Reset : three questions

The comment thread on the “taking stock” post is getting so long I am getting tired of scrolling down. Shall we just re-start ? Meanwhile Sean Carroll leveraged my “Hollywood and Vine” post concept, but his post is getting all the comments !! (OK, he had a nice picture and a better title…)  Then there’s Peter Coles. He discovered my blog and told about his, but I shall go and sulk in a corner, cos Peter has renamed me The Egregious Professor of Astronomy. (Peter has a much better story about his Encounter with the Kansas Police. He has also argued that our new 5% academic pay rise is just going to make the grants cuts worse…) Thank goodness for Dave S and his polite banter.

So ….

Q1 : Does a good astronomy programme need both hemispheres ?

Q2 : Are we overproducing Astronomy PhDs ?

Q3 : Is the academic 5% pay rise good or bad for British Astronomy ?

50 Responses to Reset : three questions

  1. Michael Merrifield says:

    Personally, I would go with “no, no, bad.”

  2. Watcher says:

    Blimey, I find myself in complete agreement with you Mike.

  3. Hywel says:

    After surviving on 1-3% pay rises for a number of years while employed by STFC, I’m not complaining about 5% for a change. At least you’re keeping up with your energy bills. It is bad for funding though.

  4. Kav says:

    Personally, I would go with “no, no, bad.”

    says someone on a professorial salary (with regard to the last alone). Though it may well be bad for funding overall, I’m sure I’m not the only post-doc that is glad of the extra cash in the short-term .

  5. Kav says:

    Sorry, my html tags did not work above; I was, of course, quoting MM with my first sentence.

  6. Dave S says:

    Q1 – no – if you can’t do it with 75% of the sky, it’s not worth doing, but the transition will hurt Prof Lockman and Dr HDF (and LOFAR/EMERLIN)

    Q2 – no – one good argument for funding PhDs, setting aside the provision of numerate employees for me to interview (Zzzz), is surely that PhD theses are often one of the best dividends from an investment in facilities. They represent 3-4 years of real dedication and are relatively unspoiled by the unscholarly culture of speed that has taken root in astronomy. Oh, and they’re cheap as chips.

    Q3 – 5%? Across the whole salary range? In all universities? Good grief, I’d be tempted to rejoin the flock if it weren’t for all the academics lining the corridors, rotting in their own bile. Except Michael of course. He’s a sweetheart.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    The question wasn’t whether people would be glad of the cash in the short term, Kav. Of course they are, even if they are overpaid professors. The question was whether it was good for astronomy. Even in the relatively short term, perhaps you should bear in mind that the grant line is severely cash-limited, so a pay rise doesn’t necessarily mean that there will be more money to give to you, just that you may be out of a job sooner with the same total cash. And the finances of some physics departments are sufficiently marginal that adding almost 5% to their budget (salary of permanent staff being the main cost in most departments) may see a good number tipped over the edge into oblivion, which might bring your career to an even more premature close.

    However, now that I find I am in agreement with Watcher, I will obviously have to reconsider my position…

  8. Kav says:


    I did say that I thought it may well be bad for funding overall. Whether I am booted out sooner rather than later also depends on whether my university honors my contract to the stipulated final date or terminates in advance once the STFC money disappears. Of course I am confident that they have the proper weasel words in place to do just the latter in the Terms and Conditions…

    I doubt that the next pay negotiations will be quite as successful in the current economic climate.

    Dave S. I know very few academics who are ‘rotting in their own bile’. I know quite a few who have been pretty annoyed recently (understatement?), but hardly unjustified in their ire. I wonder where you draw your impressions from?

  9. Tony says:

    Maybe combine Q’s 2 & 3 with Q4: would astronomy be markedly damaged by 5% fewer astronomers?

  10. Tony says:

    And as a follow-up to Q4, there has been a surge in recent years in public funding of cross- and multi-disciplinary projects in fields of climate change, digital economy, energy sources etc, so what skills do the 5% of people lost to astronomy (if it happens) have that would enable them to sell themselves into these other fields of enquiry (if they want to stay in academia that is)?

  11. Kav says:

    So far, scholarly opinion (well, three people) seems to suggest that the answer to question number 1 is: no, a good astronomy programme does not need both hemispheres.

    Perhaps a follow up question is in order: which hemisphere is important for a UK astronomy programme?

    I predict that the STFC answer to this would be the southern; ESO is the future and Gemini is the past. Based purely on location of facilities this is obvious. However, I would argue that in terms of outreach and inspiration (arguably Astronomy’s biggest contribution to UK PLC?) the northern hemisphere is essential.

    Let’s face it, its the sky that our paymasters, the public, can see. It gives an opportunity to have solid engagement with young amateur astronomers who can follow discoveries or interesting objects on their own. Pretty pictures on the web or in newspapers can be wonderful but I doubt they match the excitement of seeing an object for yourself in your own telescope.

    There are also possibilities in harnessing the amateur community, or introducing schools to astronomy where they have a chance of direct involvement in current and ongoing science. This can be done with the southern hemisphere but not with the almost tactile experience of the northern.

    Just throwing that out there, maybe its not really an issue.

    Clearly, the chief reason for choosing south over north must be scientific and here I show my ignorance; I am not an astronomer and the southern case may be 100 times greater than the north. I just wonder whether by excluding the north you might be closing down a real connection with the people who fund us.

  12. Iain Steele says:

    Judging by the email sent out by our university finance departement yesterday, it sounds like they are going to try and not give us the 5% anyway on grounds of “affordability”. I must remember that when by gas bill comes in and tell them I can only afford to pay x% of it.

  13. 12.5% grant cuts? says:

    This was just sent by John Womersley to all STFC staff –

    STFC recognises the difficulties caused by the reduction of grants funding to universities and has been working to find ways to ease the situation.

    STFC has worked hard, in conjunction with DIUS, to identify how best to manage risks elsewhere in the programme, and it believes that, as a consequence, it is now able to increase its planned spend on research grants by a total of £9m over the next two years.

    Details of how this will be applied in the most effective and appropriate way will be developed over the next few months, but it should reduce the original shortfall in grants funding over the next two years by about half.

  14. Michael Merrifield says:

    Now on the STFC website, too. Excellent news (as long as it is implemented so as to add funds to last year’s grants as well!).

  15. Paul Crowther says:

    Apparently the (very welcome) extra cash came from `managing risks’ in other areas, including the fund used as a backup for currency fluctuations(!) – odd given this would be the one area under the most severe pressure given the fall in sterling over the last year.

    Recall that the original cuts were going to save circa £30M across PP/A/NP while £9M has been freed up. If we take the extra cash to translate to an improvement of 10 PDRAs/yr for astro and space science in 2009 and 2010, the decrease over past cycles would be 7% for grants already awarded in 2008 (versus 2005), 13% (2009 versus 2006) and 32% (2010 versus 2007).

    In the present circumstances, maintaining a constant volume of astro/space science facilities plus a reduced ~20% cut in grants from Apr 2007 (329) to Apr 2010 (266?) is probably the least bad outcome we could have hoped for given the dire STFC allocation.

  16. John Peacock says:

    I gather the worry is not just the 5% rise, but the fact that at the same time Universities will have to make higher pension contributions (and so will we), to allow USS to continue to offer current benefit levels. I actually heard this a couple of weeks ago, before the worst of the banking meltdown, so doubtless it’s now a larger problem. For most of the last decade, every annual USS statement boasted about how unusually well its investments were performing: I noted that nevertheless benefits and contributions were staying the same. So what happened to all the money they made in the good times?

  17. Paul Crowther says:

    On Q1, if the UK wants to maintain its role as a serious player in astro, the answer is yes. The US, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain all maintain investment in both northern and southern facilities.

    The southern sky is richer for Galactic astronomy and includes LMC/SMC, so one may think VLT/VISTA/ALMA is the way forward, since most extragalactic pundits don’t care unless thy have a favourite object such as M31 or Cyg A, but as already pointed out, the prime kit at other wavelengths is physically located in the northern hemisphere, such as VLBA, EVLA, OLFAR, E-MERLIN in the radio, SCUBA2 in the sub-mm, not to mention transient finders such as PanSTARRS, all-sky monitoring with Swift et al. or follow-up of HST/JWST.

    Within 20 years it is likely that there will be two 30 metre optical/IR telescopes, one likely to sample the northern sky (TMT?) and one the southern sky (E-ELT?). These are incredibly expensive, but E-ELT would still be lower than any serious space mission, including upcoming (separate!) NASA and ESA missions to Mars for example.

  18. andyxl says:

    Back on the hemisphere thing … a good astronomy programme does not have to have both hemispheres, because it does have to pursue all possible science topics. But having the whole sky has very clear scientific benefits. Some knds of science study very large structures which cross the sky – e.g. looking for fossil star streams in the Milky Way. Some are legacy surveys which support other missions – how are you going to identify your exciting new gamma ray source if its not in “your” bit of sky ? Some concern very rare objects, so twice as much sky really does make a difference – if we can find some z=7 quasars we could start to understand the ionisation history of the universe, but there may be only 2-10 on the whole sky that our current planned surveys could find. And where is the very nearest brown dwarf to Earth ? And how many of those strange CMB cold spots are there on the whole sky ? Of course all this requires that the world studies both hemispheres, not necessarily the UK. Thats why we enter international partnerships like Gemini 🙂

  19. Michael Merrifield says:

    In the present circumstances, maintaining a constant volume of astro/space science facilities plus a reduced ~20% cut in grants from Apr 2007 (329) to Apr 2010 (266?) is probably the least bad outcome we could have hoped for given the dire STFC allocation.

    If we were looking at a short-term shortfall, so that not cutting facilities would mean that we were “holding on to the family silver” until the grant line was returned to its previous level, I would agree that this would be a good strategy.

    However, no-one seriously expects a good outcome next time around, so the current level of funding is what we are stuck with, and what is decided now sets the long-term balance between facilities and exploitation. Are you really happy to accept the view that until last year we had the balance out by as much as 20% in favour of too much expenditure on exploitation? If not, surely the least-bad outcome requires a commensurate reduction in facilities and exploitation, or at the very least a careful weighing of this balance rather than percentages plucked out of the air.

  20. Tony says:

    Is that true though? If x% is cut from the grants line, one would hope that means that the least useful or least important x% of science that might have been possible is not going to happen but what is left will happen across the full range of facilities available. To cut the facilities as well would mean that a bit more science is performed on a more limited range of facilities or ones less properly maintained and so the overall value of the total science performed would necessarily be less. No?

  21. Paul Crowther says:


    I do agree that the balance between astro/space science facilities and exploitation is not optimum. Keeping the reduction in the PP/A/NP grants below approx 10% over CSR07 would have been preferred, and apparently PPAN did look at this. Still, this would have required another £10-15M to have been sliced from items considered in the Prog Review. This would have been alpha 2 items, namely UKIRT, Gemini, e-Merlin, HESS. What would you have cut from the astro programme?

  22. Dave S says:

    5% on your salaries, a partial government climb-down on the cuts, and all you do is whine. And I’m the Christmas grinch?

  23. Michael Merrifield says:

    Paul — any of the above. If you aren’t prepared to go down that route, then ultimately you end up with an array of shiny facilkities and no-one doing anything with them.

  24. Michael Merrifield says:

    Whining seems to have worked quite well so far, Dave: academics whining about their miserable salaries to the point of going on strike got the pay deal; academics whining about the unintended consequences of the CSR got £9M put into the budget mid-year. Pales into insignificance compared to the sums poured into your “business,” though, and you barely even had to whimper.

  25. Dave S says:

    My point is that you’re still whining AFTER the ships have come in, you miserable bunch! (I am only feigning surprise).

    I’ve been squealing like a pig, but my shares and options are all but worthless, which should bring a smile to your face, Michael. Even so, I wouldn’t trade my open-plan desk for the corridors of academia for all the tea in China (and I was offered tenure, before you wonder again whether I could cut it).

    Returning to the hemispheres question, surely it is better to be dominant in one than an also-ran in both? Has anyone analysed how UK astronomy came to be so highly regarded (or cited, anyway)? I would hazard a guess it wasn’t down to ING and MERLIN, perhaps more likely JCMT and AAT?

    andyxl – since when could Hawaiian observatories (+19d, if I remember correctly) only see half of the sky? That long holiday is making you soft in the head 😉

    If you choose one, it has to be the southern hemisphere (ESO, ALMA, South Pole developments, SKA).

  26. STFC Crisis Grants says:

    A previous contributor to this blog before it was unreasonably split by andyxl when it beace too long (see STFC crisis : taking stock – October 11th 7:51 am) noted that “Grant PI’s ought to be experienced enough to realise that on average a 25% cut means, on average, across the whole programme, 25% below level funding (i.e. STFC’s current commitment)”.

    In the light of the announcement on ResearchResearch that “The Science and Technology Facilities council is to put £9 million back into its grants funding for the coming two years, easing the pressure placed on university physics departments, who were previously told that they would lose 25 per cent of their grant funding during this comprehensive spending review period”, is your contributor’s comment as well informed as might be expected from someone in their privileged position?

    Your correspondent (also on October 11th 7:51 am) states, in relation to Grant applicants, ‘there are always “strategic” considerations to weigh in relation to the (non-existent – their quotes) STFC Roadmap’

    One might question whether members of the Astronomy Grants Panel should be required to apply considerations in respect of the (non-existent – their quotes) STFC Roadmap. Just what does this mean – is it really the policy statement of a group of people without an agreed Community mandate developing policy on the fly that exceeds their real positions within the system as guardians of the best interests of the community? How can people in positions that should garner respect be required to apply considerations in respect of non-existent Roadmaps?

    This provides worrying echoes of a situation two years ago when it ‘rumoured’ that “strategic” considerations were applied to alter the recommendations of the Grant Panel, favouring certain institutions (andyxl: Gemini Roller Coaster January 29, 2008 10:07)

    Surely we have moved on from those black days? Thank goodness that I have not had to apply for any STFC grant funding in the current cycle!

  27. Hywel says:

    Dunno if it’s linked, but I’m hearing about a number of budget cuts within STFC on various projects, which is happening at the same time as the grant money is increasing. This may or not be due to political pressure from outside.

  28. Michael Merrifield says:

    And I was offered tenure before you wonder again whether I could cut it

    Yeah, of course you were Dave. Because if you had been in a position to be “offered tenure,” you would know that if hasn’t existed for a long time in the UK. Also unlikely to be “offered tenure” if you don’t have enough grasp of the subject to know that observations at an airmass of 2 are not such a bright idea. It’s easy to create a fanciful history of the many exciting offers that you have turned down in your thrilling life if you hide behind a cloak of anonymity, but they remain just that — personal fantasies that no-one else will take seriously.

  29. Michael Merrifield says:

    As a former member of AGP and sub-panel chair, I would also point out that AGP’s mandate is not as “guardian of the best interests of the community.” It is a committee of STFC, and, for the umpteenth time, STFC’s role is *not* primarily to protect the best interests of the community. The sooner we put that notion behind us, the better we will be prepared for the next spending review in whatever form it takes.

  30. Paul Crowther says:

    Yes we get the point. We have been reminded by Keith Mason many times that the onus is upon the community – not STFC – to make the case to government for our science.

    Nevertheless, the remit of STFC – an independent public body of DIUS after all – is to fund research grants and provide access to facilities, so it is not the duty of a Research Council to make the strongest case to the treasury for funds, so it can indirectly serve its many communities (whether they be earmarked for running Diamond, developing campus activity at Daresbury, developing new space missions or training PhD students)?

    In answer to Q4, there will certainly now be a net reduction in astro academic positions, whether or not it is a good thing, since retirement posts will go unfilled due to the downturn in grants, albeit now tempered.

    On Q2, “no”, so i agree with Watcher and Mike! The focus upon post-doc numbers maybe should be expanded to total PhD + PDRA numbers, since both groups together make use of facilities, (including UKIRT, Gemini, HESS, e-Merlin). The best post-docs will only come to the UK, or remain here, if we have the most competitive kit available (preferably in both hemispheres).

  31. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Paul — you don’t really buy into the convenient myth that research councils are independent of Government, do you? There are umpteen ways in which the Government can get them to toe the line, not least simply telling them what to do (Daresbury, for example). And no research council is going to thumb its nose at the source of all its income.

    Even the charter mandate is open to interpretation. It is, for example, perfectly arguable in many circumstances that the collective wishes of the community do not represent the strategy that will return the highest-quality strategically-led science to the UK, and accordingly STFC is *required* to ignore our views.

  32. Kav says:


    The recent furore and government response to probing over Haldane demonstrates that they are upholding the ‘myth’ of independent research councils. I touched on it here.

    In this ‘mythology’ the research councils are independent and do represent the community interest. In fact they are the major factor in representing the community by the simple fact that they put together the CSR bid. No matter what STFC management says they are meant to make the case. I agree that the IoP, RAS and all other stakeholders have a big part to play in that by feeding into the process, publicizing our work to the great and good, etc.

    To simply brush it off and claim that they are a defacto branch of government is to give government and STFC a free pass to act as if it were the case. Worse it gives them tacit approval for doing so – we dance to their tune instead of the other way round. If their actions don’t match their words then we call them on it.

    I am also concerned by the suggestion that AGP (and by extensions PPAN) must follow a strategy that doesn’t exist yet, how would this work? Notes from on high prior to consultation? We know in the last grants round they factored in decisions based upon the delivery plan which have since been walked back by statements from PPAN and others. I had thought that considerations such as these were no longer the case, I am now concerned that this is happening again.

  33. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Kav — I honestly think you are wrong, but neither of us has sufficient access to the innermost workings of STFC at top level to know for sure. There is quite a lot of evidence that Government does meddle fairly extensively in STFC’s decision-making process, such as over Daresbury, for example. And we clearly agree on the point that it would be a foolish research council that ignored Government policy in its decision-making processes — whether this constitutes Government interference is surely at least partially a matter of semantics.

    However, what is clearer is that it is a myth that STFC is in some way answerable to the scientific community. As I said previously, its only obligation under its charter is to deliver excellent science, and there is absolutely no guarantee that its view as to what will deliver excellent science coincides with that of the community. Indeed, since by its nature the community tends to be quite conservative out of a sense of self preservation, it might be argued that STFC is obliged to go against our views in order to get the most innovative value for money.

  34. Paul Crowther says:

    Indeed, STFC or any other RC is only `answerable’ to the scientific community in the sense that their Council sets all high level deisions – taking on board Govt priorities where possible – and instructs their Executive Board to carry out this wish. This will only be true if Council is comprised of a mixture of independent scientists and those from the wider economy.

    STFC’s problem has been that its governing body comprised as many STFC Executives (3) as independent scientists (3) out of its 10 strong Council, compared with 1 Executive member on a Council of 14 at EPSRC. It’s been like asking the banking sector to self regulate their activities, and we’ve seen where that’s led..

    Thankfully, the IUSS Ctte raised this oddity, and Wakeham concurred, so RCUK accept the need for two extra non-Exec scientists on Council. I’d like to have seen two fewer Exec’s too. Ken Pounds made insightful suggestions in his opinion piece on Wakeham too.

  35. andyxl says:

    It is interesting that for Q2 everybody is saying no, we don’t overproduce PhDs, but assuming that the argument is about research training, use of facilities, and matching the numbers of PhDs and RAs. But funded PhD numbers have gone up by a large amount over the last fifteen years because captains of industry have said “we like astro and PP PhDs; they are bright and well trained; give us more”. In other words they have proven economic impact. (Our Knowledge Transfer is PEOPLE). The PhD is an advanced degree. To actually be an astronomer you carry on training in a PDRA or Fellowship or two; this process has to be a steep sided pyramid.

    So … we are not overproducing PhDs, because somebody else wants them. not us.

  36. Kav says:


    I think that is a fair assessment, though I would quibble with your last sentence, maybe we do want them, we just have no room for them?

    Given the current economic climate perhaps the question should evolve into: Is our production of Astronomy PhDs sustainable?

    I note that the new science minister wants to attract ‘lost’ scientists back from the City to work in science. Perhaps they can do less damage in science 😉

    Mike, we shall have to agree to disagree then. Although there is no explicit statement of the research councils’ responsibilities to their communities (charter or wherever) I would argue that it is implicit within the manner in which the Haldane principal has evolved and in how the Government has expressed their commitment to Haldane.

    Regardless of the case, I doubt any of us (except maybe 2 or 3) want astronomy, pp and space science to be driven by the vision of a small handful of people.

  37. Paul Crowther says:


    You may have missed this – unless you subscribe to the Times Higher Ed in California – but not
    everyone share’s your view of domestic PhD students, at least in comparison to their counterparts in the US and (mainland)-Europe.

    Your pyramid remark is certainly relevant to the balance between PhD/PDRA/academic numbers.

  38. andyxl says:

    Ahh, my esteemed colleague I.Halliday, King of Scottish Physics and Emperor of European Science, but no longer Protector of British Astronomy. There is a Scottish agenda here you see. Having established a Scotland-wide graduate school of physics, with a mixture of SFC and University funding, we feel we have an opportunity to reshape the Scottish PhD. Many of us are tempted to push in the US direction, with longer PhDs starting with more taught courses. However, while this is better for making research physicists (whether in academia or industry) its not as good for feeding UK industry in general, which wants larger numbers shovelled out sooner. So maybe this will crystallise out with three post BSc qualifications; Masters after a year or two of taught course with some research; PhD after additional year or two of thesis research; PhD++ after year or two more of original research.

  39. Tony says:


    The Research Councils continue to invest heavily in central scientific research facilities and as such wish to derive the maximum benefit from this investment. One route to securing this is to ensure that a next generation of researchers is ready and able to exploit the potential of these facilities now and continue to do so in the future.

    In order to achieve this, and following on from the success of the 2007 “Next Generation Facility Users call”, EPSRC and STFC wish to invite proposals for a second round of project studentship based research projects.

  40. Michael Merrifield says:

    Instructive, isn’t it, that scientists are to be encouraged to obtain the maximum benefit from STFC’s heavy investment in facilities, rather than STFC being encouraged to invest in facilities that scientists are already lining up to use without needing such incentives. Tails and dogs, carts and horses.

  41. John Womersley says:

    Mike, no, they are lining up. The first round of this facilities studentships programme was heavily oversubscribed, hence a new round is now being run.

  42. ian smail says:

    ….sorry – just back from “exceed(ing) (my) real position within the system as guardians of the best interests of the community” in sunny swindon.

    the announcement of the extra £9M came out part way through the latest of many meetings of AGP. the problem of course is all in the details: how much does astro get (easy – say half?) – how long do we have to spend the money (not clear – but not very long – 2yrs max?) – is it going to be targeted by the exec (who knows?) – how can we ensure the community benefits from it in a way which doesn’t just end up with yet more liabilities after the next CSR (urghh)?

    andy’s blog is as good a place as any to start a discussion about good ways to target say ~£4.5M over ~2yrs to provide a clear and significant impact on the scientific or wealth generating output of STFC-supported astro activities. the earlier in the window that any concrete demonstration of the impact is visible – the better – given we have the CSR coming up. should we put more money into exploitation of our highest profile projects in this time window? should we reverse the cuts in fellowships (RF/AF or even reinvent SFs)? should we distribute the money to astro depts on some pro-rata basis and ask them to use it to solve their most pressing problems? should we use it to fund the highest-quality, but unfunded proposals in the 07/08/09 grants rounds?

  43. ian smail says:

    and before any anonymous dimwits add to the CO2 output of the UK…

    in my – very uninformed – view, its unlikely to be AGP’s decision where this new funding will go, we don’t “do strategy” 😉

    so – equally – if there is a consensus on what would be best use for the community (in both the short and the longer term) then it needs to be stated clearly to PPAN/executive.

  44. Tom Shanks says:

    Still amazed at the lack of concern of astronomers and particle physicists over the
    likely outcome of the Wakeham report. This has unfortunately reduced me to:

    Luckily we have been awarded a 5% pay rise

    Unluckily 12 universities have invested ~2.5m pounds each in Icelandic banks

    Luckily 9m pounds of extra funds has been found for STFC science

    Unluckily the announcement included Knowledge Exchange and Industry even in its URL

    Luckily the new Science Minister is for expanding STFC science

    Unluckily he wants to send astronauts into space

    Luckily the Wakeham report pronounced Physics to be in good health

    Unluckily it suggested expanding applied but not fundamental physics

    Luckily the Wakeham report asked for ring fencing of ex-PPARC facilities and grants

    Unluckily RCUK rejected the ring fencing, saying that Astro and PP funds should be tensioned against all the rest of STFC facilities and grants

    Luckily we can argue for a better settlement in the next CSR

    Unluckily government spending is likely to be cut because of the credit crunch

    Maybe someone else can think of another Luckily… at this point – ‘fraid I can’t!

  45. michael Merrifield says:

    John — delighted though unsurprised to hear that people will queue up for any pot of money in the current climate. However, I am surprised that STFC isn’t following through on its policy of tensioning activities against each other by expecting studentship proposals that want to use the latest generation of facilities stand on their own two feet in open competition with all other proposals of scientific merit.

  46. telescoper says:

    Awww. Don’t sulk. I meant “egregious” to mean “notable” or “distinguished”.

    Anyway, for what it’s worth I think the answers to your questions are:

    1. Not really, but that rather depends on the kind of astronomy you do.

    2. I think the answer to this is “yes”, but only because we haven’t got the rest of the education system right either. I would much prefer a system where we have 3+2+3 alla Bologna, with more 2 years masters and less PhDs rather than extending the PhD to allow for weaknesses further up the pipeline. In a steady state each PhD supervisor during his or her career will supervise on avaerage only one PhD student who gets a permanent job, which probably means 90% will never make it. I’m not convinced that a majority of these make significant use of their research skills in the wider economy, and many of them are disgruntled to be forced out. The tendency to think of PhD students as cheap labour to be discarded after the award of a meaningless qualification is an aspect of the less acceptable face of academia.

    BUT who would pay for longer UG degrees and does anyone have the stomach to undertake the reorganization that would be needed? Answers on a postcard please.

    3. I think the pay rise is good in the long term but those who haven’t planned properly may suffer in the short term. I don’t know what fraction of the new dosh that has magically appeared would be needed to allow for the extra wage bill on existing grants but it could be a lot.

    It seems to me that the most important point is that however large the pot is, it is always going to be finite, so STFC will always have to make priorities. It is vitally important that it does this better in future than it did last time. It’s the systemic failures we have to fix first.

  47. Michael Merrifield says:

    Hi Ian — I would vote for the seemingly unglamorous and unproductive solution of restoring a sensible level of FEC on grants. For one thing, it would straighten out the lie put about in the early stages of this funding crisis that it was largely caused by all STFC’s new money being used up to pay such full economic costs, even though they were subsequently slaughtered. More important, though, it would re-establish some degree of credibility with the universities, who are currently quite reasonably asking questions as to why they should subsidize astronomical research in an era when there is a commitment to funding such activities properly. In the longer term, maintaining the support of the universities that house most astronomical research in this country is the best investment that we can make.

  48. Dave Carter says:

    My answers to Andy’s questions would be no, no and yes. the answer to the first question must not be driven by facilities, but by science, and given that, I reluctantly (as someone who has spent a large part of my time in the last 25 years working on Coma and Virgo cluster galaxies) conclude that one hemisphere is enough provided that it is the southern one. We could find other clusters, but the North contains no Magellanic clouds and it does not contain the galactic centre. Most of the active star forming regions are southern or equatorial. If we only had the south the one thing I would really miss would be M31, but most science can be done in either hemisphere.

    As Andy notes, we don’t overproduce PhDs, but we would if we thought that we were training them all to be astronomy researchers. We are not, which is why STFC now ask for clear evidence of a programme of more general training as part of the PhD programme when you apply for your quota award. Almost alone among my colleagues, I believe that the Bologna process will result in a more productive structure, which will produce better training for research and industrial/commercial careers. Andy, it is a shallow sided pyramid though, and you are climbing up the inside, which is why so many fall off.

    However an academic career must be seen as a primary goal of this training, and not just something you do if you aren’t good enough to get a job outside. Which is why the 5% increase goes someway towards addressing the low perceptions of an academic career, and the subsequent
    low morale amongst academics. Its unfortunate that it also applies to postdocs and teh increase is unfunded on the grants.

    Just how much fEC percentage do some of you guys want?? You do appreciate that we are primarily here to teach the next generation, don’t you? A research career for an academic is essential in my view, but should not dominate in terms of the percentage of time.

  49. Michael Merrifield says:

    Just how much fEC percentage do some of you guys want?? You do appreciate that we are primarily here to teach the next generation, don’t you? A research career for an academic is essential in my view, but should not dominate in terms of the percentage of time.

    Having wasted hours on TRAC protocol paperwork, that’s a fairly easy question to answer: here, we are audited as spending about 45% of our time on research, so under the basic philosophy of shifting to paying for that research under fEC and the commensurate increase in funding to STFC in the CSR, that’s the percentage we should get. Accordingly, that’s how much we asked for in our last grant application, and that’s how much the panel approved and recommended should be awarded.

    Alternatively, our universities may quite reasonably demand that we cut our research time to that which is funded through fEC, which would probably have an even more detrimental effect on research output than the cuts in PDRA numbers.

  50. Dave Carter says:

    Mike, I think what you say in the last sentence is inevitable in the longer term.

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