Archive for Science and Technology Facilities Council

The Anomaly of Research England

Posted in Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , , on August 16, 2017 by telescoper

The other day I was surprised to see this tweet announcing the impending formation of a new council under the umbrella of the new organisation UK Research & Innovation (UKRI):

These changes are consequences of the Higher Education and Research Act (2017) which was passed at the end of the last Parliament before the Prime Minister decided to reduce the Government’s majority by calling a General Election.

It seems to me that it’s very strange indeed to have a new council called Research England sitting inside an organisation that purports to be a UK-wide outfit without having a corresponding Research Wales, Research Scotland and Research Northern Ireland. The seven existing research councils which will henceforth sit alongside Research England within UKRI are all UK-wide.

This anomaly stems from the fact that Higher Education policy is ostensibly a devolved matter, meaning that England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland each have separate bodies to oversee their universities. Included in the functions of these bodies is the so-called QR funding which is allocated on the basis of the Research Excellence Framework. This used to be administered by the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), but each devolved council distributed its own funds in its own way. The new Higher Education and Research Act however abolishes HEFCE and replaces some of its functions into an organisation called the Office for Students, but not those connected with research. Hence the creation of the new `Research England’. This will not only distribute QR funding among English universities but also administer a number of interdisciplinary research programmes.

The dual support system of government funding consists of block grants of QR funding allocated as above alongside targeted at specific projects by the Research Councils (such as the Science and Technology Facilities Council, which is responsible for astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics research). There is nervousness in England that the new structure will put both elements of the dual support system inside the same organisation, but my greatest concern is that by exlcuding Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, English universities will be given an unfair advantage when it comes to interdisciplinary research. Surely there should be representation within UKRI for Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland too?

Incidentally, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has started the process of recruiting a new Executive Chair. If you’re interested in this position you can find the advertisement here. Ominously, the only thing mentioned under `Skills Required’ is `Change Management’.

The STFC ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on April 26, 2017 by telescoper

I suddenly realized this morning that I there was a bit of community service I meant to do when I got back from vacations, namely to pass on to astronomers and particle physicists a link to the results of the latest Programmatic Review (actually ‘Breadth of Programme’ Exercise) produced by the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It’s a lengthy document, running to 89 pages, but it’s a must-read if you’re in the UK and work in area of science under the remit of STFC. There was considerable uncertainty about the science funding situation anyway because of BrExit, and that has increased dramatically because of the impending General Election which will probably kick quite a few things into the long grass, quite possibly delaying the planned reorganization of the research councils. Nevertheless, this document is well worth reading as it will almost certainly inform key decisions that will have to be made whatever happens in the broader landscape. With `flat cash’ being the most optimistic scenario, increasing inflation means that some savings will have to be found so belts will inevitable have to be tightened. Moreover, there are strong strategic arguments that some areas should grow, rather than remain static, which means that others will have to shrink to compensate.

There are 29 detailed recommendations and I can’t discuss them all here, but here are a couple of tasters:

The E-ELT is the European Extremely Large Telescope, in case you didn’t know.

Another one that caught my eye is this:

I’ve never really understood why gravitational-wave research came under ‘Particle Astrophysics’ anyway, but given their recent discovery by Advanced LIGO there is a clear case for further investment in future developments, especially because the UK community is currently rather small.

Anyway, do read the document and, should you be minded to do so, please feel free to comment on it below through the comments box.



The Supreme Leader of STFC Departs…

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , on May 12, 2016 by telescoper


In case you haven’t heard yet, news has just broken that Professor John Womersley (above), currently Chief Executive of the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), has been appointed Director-General of the new European Spallation Source (ESS) in Lund, Sweden, and will therefore be stepping down from his post as Chief Executive of STFC in the autumn.

John has been Supreme Leader at STFC for five years now and, in my opinion, has done an excellent job in circumstances that have not always been easy. He will be a hard act to follow. I know he’s an occasional reader of this blog, so let me take this opportunity to wish him well in his new role.

Now, perhaps I should open a book on the likely contenders for the post of next Chief Executive of STFC?


STFC Consolidated Grants Review

Posted in Finance, Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on October 28, 2014 by telescoper

It’s been quite a while since I last put my community service hat on while writing a blog post, but here’s an opportunity. Last week the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) published a Review of the Implementation of Consolidated Grants, which can be found in its entirety here (PDF). I encourage all concerned to read it.

Once upon a time I served on the Astronomy Grants Panel whose job it was to make recommendations on funding for Astronomy through the Consolidated Grant Scheme, though this review covers the implementation across the entire STFC remit, including Nuclear Physics, Particle Physics (Theory), Particle Physics (Experiment) and Astronomy (which includes solar-terrestrial physics and space science). It’s quite interesting to see differences in how the scheme has been implemented across these various disciplines, but I’ll just include here a couple of comments on the Astronomy side of things.

First, here is a table showing the number of academic staff for whom support was requested over the three years for which the consolidated grant system has been in existence (2011, 2012 and 2013 for rounds 1, 2 and 3 respectively).  You can see that the overall success rate was slightly better in round 3, possibly due to applicants learning more about the process over the cycle, but otherwise the outcomes seem reasonably consistent:


The last three rows of this table  on the other hand show quite clearly the impact of the “flat cash” settlement for STFC science funding on Postdoctoral Research Assistant (PDRA) support:

Constant cash means ongoing cuts in real terms; there were 11.6% fewer Astronomy PDRAs supported in 2013 than in 2011. Job prospects for the next generation of astronomers continue to dwindle…

Any other comments, either on these tables or on the report as a whole, are welcome through the comments box.


Yesterday in Parliament

Posted in Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , , on October 9, 2013 by telescoper

Yesterday afternoon I arrived in a rather muggy Westminster to attend a reception at the Houses of Parliament associated with an exhibition called Unveiling the Universe in all its Light which is currently set up inside the Palace of Westminster but will later go on tour around the UK.


It took me a while to find the way in. I lived in London for the best part of 9 years but never bothered to visit the Houses of Parliament (at least not the interior), so I was quite excited as, clutching my invitation in a rather sweaty hand, I eventually joined the queue to go through the security checks. That didn’t take very long, so despite getting lost in the corridors of power en route – it’s a bit of a maze inside – I had plenty of time to see the exhibition before joining the assembled throng in the Strangers’ Dining Room. There, surrounded by walls covered in expensive but tasteless flock wallpaper, I had a couple of couples of glasses of wine and ate some posh sandwiches while chatting to various astronomers, particle physicists and others, including a contingent of familiar faces from the Science and Technology Facilities Council.

It was a coincidence, of course, that this event took place on the day that the Nobel Prize for Physics was announced; it was impressive that posters were already there celebrating the award to Peter Higgs. General opinion was delight that Higgs had won a share of the prize, but sadness that Tom Kibble had been left out.

There were upbeat speeches by Minister for Universities and Science David Willetts (who isn’t as tall as he looks on telly), Andrew Miller (Chair of the Parliamentary Select Committee on Science and Technology), John Womersley (Chief Executive of STFC) and Lord Rees (Astronomer Royal). I think everyone present came away with a strong sense that astronomy and particle physics had strong political backing. Martin Rees in particular said that he thought we were living in a “golden age” for fundamental science, involving an exciting interplay between the inner space of subatomic particles and the outer space of cosmology. I couldn’t agree more.

AGP Matters

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

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

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

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

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

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

And on the third day…

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

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

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

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

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