End of an era

Polish your CV. You could be the next CEO of STFC. If there is anything left to run.

Just before my holidays, I mentioned an STFC web page asking for input to the CSR discussion. This has three interesting updates. The first is a report from Science Board and PPAN. Nothing surprising or scary in this. The second  is news from Council. This is normally so dull it makes you want to chew your own foot off, but on this occasion contains news that will surprise some : the STFC CEO has made it known that he will not take up a second term, and so will leave in March 2012. Council have already set up a subgroup to establish the requirements for his successor.

I think we are way past the personal recriminations stage, so no schadenfreude please. I am tempted to open a book, but probably thats not suitable for public discussion either.

So lets look to the future ! The third update is a link to a presentation given by Director of Science Programmes, John Womersley, to the recent Astronomy Forum.  The bottom line is that BIS will have an answer by October-ish, but the trickle down to STFC won’t be clear until Nov-Dec-ish; and how STFC implements the new budget will be horribly difficult. The feedback our Head of Institute (JAP) gave us was that input is really genuinely desired by Womersley et al. There are going to be some horrible decisions, even if we successfully make the argument that STFC science is investment, and we have less than the Government average 25% cuts.  I am sure individual input will be welcome, but very likely group responses will be more effective, so start lobbying your Head of Department or research group leader.

Even if we were to reduce exploitation grants to zero, we would have a problem. We may be looking at big decisions, like pull out of ESA and do bilaterals, or pull out of CERN. Of course one worry is that negative signals will stop young people committing to the UK; this could be a distinctly non-linear effect, and one that lasts much longer than this spending review.  An interesting positive suggestion that apparently emerged from the Forum was that Fellowships should somehow be strengthened into “New Blood” lectureships. But this requires commitment from our Universities, who ain’t exactly feeling rich either …

24 Responses to End of an era

  1. Paul Crowther says:


    Under the assumption that the new Executive space agency doesn’t get terminated at birth, ESA subscriptions now fall under its remit, leaving CERN and ESO as the major subscriptions left behind at STFC relevant to the former PPARC communities. I hear Science Board are anxious to retain both (to avoid demotion from the science Premier League). However, it should be clear to all that the “flat cash” settlement from CSR07 led to carnage, so even a 10 percent cut (middle option of those set out to BIS) would cause to a second major (20 percent?) squeeze on exploitation of ESO, CERN (and ESA) facilities through grants, studentships, fellowships etc. ESA meanwhile has a shiny new committee, although the only person in common with current STFC committees is.. high energy physicist(!) Jordan Nash from PPAN. Apparently representatives from NUAP and FUAP were surplus to requirements.

    In view of the near-term financial consequences it is unsurprising that STFC are keen to cut staff costs (e.g. offering unpaid leave of up to 2 years!), given that administrative savings of 33 per cent are being demanded, regardless of the CSR outcome. This summer’s review of astronomy grants has to consider how to maximise the impact of reduced grant funding, mindful of fewer STFC people able to administer the peer review process. Consultation on this process expected imminently.

    • telescoper says:

      Just for clarification, am I right in thinking that when you wrote

      ESA meanwhile has a shiny new committee…

      you actually meant UKSA?

  2. telescoper says:

    Just to put the cat among the pigeons, I’ve long argued that Advanced Fellowships should only be awarded to departments willing to offer permanent contracts at the end (subject to satisfactory performance). In practice some places do this already; most emphatically don’t. However, with universities probably goind to be cut as least as badly as STFC, this idea isn’t likely to find much favour now.

    On the other hand, I imagine quite a few senior astronomers and physicists will be already be thinking of early, before their pension gets slashed, so perhaps there will be “New Blood” vacancies after all..

  3. ian smail says:

    I’m sure that the bulk of the community feels that a further 20% cut to grants would make a mockery of the exploitation of many of the projects STFC are currently funding. Moreover as a fraction of the total budget, exploitation is such a small amount that these cuts make no real impact on the overall savings, yet have a devastating effect on our ability to innovate.

    …and a related question: anyone care to throw some light on the justification for ET&C’s decision to once again cancel the RF scheme, while again leaving the AF scheme completely untouched? As a result of this we’re disenfranchising a complete cohort of young researchers and so we’re already losing talented young postdocs to North America.

  4. paul crowther says:

    ian, i’m not on that ctte but i understand that after consulting with HoD’s they considered studentships & adv. fellowships as a higher priority than postdoc fellowships. STFC currently support approx 400 responsive & 300 project postdocs vs a couple of dozen PDFs. Had cuts to ETC ctee been split between Phd’s, AF’s & PDF’s astro would have received about 4 PDF’s (far harder to assess than AF’s). Lets hope the RAS can continue with their new fellowship scheme (3 awards this year).

    • ian smail says:

      that’s an interesting precedent for STFC: “if its hard to measure (e.g. capability of PDRF applicants) then we won’t fund it…” shouldn’t they be applying the same logic elsewhere, e.g. dark energy?

      surely we can’t argue that 3 RAS fellowships (where the RAS apparently can judge the quality of applicants) are compensation for even “just” 4 PDRFs? why not apply the same logic and claim that the ~2 RS URFs a year are justification for cutting the AFs?

      even if the RAS scheme does run again, given their funds its never going to be a replacement for the annual PDRF scheme (even at a level of 4 PDRFs). so in the absence of STFC PDRFs the only way our most promising graduate students can purse *their* research is by leaving the UK… which hardly seems to be an outcome that STFC should have aimed for or wanted.

      pro-rata cuts on AFs and PDRFs would appear to be the fairest approach. although if ET&C suffer another cut in the forthcoming round, then perhaps killing off PDRFs altogether will look like a reasonable response (given, i assume, we all believe that studentships should be cut last).

      • telescoper says:


        …the only way our most promising graduate students can purs(u)e *their* research is by leaving the UK..

        I don’t think that’s true at all. There are still some postdoctoral positions on grants (though not as many as there should be, of course). I think most rolling grant positions allow a good PDRA plenty of opportunity to follow their own ideas, within the overall area defined by the grant.

        As I understand the situation, the E&T committee got feedback from HoDs that favoured protecting PhDs and AFs as much as possible. Something had to give, and it was the PDFs, probably at least partly because they are so difficult to assess. I doubt if anybody likes it, but I think what they’ve done is the last bad option available to them.


      • Phil Uttley says:

        I think in the absence of other “political” factors it would have been better for PhD places to take a bigger hit. We have more PhDs than we had 10 years ago, but the pool of suitable candidates hasn’t really got any bigger (so average quality is inevitably not as good) and there aren’t going to be any postdoc positions for them anyway… However, being realistic, we can’t cut them because they are one of our selling points re: ‘impact’, transferable skills etc. And they are cheap!

  5. richard wade says:

    It is true that we genuinely want input. Importantly, what we need are ideas and preferences rather that lobbying for particular projects or facilities (I know you weren’t suggesting that). The debate about the relative merits of and balance between PhDs, RAs and fellowships is helpful in this context. A similar debate about the balance of exploitation vs. project support would also be good but needs to offer ideas as to how the project or facility spend could be reduced. So for example how much should we be spending on E-ELT and SKA when we are cutting grants at the same time? How much would we be prepared to reduce grants in order to maintain our subscriptions?

    • telescoper says:


      The previous “consultation” exercise gave resounding support across the board for protecting grants, studentships and fellowships. The decisions that came out of the prioritization exercise didn’t seem to me to bear much relationship to the advice that went in. Will it be any different this time?


  6. John Peacock says:

    A few responses to points so far:

    * ESA sub is in UKSA, true. But when Biz comes to divide its cake, surely it may start by allocating a total to UKSA + Research Councils, and then dividing that sub-cake? Thus STFC’s eventual exploitation money isn’t really insulated from the cost of the ESA sub.

    * The PDFs were nice if you got one, but were not an ideal system. Our PhD students increasingly struggle to compete with better-prepared products from non-UK systems, and they badly need “finishing school”. Rather than 6 astro PDFs per year, giving an extra year to the best 18 would have been a more effective helping hand to those who deserve a research career. Money is tight, yes, but having even (say) 6 1-year mini-PDFs would have been an important gesture of commitment to those at the bottom end of the system.

    * The RAS Fellowships are a Good Thing, but they are not PDF substitutes: the upper threshold of experience is a bit higher, so I doubt whether people coming to the end of a PhD can compete – whereas such candidates won a significant fraction of PDFs.

    • ian smail says:

      i agree. in particular cancelling the PDRFs totally was a PR disaster with the youngest postdocs/students. ET&C’s plan to consider 1 year “PhD extensions” would go someway to addressing that.

  7. richard wade says:

    I think PPAN did the best they could to take into account the advice they received. Of course they (and the rest of us) support the idea of protecting grants etc and I think they tried to do that. The issue that they struggled with then and will struggle with even more in the future is that if you want to be a member of ESO and CERN for example then you have limited resources left in order to fully exploit them and play a role in their future development.

    • ian smail says:

      to provide any useful input we need a summary of the on-going costs of the various elements of the astronomy programme (broken down to the project-level) and some indication of the liabilities for cancelling these. i’ve just been through last year’s STFC accounts and they don’t provide this level of detail, but it must exist, so can we see it? for example: what fraction of the STFC astronomy budget is tied up in the subscriptions? i’m guessing 30%, which if they go untouched, would then require 35% cuts to the remainder of the budget (eg grants/projects/studentships).

      the 08/09 accounts made for interesting reading, especially the huge cost of SSC, any reductions there would allow STFC to deliver more of its programme. so if we’re thinking of withdrawing from CERN, could we instead withdraw from SSC?

      […then there are other little snippets in the accounts like £8.5M for travel/subsistence costs. this is an average of £4.4k/yr for each of the 1900 STFC employees (most of whom i assume don’t travel), or about 5x more than the typical academic gets to support their STFC research. however, this risks going off on another PDRF-like tangent, rather than focusing on the 25% cuts]

  8. paul crowther says:

    peter, yes that should have read ‘uksa have a shiny…’ not esa.

    • Monica Grady says:

      By ‘shiny new cttee’, do you mean SPAC (dreadful acronym)? This is SSAC re-born, with a slightly broarder remit. SSAC was a BNSC cttee that advised the UK delegates to ESA’s SPC, and Jordan sat on SSAC as chair of PPAN, to ensure that STFC’s science programme was (a) kept up to date with ESA-type stuff, and (b) BNSC knew what STFC’s science priorities were. Jordan sits on SPAC with the same brief. Other members of SPAC include:

      John Zarnecki (ex PPARC Council)
      Mark Lester (ex AGP)
      Gill Wright (must have been on PPARC/STFC cttees?)
      me (ex Sci Board)

      So STFC’s community is well-represented. I’ve suggested that SPAC has a reciprocal arrangement with PPAN, and that someone from SPAC attends PPAN mtgs to ensure that STFC knows what UK SA’s priorities are. The UKSA think this is a Good Thing, but not sure of STFC’s thoughts.

  9. paul crowther says:

    ian, ETC & referees have a harder time picking the right few % of PDF candidades than those for AFs. Also strange career path for PDF recipients straight from phd as they would have to become less independent (take a regular postdoc) before being eligible for AF. RAS fellowships for those a little further on in career so also easier to assess.

  10. richard wade says:

    I am trying to figure out an easily digestible but useful way to present the sort of information you require. I’m not sure our accounts are either of these things other than to an accountant. Watch this space (or maybe Paul has something already).

    Regarding travel and subsistence, the amount you mention includes not just staff travel but also facility users (for ISIS and CLF) and the travel we manage on behalf of the PP community plus all of the travel and subsistence involved in peer review including PPAN, SB etc (so there are a lot of academics travelling on that budget too).

      • Paul Crowther says:


        Your summary of current STFC finances is greatly appreciated.

        A little over 1/5 of PPAN’s current budget goes towards Astro/PP grants/fellowships (in reality total % is a little higher once NP/AP grants are included). Fraction involved with exploitation will of course increase once ESA subs + PLS shifts across to UKSA, subject to the outcome of next weeks CSR settlement.

  11. Andrew Liddle says:

    Dear All,

    On the PhD/PDF/AF issue, I am currently chair of ETCC. Our view was that an across the board cut on those three programmes would have left the fellowship programmes too small for reliable assessment. Ian argues above against the strawman argument that “if its hard to measure (e.g. capability of PDRF applicants) then we won’t fund it…”, but realistically it is almost impossible to make meaningful judgements when a success rate (even after application capping) is below five percent.

    The feedback we got from the community via their HoDs did confirm our view that the studentships and AFs were higher priority. Nevertheless the cut of the PDF programme was with extreme reluctance in face of a non-negotiable 25% funding cut. ETCC remains committed to the merit of the PDF scheme and its restoration would be our highest priority in the (admittedly unlikely) event of some restoration of the ETCC budget.

    The RAS fellowship scheme is very welcome and I understand may continue in reduced form next year, but was not a significant contributor to the PDF decision as they do not help at all the particle and nuclear physicists. I note also that there is a significant overlap in the eligibility criteria for AFs and PDFs so some of those who might have applied for PDFs can go for an AF (whose assessment will become trickier if there is a broader spread of experience in the applicant pool).

    ETCC is indeed considering a `finishing school’ scheme of one-year posts very much along the lines John describes above, motivated (inspired?!) by EPSRC’s PhD-plus pilot. The number of such places is, as with PDFs, never going to be high because fellowship-years are so much more expensive than studentship-years.



    • ian smail says:

      is there any chance of finding matching funds to expand the RAS scheme from within the ET&C budget (eg cut two AFs)? i appreciate this isn’t a solution for PP/NP, but it would at least address the argument that the small number of fellowships on offer in some way makes them less effective.

      • Andrew Liddle says:

        We’d have to find a way of doing it that was equitable across the PP and NP communities too, which would likely be hard. As far as I understand the RAS scheme will end in a year or two, as it is funded from reserves rather than income on reserves, and so it doesn’t form a sustainable basis for such a partnership. I think at the end of the day the only way out is for our communities to convince the STFC Executive that the PDFs are a more valuable investment than something else currently in the programme, if they believed that.

        [The PDF programme, as was, cost approx 2.4M per year, about 10% of the ETCC budget at the time. As you know, the other 15% of the cut fell on the studentships, with the AFs left untouched.]

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