Archive for STFC

The Supreme Leader of STFC Departs…

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

womersley

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?

 

Why EU funding is so important for UK science

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

One of the figures bandied about by the Leave campaign and in particular by the strangely litigious group  that calls itself “Scientists for Britain” (which has only six members that I know of, not all of them scientists) is that the EU is not important for British science because it only funded 3% of UK R&D between 2007 and 2013). They’ve even supplied a helpful graphic:

UK_RD_2007-2013

The figures are taken from a Royal Society report and are, as far as I’m aware, accurate. It’s worth noting however that the level of funding  under the FP7 “Framework Programme” which funds research is much smaller than the current Horizon2020 programme.

However, as Stephen Curry has pointed out in a typically balanced and reasonable blog post, the impact of a BrExit on UK science is much more complex than this picture would suggest. I want to add just a few  points from my specific perspective as a university-based researcher.

First, the 3% figure is arrived at by a tried-and-tested technique of finding the smallest possible numerator and dividing it by the lowest possible denominator. A fairer comparison, in my view, would just look at research funded by the taxpayer (either directly from the UK or via the EU). For one thing we don’t know how much of the research funded by businesses in the UK is funded by businesses which are only here in the UK because we’re part of the European Union. For another these figures are taken over the whole R&D effort and they hide huge differences from discipline to discipline.

From my perspective as an astrophysicist – and this is true of many researchers in “blue skies” areas – most of the pie chart is simply not relevant. The main sources of funding that we can attempt to tap are the UK Research Councils (chiefly STFC and EPSRC) and EU programmes; we also get a small amount of research income from charities, chiefly the Leverhulme Trust. The situation is different in other fields: medical research, for example, has much greater access to charitable funding.

As it happens I’ve just received the monthly research report of the School of Mathematical and Physics Sciences at the University of Sussex (of which I am currently Head) and I can tell you the EU counts not for 3% of our  income but 21% (which is in line with the proportions) above; most of that comes from the European Research Council. The possibility of losing access to EU funding  alarms me greatly as it would mean the loss of about one-fifth of our research base. I know that figure is much higher in some other institutions and departments.

But it’s not just the money that’s important, it’s also the kind of programmes that the EU funds. These are often to do with mobility of researchers, especially those early in their careers (including PhD students), grants that allow us to exploit facilities that we would otherwise not be able to access, and those that sustain large collaborations. It’s not just the level of cash that matters but the fact that what it funds is nicely complementary to the UK’s own programmes. The combination of UK and EU actually provides a much better form of “dual funding” than the UK can achieve on its own.

Some say that BrExit would not change our access to EU funding, but I maintain there’s a huge risk that this will be the case. The loss of the UK’s input into the overall EU budget will almost certainly lead to a revision of the ability of non-member states to access these programmes. The best that even BrExit campaigners argue for is that access to EU funding will not change. There is therefore, from a science perspective, there is no chance of a gain and a large risk of a loss. For me, that kind of a decision is a no-brainer. I’m not the only one who thinks that either: 150 Fellows of the Royal Society agree with me, as do the vast majority of scientists surveyed in a poll conducted by Nature magazine.

Of course there will be some who will argue that this “blue skies” academic research in universities isn’t important and we should be spending more money on stuff that leads to wealth creation. I can think of many arguments against that, but for the purposes of this post I’ll just remind you that 45% of UK research is done in industry and commercial businesses of various kinds. Where do you think the supply of science graduates come from, what kind of research draws students into science courses in the first place, and where do the teachers come from that educate the next generations?

As a scientist who cares passionately about the sustainability of Britain’s research base, I think we should definitely remain in the European Union.

Big Cuts to UK Science Research

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , on March 4, 2016 by telescoper

I have been off sick today, but felt a whole lot sicker when I saw that the government had unveiled its plans for UK research spending over the next few years.

At first sight the picture looks encouraging. For example, the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) sees a modest increase on cash terms from 16/17 to the end of the budget period. However that picture soon changes when you note that the allocation to STFC this year (15/16) was £400M. The allocation for (16/17) is £388M, so there’s an immediate reduction of £12M in available resource corresponding to a 3% cash cut.

This is  a truly terrible result for the STFC community. It may not seem like a big cut, but so much of the STFC budget is locked up in subscriptions that cash cuts have a disproportionately damaging effect. I fear for grant funding in particular; that’s always what takes the hit when immediate savings are needed.

It seems clear to me that a deliberate decision was made in BIS to exclude the current year’s figures from their document in a cynical attempt to present a misleading picture of the settlement. It’s a shocking betrayal.

Here is a response from the Royal Astronomical Society.

The unwillingness of our own government to fund scientific research property demonstrates how vitally important it is for us to have access to European Union funding and will strengthen the determination of UK scientists to keep us in the EU.

Big Science is not the Problem – it’s Top-Down Management of Research

Posted in Finance, Science Politics, The Universe and Stuff with tags , , , , on June 2, 2015 by telescoper

I’m very late to this because I was away at the weekend, but I couldn’t resist making a comment on a piece that appeared in the Grauniad last week entitled How can we stop big science hovering up all the research funding? That piece argues for a new system of allocating research funding to avoid all the available cash being swallowed by a few big projects. This is an argument that’s been rehearsed many times before in the context of physics and astronomy, the costs of the UK contribution to facilities such as CERN (home of the Large Hadron Collider) and the European Southern Observatory being major parts of the budget of the Science and Technology Facilities Council that often threaten to squeeze the funds available for “exploiting” these facilities – in other words for doing science. What’s different about the Guardian article however is that it focusses on genomics, which has only recently threatened to become a Big Science.

Anyway, Jon Butterworth has responded with a nice piece of his own (also in the Guardian) with which I agree quite strongly. I would however like to make a couple of comments.

First of all, I think there are two different usages of the phrase “Big Science” and we should be careful not to conflate them. The first, which particularly applies in astronomy and particle physics, is that the only way to do research in these subjects is with enormous and generally very expensive pieces of kit. For this reason, and in order to share the cost in a reasonable manner, these fields tend to be dominated by large international collaborations. While it is indeed true that the Large Hadron Collider has cost a lot of money, that money has been spent by a large number of countries over a very long time. Moreover, particle physicists argued for that way of working and collectively made it a reality. The same thing happens in astronomy: the next generation of large telescopes are all transnational affairs.

The other side of the “Big Science” coin is quite a different thing. It relates to attempts to impose a top-down organization on science when that has nothing to do with the needs of the scientific research. In other words, making scientists in big research centres when it doesn’t need to be done like that. Here I am much more sceptical of the value. All the evidence from, e.g., the Research Excellence Framework is that there is a huge amount of top-class research going on in small groups here and there, much of it extremely innovative and imaginative. It’s very hard to justify concentrating everything in huge centres that are only Big because they’ve taken killed everything that’s Small, by concentrating resources to satisfy some management fixation rather than based on the quality of the research being done. I have seen far too many attempts by funding councils, especially the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, to direct funding from the top down which, in most cases, is simply not the best way to deliver compelling science. Directed programmes rarely deliver exciting science, partly because the people directing them are not the people who actually know most about the field.

I am a fan of the first kind of Big Science, and not only for scientific reasons. I like the way it encourages us to think beyond the petty limitations of national politics, which is something that humanity desparately needs to get used to. But while Big Science can be good, forcing other science to work in Big institutes won’t necessarily make it better. In fact it could have the opposite effect, stifling the innovative approaches so often found in small groups. Small can be beautiful too.

Finally, I’d have to say that I found the Guardian article that started this piece of to be a bit mean-spirited. Scientists should be standing together not just to defend but to advance scientific research across all the disciplines rather than trying to set different kinds of researchers against each other. I feel the same way about funding the arts, actually. I’m all for more science funding, but don’t want to see the arts to be killed off to pay for it.

Yes, science produces too many PhDs

Posted in Science Politics with tags , , , , , on February 19, 2015 by telescoper

I came across a blog post this morning entitled Does Science Produce Too Many PhDs? I think the answer is an obvious “yes” but I’ll use the question as an excuse to rehash an argument I have presented before, which is that most analyses of the problems facing yearly career researchers in science are looking at the issue from the wrong end. I think the crisis is essentially caused by the overproduction of PhDs in this field. To understand the magnitude of the problem, consider the following.

Assume that the number of permanent academic positions in a given field (e.g. astronomy) remains constant over time. If that is the case, each retirement (or other form of departure) from a permanent position will be replaced by one, presumably junior, scientist.

This means that over an academic career, on average, each academic will produce just one PhD who will get a permanent job in academia. This of course doesn’t count students coming in from abroad, or those getting faculty positions abroad, but in the case of the UK these are probably relatively small corrections.

Under the present supply of PhD studentships an academic can expect to get a PhD student at least once every three years or so. At a minimum, therefore, over a 30 year career one can expect to have ten PhD students. A great many supervisors have more PhD students than this, but this just makes the odds worse. The expectation is that only one of these will get a permanent job in the UK. The others (nine out of ten, according to my conservative estimate) above must either leave the field or the country to find permanent employment.

The arithmetic of this situation is a simple fact of life, but I’m not sure how many prospective PhD students are aware of it. There is still a reasonable chance of getting a first postdoctoral position, but thereafter the odds are stacked against them.

The upshot of this is we have a field of understandably disgruntled young people with PhDs but no realistic prospect of ever earning a settled living working in the field they have prepared for. This problem has worsened considerably in recent  years as the number of postdoctoral positions has almost halved since 2006. New PhDs have to battle it out with existing postdoctoral researchers for the meagre supply of suitable jobs. It’s a terrible situation.

Now the powers that be – in this case the Science and Technology Facilities Council – have consistently argued that the excess PhDs go out into the wider world and contribute to the economy with the skills they have learned. That may be true in a few cases. However, my argument is that the PhD is not the right way to do this because it is ridiculously inefficient.

What we should have is a system wherein we produce more and better trained Masters level students  and fewer PhDs. This is the system that exists throughout most of Europe, in fact, and the UK is actually committed to adopt it through the Bologna process.  Not that this commitment seems to mean anything, as precisely nothing has been done to harmonize UK higher education with the 3+2+3 Bachelors+Masters+Doctorate system Bologna advocates.

The training provided in a proper two-year Masters programme will improve the skills pool for the world outside academia, and also better prepare the minority of students who go on to take a PhD. The quality of the  PhD will also improve, as only the very best and most highly motivated researchers will take that path. This used to be what happened, of course, but I don’t think it is any longer the case.

The main problem with this suggestion is that it requires big changes to the way both research and teaching are funded. The research councils turned away from funding Masters training many years ago, so I doubt if they can be persuaded to to a U-turn now. Moreover, the Research Excellence Framework provides a strong incentive for departments to produce as many PhDs as they possibly can, as these are included in an algorithmic way as part of the score for “Research Environment”. The more PhDs a department produces, the higher it will climb in the league tables. One of my targets in my current position is to double the number of PhDs produced by my School over the period 2013-18. What happens to the people concerned seems not to be a matter worthy of consideration. They’re only “outputs”…

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:

STFC_Con1

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:
STFC_Con

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.

 

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?

 

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