Dinner at St Trinneans with EPSRC

May 16, 2008

And I do mean St Trinneans. Its a smairt old building just next to Pollock Halls that really did used to be a School called St Trinneans , and yes, really did inspire the books and movies. For those following my privileged lifestyle, the dinner provided by Edinburgh First, while perfectly ok, was nowhere near as good as the Athenaeum or Trinity College Oxford. But of course the company was first rate, being comprised of both my senior scientific colleagues and assembled officers of that distinguished public body, the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC). Over the last two days, we have had a kind of EPSRC Roadshow, as part of our “Framework Agreement”. Sharing intelligence and strategic thinking and all that jazz. Anyhoo, it did of course spin my head back to summer 2006. Should we have put our grants with EPSRC ?? Mike M, keep quiet until I have finished. So, what did I learn from EPSRC ?

Non-cash primer. First, a quick summary of what John Peacock explained to us recently. When a Research Council wants a big new thing, DIUS give them the necessary money as capital in their allocation, and proudly announces the increased science budget. However, Treasury rules require the Research Councils to make provision for the future by depreciating the value of the item, and gradually paying this money back to the Treasury. To make this possible, DIUS give them a special non-cash allocation. So this money whistles in and straight out .. but of course it too is announced proudly as ”more money for science” even though its the same money counted twice.

EPSRC has depreciation costs too. Just not much. For example they funded the new HECToR supercomputer at £117M, and this has to be depreciated. (Its irrelevant that its operated by us in Edinburgh : its an EPSRC capital item.)

Universities have depreciation costs too. A standard way of getting equipment funded on an EPSRC grant is to cough up first for your NMR machine etc, but then charge for its use on a grant. What you charge is the depreciation of the asset following standard rules. Of course you can only do this if you paid for it yourself. You can’t ask for the NMR machine on one EPSRC grant, and then depreciate it on a second grant. Don’t be silly. The Government shouldn’t pay for the same thing twice now should they ?

Non-cash is a one-way filter. EPSRC, STFC etc really do owe the Treasury the depreciation costs. The non-cash allocation is just that – its an allocation, to help the RCs meet their bills. Its not guaranteed to be magically the right amount. Now you can’t turn non-cash into cash. But if necessary, the RCs can use their cash to meet their depreciation bills. Frightened now ?

EPSRC’s problem is FEC. EPSRC have a healthily growing overall allocation, and a fairly minimal depreciation obligation. However, they need to find extra for FEC. Dave Delpy showed a graph subtracting this additional obligation, showing the remainder to be roughly flat cash, i.e. buying power declining with inflation. So … grant volume will decrease. You hear less fuss about this, because while it dampens people’s plans, they are not withdrawing things they already promised. Also of course, that FEC money has not disappeared. We got it. Knock on the Dean’s door.

EPSRC don’t have a Roadmap. Most of the last two days was centred round those cross-Council themes – Digital Economy, Securing the Future, etc – and there was much talk about future priorities, supporting the community, longer grants etc. However the financial truth is that nearly all the money is still in straightforward responsive mode grants. (Called “Essential Platform”, not to be confused with “platform grants”.) They do have strategic thinking, but its all quite general, to do with future technologies, trends in science etc. What they don’t have is a document that says “in 2011 we will need to take a decision on X” or a mentality that says “if we really intend to do Y in 2013, we will need to make sure key skills are maintained in groups A, B and C”. This is because they are dominated by lots of small things rather than a few big things, so they can rely on the external market sorting itself out. Its up to them to provide the money and some strategic hints; planning groups and keeping skills etc is our problem, not theirs.

So should astro grants be in EPSRC ? I think there is an argument that much of theory and regular exploitation could fit perfectly well in EPSRC. However, say goodbye to rolling grants and any sense of stability or nurturing. On the other hand, most project grants (building an instrument, running post launch support, building AstroGrid etc) really fits with the facility world – it needs that long term planning, and is intimately connected with the facilities. Is there a clean dividing line ? And do we really want to re-open that box ? And would anybody let us anyway ?

OK Mike, your turn.