Archive for SFC

Into the Blue

Posted in Education, Finance, Politics, Science Politics with tags , , , on May 12, 2010 by telescoper

So there we are.  Britain has a new government. For the time being. Last night David Cameron became the Prime Minister of a coalition government involving the Conservative and Liberal Democrat parties (as I predicted). This is hardly a surprise given the arithmetic; Labour and the LibDems wouldn’t have had enough seats to command a majority anyway. It took five days from the election for the new Prime Minister to take over, much longer than the few hours it normally takes when there is a conclusive result, but nowhere near as long as it takes on the continent where coalition-building involves smaller and more diverse parties. In the UK the three main political parties are all centre-right, at least when it comes to economic policy,  and they share a great deal of common ground, so I never thought there would be much problem with the Conservatives and LibDems coming to a deal, which they have done.

Another prediction I got right was that Gordon Brown would resign as leader of the Labour Party, which he has also done. Who will lead the Labour Party now, and for how long, is anyone’s guess.

My third prediction was that the coalition government would fall within a year and there’ll be another general election. As for that, we’ll have to wait and see. It is, after all, a marriage of convenience. I think it won’t be long before a big row develops and the coalition unravels. There’s a lot of overlap between the two parties, but it’s a long way from the left of the LibDems to the right of the Tories. I give it 6 months to the first vote of confidence, assuming the Queen’s Speech passes.

Now that we have a government once more, the unreal business of electioneering is going to be set aside and all the facts that the media have kept quiet about during the election campaign will start to come out. For example, a story in the Financial Times of 11th May (yesterday), which has clearly been on the spike for the duration of the election campaign, reveals how huge cuts in university funding are set to fall hardest on science departments. Vice-chancellors have been making contingency plans for 25% cuts in recurrent funding for some time now, and there’s an obvious temptation to cut the more expensive subjects first.

I’ve already confessed my annoyance that the main parties connived to keep the details of the deep cuts they were all planning to implement out of the election campaign. Now we’re going to find out the true extent of what’s in store, and it’s too late to change.

Niels Bohr once said “Prediction is very difficult, especially about the future”, and I have no idea whether I’m being overly pessimistic here, but here are  some of  the things I think will affect my own life  as an astrophysicist working in a British university.

First, it’s now clear that there’s  no chance of a reversal in the fortunes of STFC. There never was much of a chance of that, to be honest. It’s more likely now that  STFC will now face further cuts on top of what it has endured already.  Fundamental science in the UK is in for a very lean time.

Second, university funding – the part that comes directly from central government – will be cut by at least 25%, probably more.  This could be achieved in a number of ways. The unit of resource (the payment made per student by the government to a university) could be cut. The number of students funded could be cut. Students could be charged higher fees or have less generous loan arrangements. These options are by no means exclusive, of course. They might all happen.

University V-Cs will have to make very difficult decisions  where to make savings:  some may tighten budgets across the board; others may shut entire departments to save the rest.

Another issue with university funding, however, is that it is not entirely the preserve of central government.  The Scottish Assembly runs higher education in Scotland, not the Westminster government. The Scottish Funding Council has generally funded universities more generously than HEFCE has in England. It’s also much less likely to implement higher tuition fees. More generally, with only one Scottish Tory MP in Westminster and a Scottish Nationalist-flavoured Assembly government, there’s no way of knowing what will happen in Scotland or, indeed, how much strain will be generated there by an English Tory government very few Scots voted for.

In Wales its a bit different. Here higher education is run by the Welsh Assembly government, which currently comprises a Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition. With the Westminster government consisting of an alliance between the other two major parties in Wales we have two levels of administration roughly orthogonal to each other. In principle, the WAG could decide to protect the university system in Wales against the level of cuts being imposed in England, but since we already get a lower unit of resource from HEFCW than HEFCE allocates to English universities, I doubt we’ll be any different in future.

So this is where we’re headed:  fewer science departments with fewer staff with increased teaching loads with less time to do research and with less funding to carry it out and vanishing career opportunities for the scientists they’re supposed to be training.

Still, at least the bankers will get their bonuses.

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Physics Funding by Numbers

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on January 29, 2009 by telescoper

I just read today that HEFCE has decided on the way funds will be allocated for research following the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. I have blogged about this previously (here, there and elsewhere), but to give you a quick reminder the exercise basically graded all research in UK universities on a scale from 4* (world-leading) to 1* (nationally recognized), producing for each department a profile giving the fraction of research in each category.

HEFCE has decided that English universities will be funded according to a formula that includes everything from 2* up to 4* but with a weighting 1:3:7.  Those graded 1* and unclassified get no funding at all. How they arrived at this formula is anyone’s guess. Personally I think it’s a bit harsh on 2* which is supposed to be internationally recognized research, but there you go.

Assuming there is also a multiplier for volume (i.e. the number of people submitted) we can now easily produce another version of the physics research league table which reveals the relative amount of money each will get. I don’t know the overall normalisation, of course.

The table shows the number of staff submitted (second column) and the overall fundability factor based on a 7:3:1 weighting of the published profile multiplied by the figure in column 2. This is like the “research power” table I showed here, only with a different and much steeper weighting (7,3,1,0) versus (4,3,2,1).

1. University of Cambridge 141.25 459.1
2. University of Oxford 140.10 392.3
3. Imperial College London 126.80 380.4
4. University College London 101.03 298.0
5. University of Manchester 82.80 227.7
6. University of Durham 69.50 205.0
7. University of Edinburgh 60.50 184.5
8. University of Nottingham 44.45 144.5
9. University of Glasgow 45.75 135.0
10. University of Warwick 51.00 130.1
11. University of Bristol 46.00 128.8
12. University of Birmingham 43.60 126.4
13. University of Southampton 45.30 120.0
14. Queen’s University Belfast 50.00 115.0
15. University of Leicester 45.00 114.8
16. University of St Andrews 32.20 104.7
17. University of Liverpool 34.60 96.9
18. University of Sheffield 31.50 92.9
19. University of Leeds 35.50 88.8
20. Lancaster University 26.40 88.4
21. Queen Mary, University of London 34.98 85.7
22. University of Exeter 28.00 77.0
23. University of Hertfordshire 28.00 72.8
24. University of York 26.00 67.6
25. Royal Holloway, University of London 27.96 67.1
26. University of Surrey 27.20 65.3
27. Cardiff University 32.30 64.6
28. University of Bath 20.20 63.6
29. University of Strathclyde 31.67 60.2
30. University of Sussex 20.00 55.0
31. Heriot-Watt University 19.50 51.7
32. Swansea University 20.75 48.8
33. Loughborough University 17.10 41.9
34. University of Central Lancashire 22.20 41.1
35. King’s College London 16.40 38.5
36. Liverpool John Moores University 16.50 35.5
37. Aberystwyth University 18.33 23.8
38. Keele University 10.00 18.0
39. Armagh Observatory 7.50 13.1
40. University of Kent 3.00 4.5
41. University of the West of Scotland 3.70 4.1
42. University of Brighton 1.00 1.8

It looks to me that the fraction of funds going to the big three at the top will probably be reduced quite significantly, although apparently there are  funds set aside to smooth over any catastrophic changes. I’d hazard a guess that things won’t change much for those in the middle.

I’ve left the Welsh and Scottish universities in the list for comparison, but there is no guarantee that HEFCW and SFC will use the same formula for Wales and Scotland as HEFCE did for England. I have no idea what is going to happen to Cardiff University’s funding at the moment.

Another bit of news worthing putting in here is that HEFCE has protected funding for STEM subjects (Science, Technology and Medicine) so that the apparently poor showing of some science subjects (especially physics) compared to, e.g., Economics will not necessarily mean that physics as a whole will suffer. How this works out in practice remains to be seen.

Apparently also the detailed breakdowns of how the final profiles were reached will go public soon. That will make for some interesting reading, although apparently everything relating to individual researchers will be shredded to prevent problems with the data protection act.

The Physics Overview

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , , , , on January 17, 2009 by telescoper

I found out by accident the other day that the Panels conducting the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise have now published their subject overviews, in which they comment trends within each discipline.

Heading straight for the overview produced by the panel for Physics (which is available together with two other panels here),I found some interesting points, some of which relate to comments posted on my previous items about the RAE results (here and here) until I terminated the discussion.

One issue that concerns many physicists is how the research profiles produced by the RAE panel will translate into funding. I’ve taken the liberty of extracting a couple of paragraphs from the report to show what they think. (For those of you not up with the jargon, UoA19 is the Unit of Assessment 19, which is Physics).

The sub-panel is pleased with how much of the research fell into the 4* category and that this excellence is widely spread so that many smaller departments have their share of work assessed at the highest grade. Every submitted department to UoA19 had at least 70% of their overall quality profile at 2* or above, i.e. internationally recognised or above.

Sub-panel 19 takes the view that the research agenda of any group, or of any individual for that matter, is interspersed with fallow periods during which the next phase of the research is planned and during which outputs may be relatively incremental, even if of high scientific quality. In the normal course of events successful departments with a long term view will have a number of outputs at the 3* and 2* level indicating that the groundwork is being laid for the next set of 4* work. This is most obviously true for those teams involved with very major experiments in the big sciences, but also applies to some degree in small science. Thus the quality profile is a dynamic entity and even among groups of very high international standing there is likely to be cyclic variation in the relative amounts of 3* and 4* work according to the rhythm of their research programmes. Most departments have what we would consider a healthy balance between the perceived quality levels. The subpanel strongly believes that the entire overall profile should be considered when measuring the quality of a department, rather than focussing on the 4* component only.

I think this is very sensible, but for more reasons than are stated. For a start the judgement of what is 4* or 3* must be to some extent subjective and it would be crazy to allocate funding entirely according to the fraction of 4* work. I’ve heard informally that the error in any of the percentages for any assessment is plus or minus 10%, which also argues for a conservative formula. However one might argue about the outcome, the panels clearly spent a lot of time and effort determining the profiles so it would seem to make sense to use all the information they provide rather than just a part.

Curiously, though, the panel made no comment about why it is that physics came out so much worse than chemistry in the 2008 exercise (about one-third of the chemistry departments in the country had a profile-weighted quality mark higher than or equal to the highest-rated physics department). Perhaps they just think UK chemistry is a lot better than UK physics.

Anyway, as I said, the issue most of us are worrying about is how this will translate into cash. I suspect HEFCE hasn’t worked this out at all yet either. The panel clearly thinks that money shouldn’t just follow the 4* research, but the HEFCE managers might differ. If they do wish to follow a drastically selective policy they’ve got a very big problem: most physics departments are rated very close together in score. Any attempt to separate them using the entire profile would be hard to achieve and even harder to justify.

The panel also made a specific comment about Wales and Scotland, which is particularly interesting for me (being here in Cardiff):

Sub-panel 19 regards the Scottish Universities Physics Alliance collaboration between Scottish departments as a highly positive development enhancing the quality of research in Scotland. South of the border other collaborations have also been formed with similar objectives. On the other hand we note with concern the performance of three Welsh departments where strategic management did not seem to have been as effective as elsewhere.

I’m not sure whether the dig about Welsh physics departments is aimed at the Welsh funding agency HEFCW or the individual university groups; SUPA was set up with the strong involvement of SFC and various other physics groupings in England (such as the Midlands Physics Alliance) were actively encouraged by HEFCE. It is true, though, that the 3 active physics departments in Wales (Cardiff, Swansea and Aberystwyth) all did quite poorly in the RAE. In the last RAE, HEFCW did not apply as selective a funding formula as its English counterpart HEFCE with the result that Cardiff didn’t get as much research funding as it would if it had been in England. One might argue that this affected the performance this time around, but I’m not sure about this as it’s not clear how any extra funding coming into Cardiff would have been spent. I doubt if HEFCW will do any different this time either. Welsh politics has a strong North-South issue going on, so HEFCW will probably feel it has to maintain a department in the North. It therefore can’t penalise Aberystwyth too badly for its poor RAE showing. The other two departments are larger and had very similar profiles (Swansea better than Cardiff, in fact) so there’s very little justification for being too selective there either.

The panel remarked on the success of SUPA which received a substantial injection of cash from the Scottish Funding Council (SFC) and which has led to new appointments in strategic areas in several Scottish universities. I’m a little bit skeptical about the long-term benefits of this because the universities themselves will have to pick up the tab for these positions when the initial funding dries up. Although it will have bought them extra points on the RAE score the continuing financial viability of physics departments is far from guaranteed because nobody yet knows whether they will gain as much cash from the outcome as they spent to achieve it. The same goes for other universities, particularly Nottingham, who have massively increased their research activity with cash from various sources and consequently done very well in the RAE. But will they get back as much as they have put in? It remains to be seen.

What I would say about SUPA is that it has definitely given Scottish physics a higher profile, largely from the appointment of Ian Halliday to front it. He is an astute political strategist and respected scientist who performed impressively as Chief Executive of the now-defunct Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council and is also President of the European Science Foundation. Having such a prominent figurehead gives the alliance more muscle than a group of departmental heads would ever hope to have.

So should there be a Welsh version of SUPA? Perhaps WUPA?

Well, Swansea and Cardiff certainly share some research interests in the area of condensed-matter physics but their largest activities (Astronomy in Cardiff, Particle Physics in Swansea) are pretty independent. It seems to me to be to be well worth thinking of some sort of initiative to pool resources and try to make Welsh physics a bit less parochial, but the question is how to do it. At coffee the other day, I suggested an initiative in the area of astroparticle physics could bring in genuinely high quality researchers as well as establishing synergy between Swansea and Cardiff, which are only an hour apart by train. The idea went down like a lead balloon, but I still think it’s a good one. Whether HEFCW has either the resources or the inclination to do something like it is another matter, even if the departments themselves were to come round.

Anyway, I’m sure there will be quite a lot more discussion about our post-RAE strategy if and when we learn more about the funding implications. I personally think we could do with a radical re-think of the way physics in Wales is organized and could do with a champion who has the clout of Scotland’s SUPA-man.

The mystery as far as I am concerned remains why Cardiff did so badly in the ratings. I think the first quote may offer part of the explanation because we have large groups in Astronomical Instrumentation and Gravitational Physics, both of which have very long lead periods. However, I am surprised and saddened by the fact that the fraction rated at 4* is so very low. We need to find out why. Urgently.