

As a further suggestion,  I think there’s a strong case to be made that HEFCE should be deprived of its responsibility for research funding. The apparatus of research assessment it uses is obviously  flawed, but why is it needed anyway? If the government believes that research is essential to universities, its policy on selectivity doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if it believes that university departments don’t need to be research groups then why shouldn’t the research funding element be administered by a reserch organisation? Even better, a new University Research Council along the lines I have suggested  could fund research at 100% of the Full Economic Cost instead of only 80%. The substantial cash saved by scrapping the REF should be pumped into grants to be administered by the new organisation, reversing the  cuts imposed we’ve endured over past years.

So what should  STFC become after the Triennial Review? Clearly there is still a role for an organisation to manage large experimental facilities. However, the fact that the UK now has its own Space Agency means that some activity has already been taken out of the STFC remit.  The CERN and ESO subscriptions could continue to be managed by STFC along with other facilities, and it could in some cases commission projects in university research groups or industrial labs as it does now. Astronomers and particle physicists would continue to sit on its Board.  However, its status would change radically, in that it would become an organisation whose job is to manage facilities, not research. The tail will no longer be wagging the dog.

I very much doubt if these suggestions are at all in line with current political “thinking” nor with those of many of my colleagues. The input to the Triennial Review from the Institute of Physics, for example, is basically that nothing should change. However, I think that’s largely because most of us working in STFC area,  have much greater confidence in the current management than we did in the previous regime rather than because the structure is right. Some of the bureaucrats in the Treasury, RCUK and HEFCE won’t like my suggestion  either, because they’ll all have to go and do something more useful.  But unless someone stands up for the university sector and does something to safeguard future funding then the ongoing decline in funding levels will never be reversed.

I very much doubt if many of my fellow physicists or astronomers agree with my suggestion either. Not to worry. I’m used to being in a minority of one. However, even if this is the case I hope this somewhat lengthy post will at least get you thinking. As always, I’d be interested in comments..

(Guest Post) Physics and Binary Creep

Posted in Education, Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2011 by telescoper

His Excel-lence (geddit?) Paul Crowther has been at it again, using his favourite packages sophisticated graph-plotting facilities to produce the interesting figures that go with another guest post….

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Last week’s Times Higher Ed included a news item headlined ‘binary creep’, in which HEFCE were considering restricting support for PhD research students to universities of the highest research quality. Concerns were expressed in the article about a two stream future for universities – research intensives in the fast lane and ‘the rest’ in the slow lane. This reminded me of a recent Times Higher Ed interview with the former Commons’ Science and Technology Committee chairman, Lord (Phil) Willis. Lord Willis argued that the UK could probably sustain “no more than 30” universities with the capacity to attract the best global researchers and carry out world-class research, a view no doubt shared by ministers and civil servants within BIS. I should qualify the following line of thought by emphasising that this is not Government policy, although both stories reflect moves by funding agencies to further concentrate increasingly scarce resources on the highest ranked research universities. For example, in England HEFCE is expected to withdraw all quality-related (QR) support from 2* RAE research from 2012 onwards.

Mindful of the fact that in such a vision for the future, there would be a comparatively few, research intensive universities (`winners’) where would that leave the remainder (‘losers’), especially for physics? Research quality can be quantified in all manner of ways, but for simplicity I have adopted the Quality Index (QI) from Research Fortnight which provides a single mark out of 100 based on RAE quality profiles (4*:3*:2*:1* weighted 8:4:2:1). The chart below shows the  QI-ranked list of more-or-less all 120 UK universities who were rated in RAE 2008. It will come as no surprise to anyone that Oxbridge, LSE and Imperial top the rankings, closely followed by UCL and a few other high flyers, but beyond the top 10 perhaps more surprising there are no natural breaks in quality from Durham and QMUL in joint 11th place, to Bolton at 107th.

Thinking out loud about Willis’ assertion that the UK should not be spreading the jam more thinly than, say, the leading 30 universities, there would obviously be individual physics departments currently outside the top 30 which are ranked significantly higher than those within the top 30. To illustrate this, the chart also includes (in blue) physics QI scores for all teaching institutions that were assessed under the UOA 19 in RAE 2008. To blindly follow Lord Willis’ suggestion, 16 out of 42 institutions involved with physics research – comprising 37 per cent of all academic staff – would be clear losers. These would include one physics department raked within the top 10 (scoring 49) because its host institution is ranked 34th overall, while winners would include a department scoring 31, i.e. ranked 40th (out of 42) for physics, as a result of its university squeezing into the top 30. Chemistry – within the same RAE sub-panel as physics – reveals a broadly similar distribution, although there is perhaps a greater concentration of the highest research quality in the overall top 20, as the chart below illustrates.

Alternatively, if there is to be further concentration, one could argue that research funding should focus on, say, the top 20 physics departments regardless of the performance of their host institution. Indeed, already 80 percent of STFC spending goes to only 16 universities. Still, as RAE grades indicate, a strength of UK physics is the breadth of high quality research, with no natural break points until beyond 30th place in the rankings, as the final chart shows. Of course, RAE scores aren’t the sole criterion being discussed, with “critical mass” the other main driver. Due in large part to the big four, 70 per cent of physics academic staff submitted for RAE 2008 are in departments that are currently ranked in the top 20. Chemistry has a similar story to tell in the chart, albeit displaying a somewhat steeper QI gradient.

What might be the long-term consequences of a divergence between a small number of “research-facing” universities and the rest? It is apparent that if the number of physics departments involved in research were reduced by a third, some high quality research groups would be lost, regardless of precisely where the cleaver ultimately fell. Let’s too not forget that astrophysics represents the largest sub-field of physics from the last IOP survey, as measured in numbers of academics.

If policy makers don’t see anything fundamentally wrong with A-level physics being taught by teachers qualified, say, in biology, then they might too wonder whether physics degrees could be taught by academics lacking a physics research background? This might work for first year undergraduate courses, but thereafter isn’t more specialist knowledge needed that a research background most readily provides? How would the third of physics academics outside the top 30 universities react to the prospects of a teaching-only future? Many surely would consider jumping ship either to one of the chosen few or overseas, further decreasing the pool of those with research experience in the remaining physics departments. This is further complicated by the expected political desire that physics departments should be appropriately distributed geographically across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

As a final thought experiment, the fate of physics departments facing the prospect of a teaching-only future might also be binary in nature, either (a) whither and die, decreasing the range of institutions offering degrees in physics (or physical sciences, natural sciences etc.); perversely at a time when the Government are anxious to maintain the number of students studying Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, or (b) thriving – free from the distractions of chasing dwinding research grants – by adapting to offer shorter duration physics degrees, described as “cheap and cheerful” by Dr David Starkey during the discussion on student fees on last Thursday’s Newsnight. To reiterate, it is not explicit Government policy to actively reduce the number of physics departments that receive research allocations, but this seems to be the general “direction of travel” in policy-makers speak, so I fear a rocky path ahead..


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The Graveyard of Ambition?

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , , on May 23, 2010 by telescoper

The news today is full of speculation about the nature and extent of impending public spending cuts expected to be announced in the Queen’s Speech next Tuesday. Among the more specific figures being bandied about is a £700 million cut to the budget Department of Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) which encompasses both scientific research and the university sector. It’s impossibly to say precisely where the axe will fall, but it’s very likely that university-based science groups in England will face a double-whammy, losing income both from HEFCE and from the Research Councils. The prospect looks particular dire for Physics & Astronomy, which rely for their research grants on the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) which savagely cut back science research even before the credit crunch arrived. If STFC gets cut any further  then the result will be even worse carnage un universities than we’ve experienced over the last year or two, especially since it looks like there will be no changes in its Executive.

Here in Wales the situation is even more complicated, as is explained in a long article in this week’s Times Higher. Cuts to the Research Councils will, of course, affect university research groups in the Principality as their remit covers the whole of the United Kingdom. However, responsibility for Higher Education in Wales is devolved to the Welsh Assembly Government. This means that any cuts to the University budget announced next week will not apply here (nor indeed in Scotland or Northern Ireland).

However, as I’ve blogged about before, it’s not obvious that this is good news for fundamental science in Wales. The Welsh Assembly Government’s blueprint for the shape of Higher Education in Wales, For Our Future, signals what could be dramatic changes in the way university funding is allocated here. There’s a lot of nervousness about how things will pan out.

Currently, most university funding in Wales comes through HEFCW in the form of recurrent grants. However the WAG has recently set up a Strategic Implementation Fund which in future supply 80% of all university funding. The new(ish) Minister responsible for Higher Education, Leighton Andrews (who will be giving a public lecture in Cardiff about the changes next week) seems to be determined to take control of the sector. It’s good to have a Minister who shows some interest in Higher Education, but I’m wary of politicians with Big Ideas.

We’ll have to wait and see what happens over the next year or so, but I think there’s an opportunity for Wales to do something truly radical and break away from systems that simply copy those in place in England with a much lower level of resource. Given that HEFCW has already been told how 80% of its funding should be administered, why bother with HEFCW at all? Scrapping this quango will remove a buffer between the universities and the WAG, which might be a dangerous thing to do, but will also save money that could be spent on higher education rather than bureaucracy. And while we’re at it, why doesn’t the WAG take Welsh universities out of the Research Excellence Framework? In the new era why should Welsh universities be judged according to English priorities?

On the teaching side, the WAG wants to see more flexible study options, more part-time degrees (including PhDs), more lifelong learning, and so on. I think that’s a reasonable thing to aim for given the particular socio-economic circumstances that pertain in Wales, but I can’t really see scope for significant numbers of part-time degrees in physics, especially at the doctoral level.

A crucial issue that has to be addressed is the proliferation of small universities in Wales. England has a population of 49.1 million, and has  91 universities (a number that many consider to be way too high in any case). The population of Wales is just 2.98 million but has 12 universities which is about twice as many per capita as in England. I for one think this situation is unsustainable, but I’m not sure to what extent mergers would be politically acceptable.

The WAG also wants to focus funding on “priority areas” that it perceives to be important to future development of industry in Wales, including health and biosciences, the digital economy, low-carbon technologies, and advanced engineering and manufacturing.  Fair enough, I say, as long as “focus on” doesn’t mean “scrap everything else but”.  The big worry for me is that research doesn’t feature very strongly at all in the WAG’s document, and it isn’t in good shape in any case. According to the last Research Assessment Exercise (RAE), only around 14% of Welsh research is of world-leading quality and most of that (90%)  is concentrated in just four institutions (Aberystwyth, Bangor, Cardiff and Swansea).

Physics in Wales did particularly poorly in the RAE and in any case only involves three universities, Bangor having closed its Physics department many years ago. Indeed the RAE panel went out of its way to make unfavourable comments about the lack of coordination in Welsh  physics – comments, I might add, that went entirely beyond the panel’s remit and should have attracted censure. Physics is also an expensive subject so if we are to do better in future we need additional investment. Cardiff University is doing its best bring this about, but I think we should explore closer ties with Swansea and explicit encouragement from the WAG.

STEM areas are woefully under-represented in Wales. Some think the WAG should seize the chance to boost this area of activity, but others think it’s already too late. According to the Times Higher,

Julie Lydon, vice-chancellor of the University of Glamorgan and the first female head of a university in Wales, says expertise in STEM will have to be developed in “distinct areas”. Given its small size, Wales must be careful to set itself realistic aims, she says.

The country faces a complex challenge, Lydon adds. “We don’t have anywhere near the range and extent of research (that we should) for our size. We’ve got to move it up a gear, and we’ve got to raise aspirations. We’ll do that in niche areas, and we’ll do that by partnership, not on our own.

“We haven’t the scope and scale; Wales isn’t a large enough sector to be able to do that across the board, but it’s an agenda that is slightly wider than the narrow view of STEM.”

A focus on STEM would neglect some areas in which Wales is strong, Lydon says. Thanks to investment from major employers such the BBC, disciplines such as media are growth areas and critical to the economy, but they are not strictly defined as STEM subjects.

No, media studies isn’t a STEM subject. Nor do I think Wales can continue to rely on its economy being propped up by public bodies such as the BBC. The expected round of wider public spending cuts I mentioned at the start of this piece will effectively scupper that argument and I’m sure privatisation of the BBC is on the new government’s agenda anyway. The future requires more ambition than this kind of thinking exemplifies. Sadly, however, ambition doesn’t seem to be something that the Welsh are particularly good at.  Dylan Thomas’s phrase “The Graveyard of Ambition” was specifically aimed at his home town of Swansea, but it does sum up an attitude you can find throughout the country: a  resolute determination to be mediocre.

 Wales is indeed a small country. So is Scotland (population about 5 million), but the Scots have for a long time placed a much higher premium on science and university education generally than the Welsh (and even the English) and they have a thriving university sector that’s the envy of other nations (including England). I think it’s time for a change of mentality.

What is to be done?

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on January 3, 2010 by telescoper

Just after December’s announcement of huge cuts in spending on science by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the minister responsible, Lord Drayson, issued a Press release that included the following

… it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

I’ve decided to post a few thoughts here under a deliberately bolshie title not because I think I have all the answers, but in the hope that somebody out there will come up with better suggestions.

Superficially the problem dates back to the formation of STFC in 2007 via the merger of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) and the Council for the Central Laboratories of the Research Councils (CCLRC). Previously, PPARC had looked after particle physics and astronomy (including space science) and CCLRC had run large experimental facilities in other branches of science. The idea of merging them wasn’t silly. A large chunk of PPARC’s budget went on managing large facilities, especially ground based astronomical observatories, and it was probably hoped that it would be more efficient to put all these big expensive pieces of kit under the same roof (so to speak).

However, at the time, there was considerable discussion about what should happen with science grants. For example, physicists working in UK universities in areas outside astronomy and particle physics previously obtained research grants from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC), along with chemists, engineers and even mathematicians. Some experimentalists working in these areas used facilities run by the CCLRC to do their work. However, astronomers and particle physicists got their grants from PPARC, the same organisation that ran their facilities and also paid subscriptions to international agencies such as CERN and ESA. These grants were often termed “exploitation”  or “responsive mode” grants; they involved funding for postdoctoral researchers and staff time used in analysing observational or experimental data and comprised relatively little money compared the the cost of the PPARC facilities themselves. PPARC also funded PhD studentships and postdoctoral fellowships under the umbrella of its Education and Training division, although needless to say all the Education and Training involved was done in host universities, not by PPARC itself.

The question was whether the new merged organisation, STFC should continue giving grants to university groups or whether they should be moved elsewhere, perhaps to EPSRC. At the time, most astronomers were keen to have their research grants administered by the same organisation that ran the facilities. I thought it made more sense to have research scientists all on the same footing when it came to funding and in any case thought there were too many absurd divisions between, say, general relativity (EPSRC) and relativistic astrophysics (PPARC), so I was among the (relatively few) dissenting voices at the time.

There were other reasons for my unease. One was that during a previously funding squeeze, PPARC had taken money from the grants line (the pot of money used for funding research groups) in order to balance the books, necessarily reducing the amount of science being done with its facilities. If STFC decided to do this it would probably cause even more pain, because grants would be an even smaller fraction of the budget in STFC than they were in PPARC. Those EPSRC physicists using CCLRC facilities seem to have managed pretty well so I didn’t really see the argument for astronomy and particle physics being inside STFC.  

The other reason for me wanting to keep research grants out of STFC was that the (then) new Chief Executive of PPARC, Keith Mason, had made no secret of the disdain he felt towards university-based astronomy groups and had stated on a number of occasions his opinion that there were too many astronomers in the United Kingdom. There are two flaws with this argument. One is that astronomy is essential to the viability of many physics departments because of its appeal to potential students; without it, many departments will fold. The other problem is that Mason’s claim that the number of astronomers had grown by 40% in a few years was simply bogus.  This attitude convinced me that he in particular would need only the slightest excuse to divert funds away from astronomy into areas such as space exploration.

It all seems a very distant memory now, but three years ago UK physics (including astronomy) was experiencing a time of relative plenty. The government had introduced a system whereby the research councils would fund research groups on the basis of the Full Economic Cost of the research, which meant more money coming into research groups that were successful at winning grants. The government increased funding for the councils to pay for this largesse and probably diminished the fear of another funding pinch. Astronomers and particle physicists also felt they would have more influence over future strategy in facility development by remaining within the same organisation. In the end what happened was that STFC not only kept the portfolio of astronomy and particle physics grants, but also acquired responsibility for nuclear physics from EPSRC.

But then, in 2007, just after STFC came into existence,  a major financial disaster broke: that year’s comprehensive spending review left the newly formed STFC with a huge gap in its finances. I don’t know why this happened but it was probably a combination of gross incompetence on behalf of the STFC Executive and deliberate action by persons higher up in the Civil Service. The subsequent behaviour of the Chief Executive of STFC led to a public dressing down by the House of Commons Select Committee and a complete loss of confidence in him by the scientific community. Miraculously, he survived. Unfortunately, so did the financial problems that are his responsibility. After two years of head-scratching, STFC has finally grasped the nettle and slashed its spending, including research grants,  in an attempt to balance the books.

I don’t like to say I told you so, but that’s exactly what I am doing. Everything that has happened was predictable given the initial conditions. You might argue that STFC wasn’t to know about the global economic downturn. In fact, I’d agree. However, the terrible cuts in the science budget we have seen have very little to do with that. They all stem from the period before the Credit Crunch even started. We still have the aftermath of that to look forward to. Unless something is done, grants will be hit again. Things are bad now, but will only get worse as long as the current arrangements persist.

Now, back to Lord Drayson’s press statement. He is of course right to say that there are tensions in putting large facilities and grant giving roles in the same organisation. That’s particularly true when it’s an organisation run by a one-man disaster area, but the main problem seems to me that actually doing science is very far down the list of priorities for STFC. The point I want to make is that by far the most of the very best science in the United Kingdom is actually done in university groups. Some of these groups use shiny new facilities but some continue to do first-rate research with older gear, not to mention us theorists who need very little in the way of facilities at all. What has happened is that the axe has fallen across the programme, apparently without regard for scientific value for money so that highly rated theory grants are being slashed along with those related to lower priority facilities.

Here it seems appropiate to make an aside to the effect that,  in my opinion, even taking into account the difficult financial circumstances in which it was done, the recent prioritisation review was completely botched. All the STFC advisory panels placed university research grants at the highest priority but the management has slashed them anyway. Moreover, instead of really biting the bullet and making tough decisions to shut down more facilities projects, they have kept as many of them going as possible (although with reduced budgets).  Cutting exploitation grants for the highest priority experiments was a particularly stupid decision. If STFC wanted to put science first, what they should have done is baled out of more facilities but preserved exploitation grants.  If that means abandoning whole areas of astronomy then that’s very sad, but surely it is better to do a smaller number of things well than a larger number of things poorly? Isn’t management meant to be about making difficult decisions?

I know this preamble has been a bit long-winded, but I think it’s necessary to see the background to what I’m going to propose. These are the steps I think need to be taken to put UK physics back on track.

First, the powers that be have to realise that university researchers are not just the icing on the cake when it comes to science. They actually do most of the science. The problem is that the way they are supported is a total mess. It’s called the dual support system, because the research councils pay 80% of the cost of research grants and Higher Education Funding Councils (i.e. HEFCE in England) are meant to provide the other 20%, but in reality it is a bureaucratic nightmare that subjects researchers to endless form-filling and costs hundreds of millions in wasteful duplication. The Research Councils already have well-managed systems to judge the quality of research grant applications, so why do we have to have the additional burden of a Research Assessment Exercise every few years on top of that? Just a few millions saved by slashing red tape could restore a large proportion of the physics grant budget.

What we need is a system that recognises the central importance of universities in science research. In order to safeguard this, research grants for all disciplines need to be adminstered organisations that cannot raid the funds allocated for this purpose to offset management failures elsewhere. The funds allocated to STFC under the Full Economic Cost system have already been systematically misappropriated in this way, and things will get worse unless something is done to protect them.

Moving grants from STFC to EPSRC would go part of the way, but I’m not a particular fan of the latter organisation’s heavy-handed top-down management style and gung ho enthusiasm for the  impact agenda which may be appropriate for applied sciences and engineering but surely doesn’t make any sense for, say, pure mathematics. I would prefer instead to see a new organisation, specifically intended to fund blue-skies scientific research in universities. This organisation would have a mission statement that  makes its remit clear, and it would take over grants, studentships and fellowships from STFC, EPSRC and possibly some of the other research councils, such as NERC.  The new outfit would need a suitable acronym, but I can’t think of a good one at the moment. Answers on a postcard.

As a further suggestion,  I think there’s a strong case to be made that HEFCE should be deprived of its responsibility for research funding. The apparatus of research assessment it uses is obviously  flawed, but why is it needed anyway? If the government believes that research is essential to universities, its policy on selectivity doesn’t make any sense. On the other hand, if it believes that university departments don’t need to be research groups then why shouldn’t the research funding element be administered by a reserch organisation? Even better, a new University Research Council along the lines I have suggested  could fund research at 100% of the Full Economic Cost instead of only 80%. The substantial cash saved by scrapping the RAE should be pumped into grants to be administered by the new organisation, reversing the recent savage cuts imposed by STFC.

And what should happen to STFC? Clearly there is still a role for an organisation to manage large experimental facilities. However, the fact that the UK is now going to have its own Space Agency should mean space science is taken out of the STFC remit.  The CERN and ESO subscriptions could continue to be managed by STFC along with other facilities, and it would in some cases commission projects in university research groups or industrial labs as it does now. Astronomers and particle physicists would continue to sit on its Board.  However, its status would change radically, in that it would become an organisation whose job is to manage facilities, not research. The tail will no longer be wagging the dog.

I very much doubt if these suggestions are at all in line with current political “thinking”. I don’t think politicians really appreciate the importance of research in universities, especially if its of the open-ended, blue-sky variety. The self-serving bureaucrats in RCUK and HEFCE won’t like it either, because the’ll all have to go and do something more useful.  But unless someone stands up for the university sector and does something to safeguard future funding then things are just going to go from bad to worse. This may be the last chance we have to avert a catastrophe.

I very much doubt if many of my fellow physicists or astronomers agree with my suggestion either. Not to worry. I’m used to being in a minority of one. However, even if this is the case I hope this somewhat lengthy post will at least get you thinking. I’d be interested in comments.

Back to Life, Back to Reality

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , on January 2, 2010 by telescoper

Today is the 3rd Round of the FA Cup, which traditionally marks the end of the Christmas holidays. In fact, I was going to watch Bristol City versus Cardiff City which was due to be shown live for free on Welsh channel S4C. However, the pitch is frozen and it’s been postponed. So I’ll be taking down the Christmas decorations instead…

Now that it is no longer the season to be jolly, I’ve decided to return to the theme of doom and gloom that prevailed before Christmas. In particular, you may recall that just before Christmas, Lord Mandelson wrote to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) to announce a package of £135 million cuts for next year. It has now been confirmed – see the story in the Times Higher – that these cuts are on top of huge cuts arising from decisions announced in the pre-budget statement, earlier in December. Altogether these cuts will amount to over £900 million being taken from the Higher Education budget over the next three years, or about 12.5% of the total.

The reduction in budget amounts to a cut in the “unit of resource” paid by the government directly to universities, and with a review of tuition fees currently being carried out by Lord Browne, the likelihood is that students will have to pay much more in future to make up the difference if the sector is to survive at its current level. This would require lifting the cap on tuition fees, a decision on which will almost certainly be postponed until after the next General Election (due by summer 2010). The combination of immediate cash cuts and uncertainty about the future will cause widespread unease and apprehension throughout the university system, and I think it won’t be long before we start hearing of more closures.

We won’t know what the situation will be in Wales until the Welsh Assembly announces its allocations to HEFCW, the Welsh counterpart of HEFCE. I can’t say I’m optimistic, especially after reading their recent discussion document on the future of higher education in Wales. Things might work out rather better in Scotland, where the university sector seems to be valued more highly than elsewhere in the United Kingdom.

Physics will be hit particularly hard by these cuts. It’s an expensive subject to run, and attracts only modest numbers of students paying customers. Savage cuts in research grants and postgraduate funding from STFC will have sent a clear message to university administrators that this is a risky subject to be investing in, a point of view likely to be reinforced by the inexplicably poor showing of physics in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise.  The outlook for physics and astronomy  looks even bleaker than for the rest of the university system, at least in England and Wales.

But my fears for the New Year are even wider than that. The deep cuts that have been imposed on Higher Education will save less than £1billion over the next three years. Compare that with the estimated budget deficit for 2009/10 of £178 billion and you’ll realise that it’s a drop in the ocean. The problem is that there’s an election coming up and the government is scared of trying to tackle the problem because of fears it will alienate voters. It has ring-fenced expenditure on politically sensitive things like schools and hospitals so the only things that it can cut are things that potential labour voters don’t care so much about, such as universities. And of course it realises that doing the sensible thing  and putting up income tax would be electoral suicide, although it is absolutely certain that whoever wins the next election will have to do it.

The biggest danger with the strategy of waiting until after the election before deciding to start tackling the debt crisis properly is that before long the international markets are going to realise that Britain is basically insolvent. It is true that the stock market has  recovered from its low point in March 2009, but only slowly and uneasily. The government seems to be assuming that  the markets will politely wait until Britain has gone to the polls before passing judgement on the longer term futue. However,  if sovereign debt rather than private debt becomes a major concern, I don’t think the UK economy will survive until the election without at least one major market correction, and off we’ll be into another, probably deeper, recession. It might not be the UK that sparks this off, but the levels of sovereign debt in Central and Eastern Europe could trigger a market panic that engulfs Britain too. The prospect of a hung parliament could easily give investors the jitters too.

There have been considerable increases in the level of government investment in UK universities over the last decade.  Admittedly, not all of it has been useful – much has been wasted in extra bureaucracy, pointless initiatives and ever-growing Human Resources departments – but at least years of neglect were being reversed.  Now the next few years offer the prospect of all the increases in funding being reversed. Higher education was one of the last sectors to benefit from extra government spending, and it is the first to have it taken away again.

Negative Impact

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on December 2, 2009 by telescoper

After spending the best part of the last couple of days being prodded and poked and subjected to all manner of indignity in the name of medical science, I think it’s appropriate to return to the blogosphere with another rant. Before I start, however, I’d seriously like to thank everyone at the University Hospital of Wales at Heath Park  for making my visit there as brief and painless as possible. Everyone was very kind and very efficient. I’m not going to blog about the details, as Columbo doesn’t like reading about other peoples’ ailments.

Over the past few weeks there has been a lot of discussion about the UK government’s agenda for research, particularly science research, that includes something called “impact”. The Research Excellence Framework (REF; successor to the Research Assessment Exercise, RAE) will include such a thing:

Significant additional recognition will be given where researchers build on excellent research to deliver demonstrable benefits to the economy, society, public policy, culture and quality of life

Apparently, however, they don’t really know how to do this so they have set up a number of pilot studies to try to find out. I’d feel a little more comfortable if the bureaucrats had thought about what they were going to do before announcing that our future research funds were going to depend on it. Meanwhile, applicants for grants from any of the research councils must  include a statement of the “economic or social” impact their research will have.

Understandably, those of us working in “blue skies” research are very nervous about this new regime. There is more than a suspicion that the new emphasis on impact is intended to divert funds away from “pure” curiosity driven research and into areas where it can have an immediately identifiable short-term economic benefit. This has led to a petition, with over 13000 signatures, by the University and College Union calling for the impact statements to be abandoned.

I don’t know who is going to assess these impact statements, but unless they have a flawless ability to predict future technology I don’t think fundamental physics is going to score very well at all. To see my point, consider the case of  J. J. Thomson, who is generally credited with having discovered the electron and who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Physics in 1906. Thomson made extensive use of cathode ray tubes in his studies; these later found their way into sitting rooms across the world as essential components of the classic television set. But that took decades. I doubt if an impact panel looking at Thomson’s work – even if they were physicists rather than grey-suited bureaucrats – would have found any of it likely to lead to immediate economic benefit. The point is that when he discovered the electron it wasn’t because he was actually trying to invent the television set.

I think there are basically two possible interpretations of this impact business. One is that it is a deliberate plan to wind down fundamental research and use the money saved to subsidise UK industry. The other is that it’s another exercise in pointless box-ticking. I am in two minds. On the one hand, it is clear that the recent behaviour of the Science and Technology Facilities Council shows strong evidence of the former. Fundamental research is being slashed, yet projects involving space technology have been funded on the nod without scientific  peer review. On the other hand, the RCUK Impact “Champion”, a person by the name of David Delpy, has written in the Times Higher to defend the new agenda. Consider the following paragraph

Recently I have read that some believe it is impossible to predict the economic impact of blue-skies research. To be clear, we are not asking for accurate predictions – simply a consideration of potential. Basic research underpins all disciplines and builds pathways to new technologies with economic and social applications. It may build on an existing body of knowledge, connect to other research around the world or attract new industries to the UK. There are many routes to impact. I believe that I could write a statement indicating potential impact for any proposal I have seen, and to hear that bright academics say they can’t do it sounds a little disingenuous.

Champion Delpy thus suggests he could write a statement for any proposal he has seen, which sounds to me like an admission that what is called for is just a load of flannel. In fact, if he’s paid to be the Impact Champion perhaps he should write all the bullshit and save us scientists the need to jump through these silly hoops? Or perhaps we could get one of those little Microsoft Office Assistant things:

Hello. Looks like you’re writing an Impact Assessment. Would you like me to pad it out with meaningless but impressive-looking socio-economic buzzwords for you?

If it’s just another exercise in vacuous bureaucracy then it’s bad enough, but if it is the other possibility then of course it’s even worse. It could be the end for disciplines like astronomy and particle physics as well as the end of Britain’s history of excellence in those areas. I’ve already blogged about my view of short-termism in research funding. Essentially, my point is that government money should be used to fund precisely those things that don’t have immediate economic benefit. Those that do should be funded by the beneficiaries, i.e. commercial companies.

Politicians probably think that all this complaining about impact means that scientists  are arrogantly assuming that the taxpayer should fund them regardless of the cost or the benefit. I can only speak for myself, but I think that’s very unfair. I’m very conscious that my research is funded by Joe Public; that’s one of the reasons I think I should spend time giving public talks and doing other outreach activities. But I think the public funds me and others like me to do “useless” things because, in the end, useless things are more important than money.

The government is probably right to say that the UK economy doesn’t benefit as much from our scientific expertise as is the case with other countries. The reason for that, however, lies not with our universities and research laboratories but with our private industrial and commercial sectors which are, for the most part, managed with a very low level of competence. British universities are demonstrably excellent; our industry is demonstrably feeble. The persistent failure of the private sector to invest in research and development shows that it is in drastic need of a good shake up. British companies, not the taxpayer, should be paying for research that leads to profit for them and for that to happen they will have to learn to engage better with the University sector rather than expecting inventions to be served up on a plate funded by the taxpayer. Universities and research labs should continue do what they’re good at,  maintaining a culture within which curiosity and learning are promoted for their own sake not just as part of the dreary materialistic cycle of production and consumption that is all we seem to be able to think about these days.

So at the end I’ve come to the conclusion that, perhaps, insofar as it can be demonstrated, economic impact should be included in the forthcoming Research Excellence Framework. Research which leads directly to the economic gain of the private sector is  precisely the type of research that the taxpayer should not be paying for. If it can be proven that a given department has engaged in such activity, its state funding should therefore be cut and it should be told to recover the funds it has misused from the company that has benefitted from it. Economic impact should be included with a negative weight.

And if you think that’s a silly point of view, consider what happens with the other major part of a university’s activity, teaching. Students, we are told, are the primary beneficiaries of their education so they should have to pay fees. In the current regime, however, they only do so when their earnings reach a certain level. If commercial companies are to be the primary beneficiaries of state-funded research, why should they not likewise be asked to pay for it?