The axeman cometh

I just a letter from STFC warning that I may or may not have a Dear John letter coming. Council will meet to finalise the current science prioritisation process tomorrow (Tuesday 15th). Between 11am and 2pm on Wednesday I will get a phone call advising me of any implications for my project. (In my case this means Wide Field Astronomy, and our pitch for LSST, for which we made input to the science prioritisation exercise.)

Then at 14:00 pip emma the news goes live on the STFC website.

Gird your loins.

Paul Crowther has already produced an excellent summary of the situation to date : see here, and in particular note the amazing increase in ESA subscription..

John Peacock said I should run a poll on what will get chopped but I am too depressed to bother.


129 Responses to The axeman cometh

  1. Monica Grady says:

    Better to run a poll on what we should call our new executive Space Agency. Can’t be the UK Space Agency, becaue according to google, UKSA is the UK Samba Association. Can’t be British National Space Agency, because that is the Belarusian National Scout Association. I’m not a royalist, but would take joy in referring to Her (His) Majesty’s Space Agency – so much more colourful than BNSC.

    If HMSA had a budget, one could imagine that it would take care of the ESA sub – giving STFC a bit of protection against exchange rates. But I feel it is incumbent upon me to point out (and Paul C, please put this on your website somewhere) that part of the last rise was because STFC took over payment of the UK’s general budget contribution, and got an equivalent sum from DBIS in compensation for this.


  2. Paul Crowther says:


    thought i had already in final para..Increase in ESA over recent years due to:

    optional contributions to the Aurora programme;
    increases from 40 per cent to 64 per cent of the UK contribution to the general ESA budget from Apr 2009;
    exchange rate changes.

    Nominally, you are correct that cash has been transferred from BIS to cover higher percentage payment to UK share of ESA general budget, but as exchange rate has worsened, so has the greater bail out for STFC by BIS – this is not a recommended method of making friends with other RCs. The sooner STFC and NERC are free of such payments to better, since they heavily distort `science’ spending (e.g. PPAN vs PALS).

  3. John Peacock says:

    I’m surprised more people haven’t wondered (in public, at least) about what will happen to the ESA subscription in the new golden age of our own NASA. My take on it is that the ESA sub has risen to unsustainable levels (which is mostly not due to the transfer discussed above: I believe that this is an increase of about 7M, whereas the ESA sub has risen from 50M in 2004 to 100M now). So what would be neater than to take this absurdly inflated subscription entirely out of STFC, together with all the money to pay for it, before STFC has a chance to argue that it’s unfair to expect other science to foot the bill for the UK’s post-imperial delusions in space. The space agency will be set up on a sound financial footing, and we’ll have bankrolled it. OK, so it hasn’t happened yet, but these guys in Biz are no fools…

    • Monica Grady says:

      It isn’t an ‘absurdly inflated subscription’. As Paul C points out, we started to pay into the optional Aurora programme, which is why there is a hike. At the time, that was felt to be a really good thing, and we got extra money from the govt for it. The SCi Cttee of the day knew that eventually everything would have to be rolled into the then-PPARC’s baseline, and something would have to be displaced from the programme to allow Aurora to go ahead. Of course, this was all in the halcyon pre-STFC, pre-fEC, pre-major international financial crisis days. Not sure whether the same decisions would have been made now. I would like to think that they would – the goals of Aurora and its justification haven’t changed, the goalposts have just moved further away in time, which isn’t unusual for a space programme.

      • Paul Crowther says:


        IndeedP hil Willis expressed grave concern about long-term funding for Aurora three years ago, since space science is inherently very expensive compared to ground-based astro. When done well (HST, Spitzer) it can prove to be very good value for money, but the same can’t be said in all cases (bepi-columbo, anyone?). Aurora alone cost the UK two thirds of the baseline ESO subscription (setting aside the late joining fee due to stop after 2011). The entire E-ELT project is expected to cost about the same as ExoMars alone, and will come with corresponding industrial benefits.

      • John Peacock says:


        As I recall it, there was huge concern at the time that the scientific justification for Aurora was poor, and that we were having our arms twisted by the government (or, rather, were being bribed to go in a direction not of our choosing). I think we came close to turning down the bribe – and probably the main reason this didn’t happen was the hope that giving the government what it wanted would lead to a more generous settlement for PPARC in future years. In some alternative reality where STFC never formed, and where PPARC science wasn’t saddled with Diamond’s capital debt, this might even have worked.

        But as it is, while we face the closure of some of the best bits of astronomy the UK ever produced, the outlook is dominated by the enormous cuckoo-in-the-nest of ESA. I’ve seen the future: Aurora, Bepi-Colombo, and no doubt other equally world-beating science to come. Rejoice!

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        the goals of Aurora and its justification haven’t changed, the goalposts have just moved further away in time, which isn’t unusual for a space programme.

        I am always impressed by the way that this receding goal argument has been used to leverage money by the space science community. Here was what Professor Pillinger had to say about the funding of Beagle 2 to the Science and Technology Select Committee:

        Q3 Chairman: The money dribbled out, did it not; it did not come in one big cheque or one big hand-out? Do you think that made a difference to the success of the project?

        Professor Pillinger: It would have been nice to have had the money all at the beginning.

        Q4 Chairman: Did you ask for it?

        Professor Pillinger: No, we never asked for all the money at once.

        Q5 Chairman: Why not? I would have.

        Professor Pillinger: Because we believed that if we asked for a large sum of money all in one tranche, we would have been told “no”.

        Maybe there’s a lesson for the rest of us here.

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        At the obvious risk of sounding self-serving, I’m really not at all sure what purpose all this ESA-bashing is supposed to achieve here, particularly when it comes from people on this forum who’d nevertheless like us to spend €500M or so on a mission as long as it suits their science.

        Space is expensive, yes: even if much loved, HST’s total cost as of April this year, in FY2008 dollars, is hardly cheap at $10.3B, official NASA figure. Tongue in cheek, has it really been worth ~20 VLTs (i.e. 80 x 8m telescopes)? Such comparisons are often entirely specious: there are things that can only be done in space and so if you want to do that science, it will come at a cost. Only doing ground-based astronomy because it’s cheaper seems like a bit of a slippery slope.

        As Paul and Monica have explained repeatedly, the UK’s subscription to ESA has risen because of the UK joining the Aurora optional programme, because some parts of the UK general budget subscription were transferred to STFC, and because of exchange rate variations.

        These are all effectively government policy decisions, including the exchange rate one (either hedge properly or join the euro). They are not ESA’s fault in the way that’s being implied here, that we’re being fiscally irresponsible or avaricious: ESA’s total budget (in euros) in 2000 was €2.6B and in 2009 it is €3.6B, meaning something like a 3.5% year-on-year increase over that period, probably not far off inflation.

        And keep in mind that governments typically like giving ESA money, because it’s written in blood in our convention that they will pretty much get it back again, spent in their industries, creating jobs, and (they hope) leveraging expertise into wider commercial fields and thus making money for the governments. Yes, ESA takes an overhead, but so does any large funding agency and (I like to think), we do add value, if only because by joining many pots together, we can do bigger projects than any country could do alone.

        If anything, many of our problems come precisely because we have to return the money more or less in exact proportion to those who gave it: we have to jump through endless hoops to ensure this geographic return and yes, it’s possible that we don’t always get the best deal out of industry because of it. At least the science programme has the virtue that we’re allowed to address geographic return across the whole programme and not mission by mission, which is what happens for optional programmes.

        Don’t get me wrong though; despite having to wear a tie now and again in my new job, I’m very sympathetic to the plight of UK ground-based astronomers (I am one still) and have always been strongly opposed to mixing international subscriptions with basic research and grant money in STFC’s pot. If nothing else, it treads all over the Haldane principle, and science becomes a top-down political policy football. Hardly anything new in that at the tail end of this exhausted and desperate government, mind you.

        The answer to me is clear: transfer the ESA subscriptions lock-stock-and-barrel (mandatory and optional parts) to the new BWLSA (British World-Leading Space Agency: how could it be anything else?), but ensure that astronomers, space scientists, planetary scientists, and so on are in charge of its peer review process, so that the things that the BWLSA ask ESA to do are top science. The money will flow to industry in any case, but you’ll be able to sleep a little easier …

      • John Peacock says:


        I’m not convinced about your numbers. Consult the plot at the bottom of Paul Crowther’s FAQ section. In 2004, CERN cost 74M pounds and ESA cost 52M. 5 years later, CERN is 82M and ESA is 98M. Agreed, part of that rise is a transfer of some of the general subscription, which should be self-cancelling. I believe this is 7M, so ESA has risen 77% over a period where CERN has risen 11%. Part of this rise is the “optional” Aurora programme, which was way down in NUAP’s list of priorities, but mysteriously ends up at alpha4. This is 14M. Even if we hadn’t done it, ESA would still rise 48% against CERN’s 11%. This is a fair comparison, since both are subject to exchange rate fluctuations. It’s clear that CERN has done an outstanding job in keeping a lid on costs. If ESA had done as well, the UK would be 20M per year better off (34M without Aurora) and none of the present carnage would have been necessary.

      • Monica Grady says:

        I’m afraid, like Mark, I am getting fed up with ESA-bashing. Without the ESA sub, where would Herschel be? Or Planck, or Gaia? all those good missions. They seem to be forgotten with hand-wringing over Aurora (and the dreaded BepiC). Why did the sub go up? Could it be because of massive cost over-runs during the build phase of Herschel-Planck?

        It is time to stop looking backwards, stop apportioning ‘blame’ and get on with making the best of what we have got. Ok, much of the press conference was spin: but to the general public, £2.5 billion over 5 years is a lot of money. And some of that will be going to ESA as investment towards our next series of missions – which could well include Euclid, if it keeps its cost and its mass down.

      • John Peacock says:


        I don’t think I’m ESA-bashing so much as trying to understand the origin of the mess we’re in. Similarly, pointing out that the other big contribution to bankrupting STFC has been the capital depreciation of Diamond doesn’t imply that I think Diamond is bad science. But when costs go up a lot, you can’t help but wonder whether things could have been done differently. This isn’t “blame”: it’s just scientific curiosity.

        ESA has some great missions coming up (as well as BepiC and Aurora), and they cost more than planned. But CERN has LHC, whose journey hasn’t followed the script – but they delivered it in the end, at a cost that the UK can afford. The reason ESA’s affordability is not so good is that it is primarily a mechanism for distributing funds to UK aerospace industry. The more you spend, the more industry benefits, so there is no incentive to keep a lid on costs. This is all fine for the government, and it’s just a great tragedy that the ESA sub isn’t kept separate from other science, as it is elsewhere in Europe.

        If Lord Drayson changes one thing, he should get the ESA sub out into NASA-UK – but he should only take from STFC the 60M or so that you get from indexing the 2004 sub. The rest should come from a separate pot, if that’s where the government really wants to see spending taking place. So, how’s that for looking to the future in a positive manner?

      • Monica Grady says:

        I agree with you to a certain extent: one of ESA’s prime functions is to support European (not UK) space industries. In the UK, the space industry is one of our few growth areas, and one of the UK’s strengths. Through ESA, the space industry (which includes building stuff for Earth orbit and all those mobile phone satellites) returns millions in tax back to the Treasury. So for every £xM invested by STFC in science with ESA, x times y (where y is a large, positive integer) comes back into UK industry through juste retour. What we need to achieve is changing the balance such that some of that juste retour returns to STFC. Maybe Her Majesty’s Space Agency (please, not, under any circumstances, NASA-UK) will be able to work on that.

      • David Parker says:

        I feel you are perpetuating some mis-apprehensions regarding the alleged growth of the ESA science programme budget as well as conflating it with the UK joining Aurora ( for which, remember, PPARC received an additional £10M/yr from central government specifically in recognition of its ‘wider than science’ benefits). Sorry, but the alleged runaway growth of the ESA science programme doesn’t accord with reality. In fact, it declined in real terms from a peak in 1995 by about 20% until the 2005 Ministerial when (with the UK in the vanguard) it received a 2.4% year on year cash increase; and a 3.5% a year cash increase at the 2008 Ministerial in order to start work on the Cosmic Vision missions. (Sorry Mark, I don’t fancy your chances of getting such generosity at the 2012 Ministerial.) As I previously pointed out on this blog, what also happened in parallel was that the UK’s share of the budget – determined by the rapid growth of the UK economy in comparison with everyone elses – grew from 13.8% at the beginnning of the decade to a peak of 17.8%; i.e. a 1.29 ratio. It’s absolutely no comfort, but from the view of everyone else in Europe – and I’ve had these conversations – the UK is only being asked to pay its fair share. In time, any relative decline in the UK economy will produce a corresponding reduction in our share. Just to correct an error in another post; “ESA percentage changes were dictated by treasury “. No, the % shares are independently determined by the European HICP indices. And Monica, no, the ESA subs did not go up because of Herschel/Planck. The ESA science programme has a fixed annual budget, so a cost increase in one project has to be accommodated by prioritising with respect to other projects in the programme. e.g. the solar physics community have had to accept that Solar Orbiter has gone from being a mission planned for launch in 2013 to a mission that is part of the Cosmic Vision competition and might be launched in 2017.

      • John Peacock says:


        I don’t feel you are addressing my comments. I dealt with Aurora (for which I note we seem to be paying more than the initial financial inducement to join). I don’t care if ESA’s budget declined in real terms in the distant past: So did PPARC’s for some years. As you admit, the ESA cash budget has taken off since 2005 as a result of ministerial decisions. This rise has been supplemented by rises owing to the state of the UK economy, agreed – but CERN also operates a similar funding formula, so I need someone to explain why this hasn’t gone up so much. I stick to my conclusion: ESA is getting more expensive in a way that scientists didn’t ask for and aren’t being compensated for. If we had control of the budget, or money to pay for the politically driven increases, we would be in much less of a mess.

  4. Paul Crowther says:

    I had previously posted the subs graphic on these very pages some time ago, but it received no interest. The main reason for showing it wasn’t to highlight ESA increase but relative stability of CERN and ESO despite exchange rate issues.

    Anyway, while we’re on the topic of ESA + space agency, Mark McCauchrean dug up a useful table from BNSC back in Oct on this topic in which the share of spending on space stuff by STFC/NERC has gone from 30 per cent in 2000/01 to 63 per cent last year. ESA percentage changes were dictated by treasury.

    Personally I hope ESA subs do shift across to Her Magesty’s Space Agency since currently they distort STFC spending on actual scientific research (esp. PPAN vs PALS) – see page 12 of slides from Keith Mason’s presentation to Astro Forum in Oct. However, part of argument in favour of merger of PPARC and CCLRC was that bigger is better (more clout!). Losing ESA subs alone would shrink STFC by 20% in cash terms, but space related technology stuff might also shift sideways.

    Of course, none of this stuff has anything directly to do with STFC’s very real problems. I’m sure Council will do their best tomorrow, but if the piggy bank is empty there ain’t much they can do (we ought to have John Brown on Council to do some magic with the finances).

  5. Andrew Jaffe says:

    So who received the STFC letters? Not all PIs, apparently…

  6. andyxl says:

    Yes that would be interesting to know…

    • MikeW says:

      Based on a small sample (well two people) there seems to be a mysterious anti-correlation, with those expecting letters not having received anything and vice versa. So it’s not entirely clear whether STFC are actually contacting PIs rather than senior figures in each institution, which is not quite what I expected to happen.

    • MikeW says:

      I would seem that my guess was right, STFC seem to be planning to contact senior people at the relevant institutions/within the relevant projects rather than the actual PIs who hold the grants in all cases. This is certainly not clear from the letter.

      To quote the email from STFC I have seen: “The assumption is that people will talk to their colleagues rather than us ring everyone who is involved.”

      So if you have received such a letter, the implication is that there is potentially bad news for someone in your institution (or within your project), but not necessarily for something you are a PI on.

  7. Michael Merrifield says:

    Did I imagine it, or did I read somewhere today that STFC have also just signed an MOU with the Russian space egency?

  8. ian smail says:

    PAC’s blog is full of good stuff – such as this recommendation from parliament’s S&T committee in July 07:
    “If current levels of expenditure in space persist, the Government should not establish a space agency. If expenditure is substantially increased, the question of an agency should be reviewed.”

    As with today’s decisions on defence spending – perhaps we can put off the cost of fighting the Aurora war for a decade or so – and concentrate more of the little cash we have at the moment into those areas which are delivering science in the short/medium term?

  9. Paul Crowther says:

    NUAP made their view clear by not ranking `limits for life, past and present, in the Solar System’ (their Q4.1) as one of their seven(!) highest priority science areas, even explicitly stating that PPAN can draw its own conclusions on Aurora from the results.

    Therefore, if Aurora does escape unscathed tomorrow, one must conclude that strategic priorities trump science priorities. We’ll then be able to judge whether the past summer of community consultation and report writing has been time well spent.

    Alternatively, if the top scientific priority stuff across the whole remit of STFC survives, then noone will really have any cause for complaint.

  10. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Leilani Holmes, Jonathan Butterworth. Jonathan Butterworth said: Astro-bloggers discuss the state we're in […]

  11. […] Lawrence gives a bit of inside info, with lots of comments from other important […]

  12. Beep says:

    I wrote my quick-tempered little blurb here

    but really I am just so sorry to see all of you having to cope with what I feel is still fallout from the Reagan-Thatcher years. I don’t know how things are over there but here we have never really had a break from the relentless Government Bad; Private Industry Good folks who benefit heavily from various large private corporations…and who I think basically own the media now, and have many zombies to do their bidding as a result. Now we have all these taxpayers being told that government is a huge ripoff and that they should be able to get everything they always got without paying them, or something crazy like that.

    I think that a lot of people have no conception of how much of what they take for granted in live is owed to scientific research of all kinds, and that the government funds the majority of such research.

    And so many kids get into science at all via love of astronomy and even good old Star Trek. You would think someone Up There would see the obvious.

    I was hoping the UK was saner than we are but it appears the Mad Beancounters From Hell have found their way over to you. It is sickening to compare the amount of money that the finance folks get in bonuses to the relatively little you need to keep all of your programs going. Surely some of the richies could cough that money up.

    Is there any estimate anywhere of the public (taxpayer) costs of university educations for scientists (you have to have a university to have a university education) plus taxpayer investment in facilities, programs, etc. which are about to be thrown away because your government would rather see $$$ out the window than restructure their financial structure for science a little bit? Just asking…

    (((hugs))) to you all. If any of you come here job-hunting, stop by for some BBQ.

  13. Beep says:

    PS excuse typos it is almost 3 am for me 🙂

  14. […] e-astronomer (Andy Lawrence at the ROE)  has written about this and a lot of important people have commented on […]

  15. Kav says:

    Andy, first year in the job and you might get a nice easy start:
    “There may be grants rounds which may be skipped as a result of this [reprioritisation]”

  16. ian smail says:

    where does that quote come from? i couldn’t find it any of the various documents posted on STFC…

  17. ian smail says:

    on the astronomy side it doesn’t seem feasible to skip a round for the rolling grants – otherwise you cancel the support for a (random) selection of ~25% of the community.

    i guess you could skip a round for responsive (standard) grants, but its similarly disenfranchising a fraction of that application community without regard to the quality of their science.

    cutting the level of grants support in the next two round in the same way as they’ve just done to the 2010 awards (25% initial goal cut, plus now an additional 10%).

  18. ian smail says:

    …would seem feasible (sorry in a BoS)

  19. Michael Merrifield says:

    Speaking of quotes, I was particularly struck by

    it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control.

    from Lord Drayson, the science minister.

    I am sure I remember this point being made quite some time back…

    • Knee-run-jun says:

      If you think about it, it seems like a nice strategy, combine two research councils in 2007, re-prioritise the combination, and then split them up again in 2010, with one of the two having pocketed some serious cash in the process. Quite a coup by some forward thinkers in the government.

  20. Kav says:

    “i guess you could skip a round for responsive (standard) grants, but its similarly disenfranchising a fraction of that application community without regard to the quality of their science.”


  21. Kav says:

    “i guess you could skip a round for responsive (standard) grants, but its similarly disenfranchising a fraction of that application community without regard to the quality of their science.”

    (cynical)and your point? given everything else why do you think that would be a consideration of the management? Remember, we already do too much exploitation. (/cynical)

  22. ian smail says:

    too much – yes – but that is an issue of quantity rather than quality…

    cutting applications based on the year they are submitted, rather than on the quality of the application doesn’t make any sense given that STFC worry about the spend profile (rather than the “total cost” of the awards made in each round).

  23. Monica Grady says:

    Clarification about the grants round:

    John W. was referring to the PP and NP theory rounds. Skipping a grants round is always a possibility, but has not yet been discussed by SCi. Board in the context of astronomy rolling (or std) grants. If it were to be discussed, I would argue strenuously against it (and not just because we have a roller).

  24. Kav says:

    Monica, I am sure that you would argue strenuously against it (if it gets mooted), I’d hope that you would argue against it for the PP and NP theory rounds as well. We are all in this together.

    However (and removing my usual cynicism) there is the issue of lack of cash. If that is what they have to do to balance the budget then that is what they are going to have to do.

  25. ian smail says:

    yes – cynical is fine… but on the astro side cutting an entire round is just dumb – for the reasons i described.

    if STFC want to save yet more money from grants (than the existing 25% cut + the new 10% additional cut) then the best way to achieve that is to bottom-slice more from this and the next two rounds. you’ll save the same amount over the period and you can do it without losing 25% of your top-ranked research (which is on average what would happen if you cancel a round without bridging the support).

    …anyway – monica says this isn’t on the cards and so unfortunately AXL has a miserable job to look forward to next year.

  26. Monica Grady says:

    We rarely discuss specific grants rounds in detail at SB: that is done by PPAN. The main PP grants all arrive together in one go, so (I hope and believe) it would be impossible to skip one of those rounds. And as already said, to skip an astronomy round would disenfranchise a third of the community. But remember when we had two grants rounds a year? And the outcry when we dropped to one? NERC skipped a round a few years ago – but they don’t have rolling grants like us.

    Grants are always vulnerable, as they are usually the line in the spreadsheet that can be squeezed most easily (albeit with a deal of pain and regret). Whenever the question of cutting grants comes up (and we almost always just talk about ‘grants’ and not PP or NP or A grants), SB defends them as hard as it can, given that post-docs and studentships are our future.

  27. Paul Crowther says:

    Maybe now is the time to go back to a time of genuinely responsive grants (a la EPSRC) in astro, and keep rollers just for the teams of instrument builders. I hear rumours of 5% success rates from astro obs standard grants..If so, these are going the way of fellowship applications (lottery).

    If we genuinely want to get the most from a modest pot of grant funding, then shouldn’t there be a level playing field between science funded through rollers and standards? Or be more creative and attach money to highly competitive telescope awards (HST, VLT, Herschel)..At least for astro obs.. different issues for astro theory, pp and np of course.

    Monica – sorry to hark back to Aurora one final time. SciB advised trimming back on it, but did this happen? I ask because NUAP didn’t rate science questions top, yet it make it to alpha4 and potentially uncut.

  28. John Womersley says:

    Just to be clear here – no decision on whether it makes sense to go ahead with these standard grants rounds has been made yet. We won’t do so without talking to the grants panel chairs. In any case this isn’t in any way an additional reduction in grants – it’s a question of how we should best divide the money that’s available between standard grants and rollers.

  29. Alan Heavens says:

    I would like to hear a clear defence of the Aurora decision. It is expensive and scientifically panned by NUAP (and I would hazard a guess that this reflects general community opinion), and cancellation would have paid for a lot of grants or fellowships.

    I presume there are some good reasons which have informed this decision. In the interest of transparency, let’s hear what they are.

    • telescoper says:

      I’d also like to point out where BepiColombo lies in the rankings….

    • Monica Grady says:

      Alan, Peter,

      Aurora was rated sufficiently highly by PPAN that it got funded. Its funding level was cut, but I am not sure by what % because I was out of the room for the discussion. It was not scientifically panned by NUAP: as I understand things, the first prioritisation did not make a decision; an additional community questionnaire showed strong support for the programme amongst planetary scientists. In the same way that a cosmology programme would receive strong support from the cosmology community, and possibly lukewarm interest from planetary scientists (sorry if this comes as a surprise, but some members of the astronomy community prefer to work on matter that they can see, rather than that stuff whose presence can only be inferred by its effect on other bodies) 😉 🙂
      (in parentheses, I detest these little winky icons, but want to intimate that this is a friendly exchange)

      BepiC – I really don’t have the strength to go over the arguments again. Just live with it. It isn’t going to change. (note no little winky icons here)

  30. telescoper says:

    Monica- Indeed. There’s no argument about it. Not a scientific one anyway. There’s no scientific argument for keeping BepiColombo.

    • Mark McCaughrean says:


      With all due respect, can you tell me why you believe you’re even vaguely qualified to tell us whether or not BepiColombo is worth keeping? That strikes me as astonishing arrogance: how would you feel if Colin Pillinger turned up here and told you that Planck is just going to provide a delta on the results of WMAP, so is a waste of money?

      Needless to say, I don’t believe that for a moment and I’m 100% convinced that Planck will return fabulous new results (well, judging from the excellent data which I’m seeing, that’s an easy bet to take). But that’s neither here nor there: the issue here is people dumping on projects about which they know precious little because they’re convinced it’s eating their scientific lunch. It smacks of a BNP-style “send the immigrants home, they’re stealing our British jobs” argument.

      The fact of the matter is that ESA’s advisory structure have constantly re-affirmed Bepi’s scientific importance, and an independent external review body (including non-planetary people such as Carole Jordan and Gregor Morfill) has recently said that Bepi is (still) worth the money. Why did Bepi rate low in the UK? I don’t know, but that’s just one country out of the many we’re working for and no one country has a veto. A great strength of the science programme is that it’s mandatory, i.e. everyone who is a member of ESA contributes to all missions we fly. One way of killing space science overnight would be to make it an optional programme with subscriptions on a mission-by-mission basis: you might kill Bepi, but your reward would be seeing the Ruritanians killing Planck.

      I suspect that part of the problem here is that planetary science, like X-ray astronomy, can essentially only be done from space, whereas optical/IR/radio astronomy, for example, is done from the ground as well. Because space is expensive, it’s thus vulnerable to arguments of cost-effectiveness relative to things that can be done from the ground as well, but doesn’t necessarily invalidate the science. And bluntly, optical/IR astronomers are hardly shrinking violets when it comes to wanting it all: yes, we deserve to have VLT, E-ELT, SKA, JWST, EUCLID, PLATO, and …

      Anyway, I think you’re barking up the wrong tree here. ESA’s budget has pretty much only kept up with inflation over the past few years: there has been no huge overall increase. Member states set the science programme budget every three years and it can’t change over that period. At the 2008 ministerial, there was a unanimous decision to raise the budget by 3.5% per year over the next three years, but again, that’s not much above inflation (and hardly “taking off”, John). The UK was happy to do so if they got an ESA centre in return, which they did and from which they hope they will make money. Is that good for astronomy? Perhaps not, but it’s real life.

      Yes, ESA missions overrun, but that doesn’t make the member state contributions go up, it simply delays things (that’s not good, but you take the point). Yes, the UK’s overall subscription has gone up, but as Dave Parker has explained, it’s for a complex set of reasons. One of these is the subscription to Aurora, but you can’t blame ESA for the fact that the UK signed up to an optional programme.

      A key one, however, is the boom-bust nature of the UK economy: the UK’s GDP (boom) is high and thus so is the ESA subscription; the pound-euro exchange rate is poor (bust), making it even worse. (John: I have no idea why CERN’s budget has not expanded similarly; perhaps because they’re in a lower cost, post-main-construction phase?)

      The problems are structural and lie with the UK, not with ESA per se: the ESA subscription needs to be taken out of STFC’s pot and the basic research / grants budget needs to be firewalled off against things like exchange rate. This hardly news: most of you have argued here and elsewhere for this. But in the meantime, while the UK’s subscription to ESA is no doubt in part exacerbating the current serious problems with UK astronomy and particle physics funding, ESA per se is not the cause of them.

      • telescoper says:


        I don’t like your tone at all. My comment was based on how low it was rated by the panel responsible for rating it. If the decision had been made on scientific grounds it would not have been funded. If you’ve got a counter to that argument then please let me hear it.


      • Ian Smail says:

        The cost of ESA, and Aurora in particular, might not be the cause of STFC’s problems – but they could be a much larger part of the solution. The cut to Aurora appears to be modest given its place in NUAP’s priority list.

      • telescoper says:

        I might also add that it was rated very low by the space panel chaired by Steve Schwartz in 2008 of which I was also a member and which included several solar-sytem experts.

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        Peter: you made the very broad statement “There’s no scientific argument for keeping BepiColombo” without any justification, so I think you set the tone.

        Sure, it’s entirely possible that a UK panel, including solar system experts, said they didn’t like Bepi. Fine. It’s also the case that many other panels in other European countries and international panels convened by ESA have said that they do like Bepi. Who’s right, and who are you or I (as astronomers with no personal scientific stake in the mission, but feeling that it’s a threat to our babies) to judge?

        Again, the important point here is that ESA’s space science programme is not a la carte: if it was and if every country had a veto on every mission, you could kiss the whole programme goodbye. As it is, there will be things flown which you or even your member state doesn’t like; tough. Other countries have other balances and needs in their scientific communities and we can only reasonably operate in majority-decision mode. The UK scientific community may think it’s uniquely qualified to pass judgement on ESA’s space science programme, but I can assure you that there are other European countries which think the same of themselves. You need to wake up and smell the realpolitik.

      • telescoper says:

        Mark, My justification was that BepiColombo was rated alpha-1 on scientific grounds. That information is public, and I assumed it was known to people commenting here and I also pointed it out the post immediately proceeding the comment that you replied to.

        BepiColombo is the only project rated so low that got funded in the UK programme. The justification for funding it is, as your last sentence admits, political rather than scientific.

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        Peter; I admit that I have not kept up with the details of the UK ranking process since sailing east in the summer, so the various grades and their real and implied meanings are a little lost on me.

        But my point about realpolitik was not to say that Bepi’s selection and continued support is purely political rather than scientific: it was to note that just because the UK doesn’t like it scientifically doesn’t mean to say that other countries feel (scientifically) the same. It is indeed highly scientifically rated in many European member states, enough that it is part of our programme.

        That’s the realpolitik: the UK’s scientific opinion is important but not the only opinion.

        Changing topic somewhat and to flag a huge UK/ESA success, Seb Oliver has just finished his presentation at the Herschel Science Demonstration Programme workshop here in Madrid and has shown some amazing images and data from the deep-field survey programme: 20 square degrees covered , 27,000 sub-mm galaxies (more than a factor of 10 more than previously known), and only 7% of the total programme completed to date.

        Terrific stuff and much more to come today.

      • Ian Smail says:

        yes – and the PDRA effort to exploit all those lovely data is subject to a 35% cut (assuming we’re still awarding rolling grants next year).

      • Mark McCaughrean says:

        Agreed, Ian: not good, not good at all. Same goes for Steve Eales’ key programme, which he just showed: fabulous data, but who (in the UK) is going to be able to deal with all of it?

        I note that Drayson is quoted on the BBC today as saying that he agrees that the issue of international subscriptions and facilities trashing (my word, not his) the grants programme in STFC is of great concern, and that he will work with STFC and the wider community to find a solution by February 2010.

        Anyone know if that’s an off-the-cuff statement or if a process is already in train to meet that date?

      • telescoper says:

        Mark, Drayson’s comment is in his Press release yesterday. I quote:

        … it has become clear to me that there are real tensions in having international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grant giving roles within a single Research Council. It leads to grants being squeezed by increases in costs of the large international projects which are not solely within their control. I will work urgently with Professor Sterling, the STFC and the wider research community to find a better solution by the end of February 2010.

        I may be clutching at straws here, but it is interesting to join the dots between Lord Drayon’s comment above and the following excerpt from the STFC announcement

        discussions would be held in coming months with national and international partners, including universities, departments and project teams, on implementation of the investment strategy. This will include discussions with EPSRC and the University funding councils on the impact of these measures on physics departments in universities.

  31. Paul Crowther says:

    It is true that non-ESO ground-based astro would inevitably suffer in the long term, but losing competitive stuff (some new – LOFAR) in the northern hemisphere is hard to take when I fail to see what planetary science has offered to give up in the Aurora era, since it is costs the same order-of-magnitude as baseline ESO subs.

    Don’t forget too that NUAP was chaired by a planetary scientist and included someone from Astrium (!), but failed to convince them that it deserved to be one of their 7 top science priorities, yet Aurora was barely touched (£1m reduction represents 8 percent drop).
    The cash injection from gov’t was only for Spending Round 04, so it was inevitable that

  32. andyxl says:

    Bzzt. Time for a bit less mudslinging guys. Feelings are running high, and for very good reasons, but lets try to keep the personal stuff down. JW was directly insulted on the radio this morning which I thought really didn’t help. (Not by one of us I might add !)

    But keep the fascinating facts coming …

    • Monica Grady says:

      Dear all,

      More on Aurora.

      Much of the driver for Aurora is that it is not a single mission, but is a series of 3 missions culminating (we hope) in a Mars sample return (MSR; launch around 2024, beyond the timeframe of the prioritisation exercise). MSR is a pretty big deal for people in my field, equivalent to a particle physicist finding the Higgs, or a cosmologist finding dark energy. The UK is one of the biggest contributors, because we want to (and are) driving the programme. The UK is playing a major role in science definition, not just of the ExoMars mission, but of the series of missions.

      So, let’s look at Aurora in a different way: it is the science (and technology) preparation programme for MSR. We are funding preparation for MSR in the same way as we are funding preparation for SKA, e-ELT, the second phase of the LHC, etc etc. Aurora isn’t the end point, it is a means to an end.

      And here’s an inflammatory statement: maybe the end isn’t MSR, but human spaceflight to Mars…..I’ll be dead by then.

  33. MatthewH says:

    There’s some parallels to the ESA discusion with ESO. The 3.6m, NTT and VST all scored low in the ratings, but as they’re non-negotiably tied to very highly rated stuff it’s their competitors that have to get the short straw.
    It’s a shame all this is having to happen now, before the various international discussions on the future of “smaller” telescopes have been completed.

  34. andyxl says:

    Mathew – when does that international panel report ? STFC have much negotiating to do on withdrawal from various things, so there can be deals to be struck.

    • MatthewH says:

      Sorry, no inside info. According to their website, the Astronet/Opticon European Telescope Strategy Review Committee (ETSRC) should have reported to funding bodies by now, after which there will be another round of “community interaction”, which will of course be somewhat moot for the UK community if STFC continues as planned. (So, interestingly, STFC would have been aware of recommendations of the ETSRC report, but most of those responding to the Ground Base Review would not have been.)

      The other issue I see is that as STFC have had to lay (pretty much) all their cards on the table already, they’re not exactly going into any negotiations with a strong position.

      For those that missed it the first time around, the ETSRC website is here:

  35. […] vanishingly small (rumours of a 5% success rate). I have some sympathy with Paul Crowther’s comment on the eAstronomer’s blog suggesting that we should aim to have a level playing field and […]

  36. […] a number of people have asked me about an apparent anomaly in the rankings and, despite the hostile reception I received on the e-astronomer when I posted a comment there, I’ve decided to mention it […]

  37. John Peacock says:

    Just an addendum to the debate between Mark McCaugrean and Peter Coles (and I’ll know I’ll be told that I should “move on”):

    Mark thinks a 3.5% increase in the ESA cash every year isn’t in itself “taking off”. Well, it adds 10M per year to the UK’s cost of membership over the course of a 3-year CSR, thus making 1/4 of the current mess – hardly negligible. The whole point is that STFC’s cash is going up by 0.000% per year, so 3.5% is 3.5% too much, however reasonable it sounds to Mark. Again: we’re not playing blame games, just trying to understand the main factors causing the pain.

    As for the scientific merit or otherwise of B-C, I think that was answered well enough by Peter: My clear impression is that the experts don’t think the science is worth the cost. I believe it is the case that ESA came very close to cancelling it 3 years ago – and that this would have happened if the UK hadn’t voted for retention. The reason for our vote was the industrial juste retour that we stood to lose. It’s completely sensible: B-C is a good thing for UK aerospace industry, and supporting that industry is very probably a good thing (I have no reason to doubt it). But you wouldn’t ask the Royal Opera House to pay for that support, and taking money from many great existing astronomy projects (and particle physics, let us not forget) is no more defensible.

  38. Mark McCaughrean says:


    I agree that 3.5% per year is a lot more than 0.0% per year (either 3.5% more or infinitely more, depending on how we want to frame it), but it (a) it’s really not much more than true inflation, so does no more than allow the ESA programme to do the Cosmic Vision programme as instructed by the delegates on the SPC (although I realise that that’s no consolation to those depending on STFC funding), and (b) it doesn’t begin to account, in and of itself, for the much larger rise (in sterling) in the STFC subscription to ESA, as discussed earlier.

    Let’s keep in mind though that the 3.5% year-on-year rise in the ESA science budget required a unanimous vote at the 2008 ministerial: everyone said yes, including the UK (with the Harwell centre quid pro quo playing a role, I’m told). I will admit that I was initially surprised about this rise at the time, given that it was in the middle of the banking crisis and ongoing bail-out. But on reflection, it does make sense if seen as part of the world-wide government investment programme to spend our way out of the recession.

    As for BepiColombo, I can only reiterate what I said before: while it may be true that UK experts may not think Bepi is worth its current cost, it continues to be rated highly by scientists in other countries and the independent external review committee convened by ESA’s SPC this autumn found that it will still return science at the level commensurate with the costs of a Cornerstone mission. Even if the UK doesn’t like it, we cannot run the science programme on a veto basis; it would be madness.

    There have been votes at SPC last summer and this autumn regarding Bepi, and neither resulted in cancellation (the latest vote was all for except Belgium abstaining and France not participating). So we go ahead and do it, and I’m confident that it will do good science.

    I understand your ROH analogy, but don’t think it’s quite that black-and-white: as well as providing support to the aerospace industry, Bepi _will_ do science that lies in STFC’s remit, and I’m sure the people in the UK working on planetary science will be looking for grant money to help analyse data from it in a few years. But I agree that it would be better if the core UK funding to ESA was separate from the exploitation money, to ensure that the latter is not squeezed out (as at present) due to issues beyond STFC’s direct control. I hope Drayson follows through on his similar concerns.

  39. […] post from yesterday has gathered a whole lot of interesting […]

  40. Paul Crowther says:

    ..can’t remember what i was going on to say earlier, but to get onto more important matters, I wonder how the aspirations of the community re: STFC may differ from that hinted at from Drayson’s written remarks, having received an email yesterday that included the following:

    The suggestion that simply breaking up STFC is some magic bullet is daft and dangerous.

    STFC has major problems, but do we really want another change of Research Council for astro, so soon after the last one during the middle of a public sector squeeze. Also, do we trust the same civil servants who thought up STFC to do a better job this time around, and do we think Drayson’s agenda matches ours?

    Many of us would be glad to be rid of non-PPARC science ESA subs, Innovation Campuses etc but some of the alternatives also have issues:

    a. STFC without space and major subscriptions (but still impossible tensions between grant and programme funding STFC science and labs for non-STFC science). If costs of subs administered by RCUK as in past, other RCs would rightly complain that increases for ESA or CERN hurt them for no good reason. Also much smaller budget for STFC without some of its F and T and so lacks RC clout.

    b. Astro grants goes to EPSRC, facilities stay in STFC but how to link EPSRC peer review to STFC programmes, with experimental PP likely to choose to stay put, and NP not sure what to do (having tried both EPSRC and STFC and found both wanting). The experience of NP suggests not all money to keep astro grants afloat may get transferred. What to do about rollers? and Dave ‘impact’ Delpy approach may not match astro any better than current STFC management.

    c. Go back to SERC (merger of STFC and EPSRC). Potentially least bad option of three, but wasn’t PPARC created in the first place to stop PP and A being too successful, so unlikely to fly with ministry
    who prefer to be able to invest strategically.

    Anyone got some better ideas that might be palatable to astro/pp and ministers, whilst minimising the likelyhood of being left out to whither and die, as appears to be the current case at least for ground-based astro.. Bottom line: Shouldn’t we come up with a workable plan rather than wait for one to be imposed, again? (after consultation naturally..)

  41. George Fraser says:

    There’s an old Scots motto which came to my mind as I read the news from the front on this and other erudite blogs ;

    They have said / what say they? / Let them say

    but there comes a point when keeping your own counsel just does not work.

    So, readers, I am the Principal Investigator of the Mercury Imaging X-ray Spectrometer (MIXS) on Bepicolombo and therefore single-handedly responsible for the current wasteland that is UK science, propagating my pet project, driving out good science with bad…but before you start throwing things, can I point out :

    (i)The STFC prioritisation alpha one rating is for “Bepicolombo pls”. We have never applied for post launch support, so this is probably the first non-existent grant ever to be cancelled. I was not asked to make any submission to the Prioritisation review, nor to NUAP, nor to Steve Schwarz’s panel nor to the 2007 ranking.The worthlessness of Bepicolombo is one of those truths so self-evident, that it’s apparently not worth asking for it to be updated

    (ii)The MIXS project in the UK is a collaboration of Leicester, OU and RAL. The STFC funding details are of course freely available to everyone via Grants Online, but suffice it to say that the half-way spend point is about to be reached, which would release no more than £1.5 M if BepiColombo MIXS had been cancelled yesterday.

    (iii) MIXS is, however, an international collaboration with a Finnish Co-PI and Spanish, German, Italian and French partners. The UK, in fact, has PI status for less than 30% of the instrument cost.

    (iv) The scientific and technical excellence of MIXS is tested by STFC oversight committee, by ESA six monthly progress meetings and within the Bepicolombo Science Working Group. For the priviledge of being slaughtered by the partially informed, MIXS will be reviewed on average every eight weeks for almost ten years.

    (v)The MoU that has “protected” Bepicolombo was an undertaking between the lead funding agency (PPARC)and esa. Such an MoU was required by the Agency for ALL the Bepi payload elements individually ; MIXS was in no way the subject of any special arrangement.

    (v) The instrument mass of 9 kg includes a complete Wolter type 1 X-ray telescope which will map the surface with resolution down to less than 10 km and give insight into planetary formation close in to a parent star. The radical X-ray mirror technology is already providing high profile Economic Impact case studies for STFC and has been or is about to be proposed for several applications in astronomy.

    And in conclusion.. it’s started to snow and I’m off home

  42. Paul Crowther says:

    ok. Hold those opinions back for a short while..

  43. ian smail says:

    i assume word is getting around that STFC have chosen to implement the 25% cut to fellowships by *cancelling* the PDRF (3yr) round altogether…

    another inspired bit of community management.

  44. John Peacock says:

    Ian. Indeed. It might have been better psychology to keep a few PDFs. People applying know the chance of success is very small anyway, so rationally it would still be worth it even if the number was 2-3 times smaller. Imagine the kudos if you were the only astronomy PDF….

  45. ian smail says:

    yes – they’ve just binned 200 (more?) applicant’s hard-crafted proposals and i assume a fair amount of reviewer time – without even giving them a glance. cutting them to 2 PDRFs would at least have meant that that effort wasn’t completely wasted (even if it had been disproportionate).

  46. Dave Carter says:

    Thats dreadful news, if we are to have any future in the subject at all it is this generation we need to keep, with fresh new ideas (more so in my view than AFs, who tend already to toe the establishment line).

    On the other hand maybe the Royal Society is better at recognising innovative people.

  47. Monica G says:

    It was a very tough decision. But the number of Fellows has increased over the last few years, as we have worked to preseve fellowships and studentships during all previous rounds of cuts and prioritisations. Our programme has shrunk, and so it makes sense (in a bitter-sweet way) to shrink the number of Fellowships available, back to the level it was in around 2000. Especially as the number of academic positions likely to become available in the future is also shrinking, as many universities face staff cuts.
    All of the Advisory Panels, right up to and including Science Board, recognise that our students, post-docs and Fellows are our future. And Council has said that retsoring fellowships and studentships is one of our highest priorities once things get better. Though when that will be is anybody’s guess.

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      If the goal was to reduce the number of academic positions at universities, the AFs rather than the PDFs should have been targeted. AFs prepare the fellow for a tenured position. A PDF is very much a training position.

      The postdocs do seem to be hit hardest by the cuts. In 2007, STFC awarded 135 PDRAs in astronomy. This year, the prediction was for 82 PDRAs (numbers from Paul’s website). With a further 10% cut, 75 may be awarded. That is a cut of 45%.

      Other PDRA positions may be affected by the ‘managed withdrawals’ but I don’t know what percentage of project PDRAs work within the affected projects. But the conclusion is inescapable that young people are being scared away from research. we should think about how to do our science in a postdoc-free environment.

  48. Paul Crowther says:

    Education and Training Ctte, faced with 25% cut had choice of applying a uniform slice to studentships, PDFs and AFs, or focusing on top priority of these. A tough call, but I think they did the right thing.. Why?

    Cancelling PDF round in 2010 (9 would have been awarded, success rate of circa 4.5%) enables an extra 30+ studentships to be awarded lessening the 25% cut to approx 13%. The best students will be able to pick up a post-doc somewhere, but in advance you can’t always tell which are the best candidates for PhD (or PDF to be fair). Since both are lotteries, the 3:1 ratio makes sense in the circumstances.

    • ian smail says:

      paul: your argument seems to be that a small success rate and zero are almost the same, so why distinguish? but back in an earlier part of this discussion you appeared to bemoan the rumored low success rate of standard grant (SG) applicants this round (for the record, i’m not sure its any higher than RG applicants once you take into account all the other differences). what would you have said if STFC had cancelled the SG round this year at this stage (ie after the applications had been written and assessed)?

      if ET&C want to protect studentships (which was the argument used 2 years ago to cut fellowships ahead of studentships then) then why not go with a proportionate cut to both RF and AF lines? surely, to paraphrase you, “the best post-docs will be able to pick up (another) post-doc somewhere”. so why protect the AFs just because they are easier to judge using metrics?

      • Paul Crowther says:

        I’m not against PDFs, per se, but agree with ETC Ctte that they are the lowest priority among PDF/AF/Studentships. They didn’t choose to cut anything – the 25% cut was imposed by PPAN/SciB/Council.

        Some have suggested awarding just two PDFs in 2010 round (in part to help shore up studentship numbers) but then success rate would have been 1% and i would argue that PDFs are far harder to assess than AFs (not just on metrics). It would have led to ranking of 200 proposals by panel, interviews etc etc. where the outcome becomes even more than a lottery.

        Many recipients of PDFs do so within a year or so of finishing PhD and so will then need to take a retrograde step (regular PDRA) before being eligible for AF/URF. PDF is not an essential career step, unlike AF (+URF) which is the primary means of gaining faculty position in UK.

        Since you brought it up, stats from success rates for RG and SG in last 2 AGP rounds show that for 2007 round, less than half of fundable SG PDRAs were funded (19 from 42) versus three quarters of those associated with RGs (63 from 87). STFCs own stats on p50 of my UoE physics GI Seminar from Sept.

      • Paul Crowther says:

        p.s. Studentships, fellowships and grants was generally number one priority from Adv Panels when reporting to PPAN in October, made crystal clear by FUAP for example.

      • Ken Rice says:

        Paul, Do you happen to know the total number of SG and RG applications (PDRA) for 2007, rather than simply those that were regarded as fundable.

      • Paul Crowther says:


        Since you ask.. AGP PDRA stats were as follows, rounded to the nearest integer:

        SG2007 97 requested, 42 fundable, 19 funded
        RG2007 165 requested, 87 fundable, 63 funded

        SG2008 98 requested, 66 fundable, 21* funded
        RG2008 137 requested, ? fundable, 70* funded

        *2008 AGP round includes half a dozen extra PDRAs from when DIUS freed up some extra funding.

      • Ken Rice says:


        Thanks. To be honest, that’s actually slightly better for SGs than I thought it was. May not be the case for this coming year though. Will have to wait and see.

  49. Alan Heavens says:

    The fellowships scheme sends (used to send?) a very important motivating message to PhD students: if you do well enough in your graduate studies, you will be rewarded with a personal fellowship, regardless of which field you work in, independently of the success of departments in securing grant funding – purely on your own merit. Inevitably it is not quite so simple in practice, but this is an important principle, and one which should have been preserved if at all possible. An opportunity to limit some of the recent damage has been sadly missed here. Young scientists will no doubt be reconsidering embarking on careers in the UK, and we can no longer offer reassurance by saying that the best will be rewarded at the end of a PhD with post-doctoral positions.

    This is a serious mistake.

    • Monica G says:

      First-class candidates should be encouraged to apply for Royal Society, Leverhulme, Newton, etc Fellowships. Extremely competitive, but still there as options.

      • Dave says:

        Frankly, I think first class candidates should be encouraged to leave the country.

      • Jim Geach says:

        True, other prestigious Fellowships are out there. But is it too much to expect our Funding Council to underwrite at least one or two PDFs, even in these tough times? It would send the message that bright young researchers really are valued as a vital component of the UK astronomy scene.

      • ian smail says:

        i’m not sure any of these schemes are feasible for a graduating PhD student. the RS URFs (in astronomy at least) typically go to more experienced postdocs, i guess there are dorothy hodgkins (for those with career breaks), the leverhulmes can’t be applied for by the PhD student themselves (although i admit i don’t know all of the schemes) and i thought the newtons were only available to overseas candidates…

        there is the RAS Norman Lockyer. i think they award one every ~3 years.

        basically the STFC PDRFs were the thing that the best PhDs and young postdocs aspired to – providing independence, opportunity and a little bit of prestige.

  50. Jim Geach says:

    I’ve been watching the gathering storm for a while now, and the time feels right for a comment/vent.

    From the standpoint of a young researcher who (was) attempting to get one of these fellowships, I can only echo Alan’s comment. I always saw the STFC PDF as definitely something to aspire to throughout my PhD and beyond: independent and self-motivated research carried out under an internationally recognised, and prestigious, banner. Hard to come by, but certainly worth the effort: don’t ask, don’t get has always been my philosophy. Now it’s just “don’t get”, and my recent application efforts have been wasted it seems.

    What irks me is not just the wasted effort that went into the application, but the uncertainty I’m left with in terms of what will be attractive to me for continuing my research career in the UK: what intermediate-stage top-tier research positions (like the PDFs) will be in place in future years for researchers of my generation? Is our generation simply the unlucky one that will simply miss the boat?

    The final lines of the e-mail I received from STFC are (I suppose necessarily, but irritatingly) vague, and leave me with a sense that I am expendable in the scheme of things:

    “This action affects 2010 only. In the new year STFC will, via its Education, Training and Careers Committee, consult with heads of department on a number of options on how to proceed in future years.”

    Ok, I know these things aren’t easy, but this increasing sense of Limbo is not encouraging or motivating. I’m quite miffed.

  51. Tom Kerr says:

    I’m seeing a lot of familiar names all of a sudden making comments here. Not that I didn’t know the regular commenters or whatever you might call them, but people like Jim and Albert, regular users of UKIRT are now here. Hello guys and I wish you all the best.

    The decision to suspend PDFs is clearly one of the worst I’ve seen from STFC and that is saying something. To do it after the candidates had made their applications just makes me shake my head. It just confirms my impression that the STFC really doesn’t give a toss about people at all and our future.

    I made a comment on Peter Coles’ blog about mid-career people very recently and thought I’d mention it here as well. It’s very clear that students, postdocs and PDFs in the UK are one of the groups being singled out and basically being told to find a career outside of astronomy or move to another country. Please spare a thought for those of us in mid-career with families and/or mortgages who work at STFC facilities around the world and now face being made redundant with little prospect of getting back into UK academia or even a job at neighbouring observatories – there are few jobs available.

    I’m trying not to whinge but a lot of dedicated and experienced researchers and staff are facing being stranded abroad and contemplating a rather bleak future – after being given this news at Christmas to add to their distress. Little has been made about this and just wanted to point it out.

    I know it’s not constructive, but like Jim I’m also miffed.


    • Beep says:


      What people like you are going through is painful to contemplate. All my sympathies are with you.

      From an economics pov it is ironically fascinating to watch a pattern of totally ignoring the value of investment in people being repeated in so many areas of the world economy.

      I believe that in the long run this is another house of cards which is going to come falling down if there is so much as a breeze blowing. The other curse which I believe affects every aspect of the economy at the moment is the emphasis on short-term gain while ignoring long-term loss.

      How many rational people, fully informed of what is going on now, would choose to get the degrees which are now stranding so many of you with no rescue…? In this way entire fields of expertise become lost to states and to nations. The unfairness and the sheer cruelty of the practice of ignoring the investment made in people goes without saying…but there are also some very clear sheerly economic costs, IMHO.

      Maybe your loss will be the US’s gain. We could sure use a break 🙂 Hope you all come work for us. The four states which really need help right now are Michigan, Rhode Island, Nevada, and California…just saying…

  52. Francis says:

    How about making the Fellowships non-fEC? A radical decision but would save 50% of the funding. It would then be up to the university to decide if they wished to accept a Fellowship under these conditions.

    PATT have already moved their grants to non-fEC so there is a precedence.

  53. John Womersley says:

    Let me add a couple of points here.

    First, I would like to say to everyone – and especially those who have been personally affected by this decision – that it’s not an outcome I like. It sucks that we don’t have enough money to support all the good young people in the field. Nine excellent young researchers will have one less job option this year – and that is a real shame. The only reason we are doing this is because it’s less bad than the alternatives. It lets us protect the numbers of studentships and advanced fellowships we can offer. Studentships are the beginning steps of a career in science – they have to be the highest priority. And advanced fellowships are a unique and highly valued part of the programme. As a thought experiment, suppose we had announced today that we were (a) cancelling all the advanced fellowships to protect the PDF’s or (b) reducing student numbers by more than 25% so as to keep PDF numbers constant – would that have been a better outcome? I don’t think so.

    Secondly, we all knew this would be contentious. I know it can be frustrating when we make an announcement that things may change again next year – but again, consider a thought experiment where we had said “this issue is closed for all time and there will be no consultation on this.” Instead, we are asking for input – maybe there are some good ideas out there for how to do it better next year (thanks Francis for yours – I have no idea if it’s allowable under RCUK’s rules).

    • Russell Smith says:

      But you left out a fairly obvious thought experiment, which is simply a uniform cut, studentships, PDFs and AFs each reduced by 25%.

      Why wouldn’t this be the right thing to do, *assuming* the ETCC thought the balance of funding between these three streams to be correct already?

      Cutting PDFs disproportionately suggests the committee think this stream was already over-funded relative to the other two?

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Russell — I am not sure your question is well posed, in the sense that there is not really a “right” balance between these strands that the ETCC supports. However, having been on the fellowships panel a few times, I think I can reasonably state that the allocation of PDRFs is significantly “noisier” than the AFs, since there is always a lot less evidence to go on. With a limited pot of money, it probably makes sense to optimize your returns by putting them into the surer success of AFs than the more random PDRFs.

    • Alan Heavens says:


      I don’t agree that studentships are the highest priority. The AF scheme is certainly an excellent programme, and hitting it again after last year would have been wrong. However, there is clearly something wrong with the balance when the PDRFs are so oversubscribed (now infinitely so, but in recent years by a finite, but very large, factor), so one should look at studentships, if one accepts the premise that this area is where a large cut should be made (personally, I do not). The burden of this crisis is falling disproportionately on early-career researchers, and this decision is particularly invidious as the effect is concentrated on a particular group. I fear that we are heading for a bad outcome where the studentships are still filled, but the smart students look at the evidence and decide that the apparently lukewarm enthusiasm for astronomy at the top means that it would be unwise to embark on a career in this field. This would be unfortunate, as these are exciting times for science, and one can hope that enough changes will take place on a short enough timescale to restore some of what has been lost. I am not holding my breath.

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      Dear John

      The studentships are essential, and I cannot see how STFC could have defended cutting studentships within its stated priorities. The issue here is the choice between PDFs and AFs. AFs have more possiblities, while the options for postdocs have been hit very hard. They get a 35% hit on the current round of grants, 10% from last week, 100% in the PDFs, and an unquantified but significant cut from all the cut projects and facilities. A total cut of 50%? Cutting postdocs has become the flavour of the month.

      More worries for the future. I see that post-2011, there is a 25 million shift from PPAN to PALS. As so much of the budget is ring-fenced through the international subscriptions, this will again hit the projects/grants line disproportionally. Comments that the ELT and SKA has to come form within the existing, flat astronomy budget are extemely worrying. We will have to choose between hardware, people or science – we can’t have all three. What is STFC’s main priority?

      • Ken Rice says:

        Albert, your first statement is kind of what prompted my comment below (which I had intended to be a reply to John’s comment but somehow failed to manage that). In my opinion there should be some balance between the number of studentships, PDRAs, Fellowships, and ultimately permanent jobs. We want healthy competition but we don’t want (at least if we want to optimise future research strengths) the chance of going from a studentship to a permanent job being so vanishingly small that it actually discourages people from even starting in the first place. Do we have complete freedom to set the balance between studentships, PDRAs, Fellowships, etc., or is there some “stated priority” that says we should attempt to protect studentships, wherever possible, above all else?


    • telescoper says:

      It seems to me that it is STFC policy to reduce the overall size of the astronomy community by at least 25% as quickly as possible. You don’t even have to read between the lines in the announcement to see that is the case. They also seem to believe that the general economy is crying out for people with PhDs in astronomy, so continuing preserving graduate student numbers is not inconsistent with this policy. Choking off the prospects for the next generation is the logical think to do, and that’s what they’re clearly doing by slashing project grants and PDFs. It’s a brutal game, but that’s what STFC have decided is the future for UK astronomy.

      Unfortunately for UK science, the 25% that will leave will almost certainly be the best 25%. What’s left will enter a period of steep decline unless and until someone does something to change the mentality of those in charge. Or just sacks them.

      • Ken Rice says:

        As much as I sympathise with your comment, it would suggest that there is some kind of underlying grand plan. As far I can see there is no evidence for such a grand plan and I’m very much in the camp that believes that the CSR07 STFC settlement was a mistake (or oversight). Not only is no one willing to admit that this is the case, the current financial crisis means there is now no desire to fix it either. On the other hand, maybe I’m naive (quite likely to be honest) and the STFC settlement was initially set with the explicit intention of ultimately reducing the size of the astronomy community by 25%.

      • Paul Crowther says:


        i fear that your last sentence was the reality. RCUK head Keith O’Nions was probably informed that the PPARC community (especially astro) was growing out of control and needed a squeeze to bring it back down again. Keith Mason pretty much said as much in evidence to the old IUSS ctte in Feb 2008

        ..the [astronomy] community is expanding and this is something which needs to be looked at by the Wakeham Review in particular. We have seen an increase of 40 per cent in the number of researchers doing astronomy in universities in the last two years, which is a huge increase.

        statements repeated and expanded in the STFC Community Forum at NAM08

        There has been a large increase in the number, allegedly, a large increase in the number of university researchers in astronomy. And we collect statistics from our studentship rounds every two years in which departments are asked so say how many people have you got, actually academic staff are doing research in astronomy and those numbers have gone up by 40% in two years, from 500 to 700.

        Completely bogus of course viewed from the coalface of physics departments, but such misinformation could have led, at least in part, to the CSR07 settlement for STFC.


      • Kav says:

        Peter, Ken,

        It could be both.
        Paul Crowther has pointed out several times (most recently in reply to Brian Cox on Twitter) that the STFC CEO claimed a rise in astronomy academics of 40% over two years – he said this at the NAM in 2008. This is absurd based on STFC’s own figures which suggested (I think) a 4% rise over that period (check Paul’s wbepage).
        If (and its a big if) Keith supplied DIUS with his figures rather than the actual figures they may have been concerned at a runaway growth hence the need to cut back drastically (this doesn’t include any other mistakes in the figures that may or may not have been made in the CSR bid). Thus STFC has an implied (if not stated remit) to slash astro and PP (whilst keeping space aspects – a focus of the CEO’s draft presentation according to notes from council (check Paul again)).

        At the same time STFC had no strategy (beyond what may have been in managements heads) and so we find ourselves in this massive mess.

      • Ken Rice says:


        Thanks. I was aware of the statements you’ve included, but had interpreted them as someone trying to justify a poor settlement rather than as evidence that the settlement was intentional. You may, however, be correct and the current situation may well – in some sense – have been planned.


      • Ken Rice says:

        Kav, didn’t mean to ignore your comment. Didn’t notice it till after I had responded to Paul’s. Agree that it could well be a combination of both.


      • Paul Crowther says:

        I should add that I hope i’m wrong with the interpretation, and that poor settlement was simply a mixup down to (a) nothing more sinister than differences in accounting practice between CCLRC and PPARC plus (b) new ministry (DIUS) during CSR negotiations.

      • Paul Crowther says:

        p.s. then again, even putting my paranoia aside, comments from KOM to Astro Forum that there are too many STFC people `sat in front of computers analysing data’ suggests that (some of) senior management are happy for there to be a squeeze on money channelled towards science exploitation (phds, fellowships, grants etc.)

  54. Ken Rice says:

    John, I appreciate that the decision was not easy and that there will be many different arguments for what should have been done. What is a little unclear to me is what motivated the decision. Essentially roughly 9 young researchers will have one less job option this year and will be looking for a job outside of academia (or outside the UK). Doing this allows us to offer something like 30 additional studentships.

    One could make a reasonably strong argument that we (STFC funded research groups) will be losing 9 people who were pretty close to being good enough to remain in academia (at least for some additional time). If the motivation behind the decision is to optimise our future research strengths (in STFC funded areas) then one would have to assume that at least 9 – if not more – of the 30 new people taking up the additional studentships will be at least as good as the 9 we are about to lose. It’s not clear that this is likely to be the case and so all I can assume is that your statement “the beginning steps of a career in science” refers to a career in science in the UK, rather than a career in an STFC funded research area. This decision may benefit the UK (which may indeed be a good thing) but could damage STFC funded research areas. I agree that this is a little simplistic, but I don’t think it is a completely wrong analysis.

    Let me make it clear that I have no problem with the general idea that a large number of our students end up in industry, where their contribution can be substantial. I would, however, have been quite pleased to see us send a message to the powers that be that we believe our research has intrinsic value and that if we have to sacrifice some studentships to optimise our future research strengths, we will go ahead and do so.


  55. Paul Crowther says:


    Not sure of stats on PDFs ending up in academia, but history suggests that high fraction of the AFs awarded this round will do so within the UK. I may be that 11 of the nominal 12 AFs can be awarded, versus 9 AF + 9 PDFs according to the 25% cut, so the net differences isn’t necessarily so large. In addition, last round there were 13 PDFs awarded and just 6 AFs, so 13 PDFs and 17 AFs across both rounds looks in proportion. An element of luck clearly comes until this, but I know where i’d prefer the money to go..


  56. Ken Rice says:


    I do agree with you about the AFs. I’m just not convinced that increasing the AFs and the number of studentships, was necessarily the ideal decision in terms of optimising our research strengths. I do, however, also agree that awarding so few PDFs that it becomes a lottery is not ideal. Quite how we could have increased the AFs and somehow kept the remaining postdoctoral positions without turning the PDFs into a lottery is not clear to me, so I’m willing to accept that the decision was quite likely the only sensible one to make. I was just trying to illustrate that we may have done ourselves somewhat of a disservice.


  57. telescoper says:

    In case you didn’t notice, there’s a statement on the STFC website by the Chairman, Michael Sterling, saying that whatever restructuring issues are discussed, they won’t help us next year because they’ve already started implementing the decisions for 2010-11.

    He goes onto say that STFC has “achieved a great deal” since 2007….

  58. andyxl says:

    Peter – you missed the link out so I have edited it in. Meanwhile … these comments are becoming horribly non-linear and hard to follow what answers what .. perhaps (a) time to have christmas (b) start afresh next week…

  59. weller says:

    In the New Year’s Honours List there are no astronomers or particle physicists, which is unusual. Have we offended somebody? We seem to be ranked with bankers and politicians, who are similarly ignored (except for one banker).

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