Grant mechanism review

As most readers will know, I am currently chair of STFC’s Astronomy Grants Panel, but have avoided blogging about grants business as it doesn’t seem appropriate, and unseemly lobbying may take place etc. But I thought I should draw to your attention that a review of grant review mechanisms is currently underway, and STFC are running a public consultation. The deadline is quite soon – September 6th, otherwise known as the coming Monday. His Darkness has also plugged it, and explains a little more.

So. Anyhoo. Better talk about something else. Errmm.

Ah yes. Just finished reading wonderful book – biography of Dirac written by Grahame Farmelo : The Strangest Man. And he certainly was. But some of them other quantum heroes were pretty weird too. The book is full of lovely little gossipy tidbits. Apparently Ehrenfest trained a parrot that he could take to seminars that would say “But gentlemen, thats not physics”. Even stranger, Oppenheimer was so jealous of Blackett that he left a poisoned apple on his desk. No really.

Ahh, we live in the age of dwarfs.

And in the age of thinking the unthinkable.

14 Responses to Grant mechanism review

  1. Matthew says:

    If you feel that presents of tampered fruit will increase your scientific productivity< I'm sure that it can be arranged

  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Jonathan Tedds and Paul Crowther, Andy Lawrence. Andy Lawrence said: Grant review and Ehrenfest's parrot : new blog post […]

  3. Brendan says:

    One of my favourite Dirac stories is an interview, found here:


    “Do you go to the movies?”

    “Yes,” says he.

    “When?”, says I.

    “In 1920 — perhaps also in 1930,” says he.

  4. Michael Merrifield says:

    Just to briefly plug the consultation as one of the grant review panel members, please do take the time to respond if you have any interest in the outcome (which I would hope many readers do).

    In particular, I would like to emphasize that it was never intended that the three options put forward in the consultation document should be considered the only possibilities: rather, they were supposed to be models to stimulate ideas and discussion. As such, please pay particular attention to Q4 in the consultation questionnaire, “Do you have any other options you would like to put forward?”, to present any significantly different and original approaches, which will be welcomed by the Panel.

    As far as I have been able to ascertain, there really is no hidden agenda here of STFC looking for community support for a particular pre-ordained solution; they really are looking for a better way to distribute this funding.

    The only real worry in STFC’s current perspective is that they are also under huge pressure to make swingeing cuts in their administrative budget, so they are not going to be in a position to implement anything at all burdensome, no matter how desirable from our perspective.

  5. ian smail says:

    precisely where do STFC think they can save money in the administration of astronomy grants and how much (ie is it going to actually save enough money to justify the change)?

    i thought we are talking about a couple of warm bodies in swindon… at least those are the only people i’ve ever seen/interacted with over 7 years on the grants panel. so its not like there is a massive army of people. thus i can’t see how any changed model will result in a more efficient system (even doing away with peer review wouldn’t make a significant saving).

    if savings need to be made then they could start with “shared services”. or based on richard’s previous statements it would seem that one way for STFC to save money would be to require ISIS/CLF/Diamond users to pay their own T&S.

    • John Womersley says:

      Ian, the government has told us (like all other public bodies) that we need to reduce administration by 33% over the next four years. We’ve started a project in the Swindon office to look at ways to do this. You are right, there isn’t a massive army of people, in fact the office is already pretty lean, but we have been told we have to make it leaner. We aren’t looking to the grants review to deliver these savings, though it would be nice if it helped a bit; and as Mike says, we can’t really consider processes that would require increased administrative effort in these circumstances.


      • ian smail says:

        in that case we need to trim the review process rather than lose any more of the small amount of staff effort that exists at swindon…

        if any more goes then the whole system will fall apart. we’re already down to the level that the absence of a single STFC staff member will derail the whole process – so there’s no “redundancy” (in the system sense of the word) in the structure.

        i wonder if there is more which we could do without some (all?) of the meetings – i’d happily have telecon/videocon/discussion boards+wikis instead of more journeys to swindon.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    I entirely agree — the idea that grant administration could be slimmed down any further seems ridiculous to me, too. My fear is that the only way for STFC to save what little administrative cost there is in this process is to devolve it to someone else, such as the universities: one could imagine a model in which a very small number of large grants are issued, and whoever holds them is then expected to distribute funding around other institutions.

    • Albert Zijlstra says:

      I think what we are looking at is not reducing current admin costs (STFC seems to be operating very efficiently) but future admin costs. Shared software systems tend to be inflexible and expensive to improve. To have the future shared services reach the current efficiency, do we have to adopt the required degree of inflexibility into the grant system?

      Or, we could stick to the current system and claim the cost of SSC as STFC’s contribution to government savings? Let’s call it “efficiency saving”.

  7. andyxl says:

    Thinking again about Ehrenfest’s parrot. What I would like is a parrot that at the end of every astronomy seminar will say “Have you considered magnetic fields ?”

  8. ian smail says:

    that’s my “Rule #6” for astronomy from the 1990’s:

    “If you’re stuck for a question during a talk, ask the speaker about how their conclusions would change if they took into account: a) Malmquist bias; b) Magnetic fields; c) Dust.”

    admittedly malmquist bias has gone out of style and dust is now more of a benefit than a curse (although having looked at some z>3 papers recently perhaps its still a valid question to ask) – which only leaves the “magnetic fields” as the only wobbler which has survived the last 20yrs.

  9. Michael Merrifield says:

    There’s always turbulence, the last refuge of the astrophysical scoundrel.

  10. My favourite Dirac story is about him introducing his
    wife as “Wigner’s sister”.

    Schrödinger was another quantum hero. When negotiating
    his position in Dublin, he made sure that he could
    retain his hobby (very young women) even though Ireland
    was rather religious. (He was happily married, and his
    wife didn’t mind; she had a long-term relationship with
    Hermann Weil.)

  11. Clive Page says:

    I once heard Dirac lecture, which was a slightly odd experience. Around 1969 or 1970 I was a research student in Cambridge and a couple of us realised that he was close to retiring age but still lecturing regularly to part III Maths students. So one day we just turned up at one of his regular lectures, and sat at the back. I can’t say that I understood much of his lecture, but Part III Maths is said to be pretty difficult stuff.

    I guess he had given this same lecture every year for maybe 30 years, so must have been pretty bored, and that showed somewhat. Perhaps the most interesting bits were when he needed to use the Dirac delta function, which every time he called *the* delta function, with a very pronounced emphasis of the word *the*. I guess that’s modesty of a sort. If he noticed the two interlopers at the back, he gave no sign of it, but then he completely ignored everyone else in the room – there was no audience interaction whatever, despite there being only around 15 students there.

    I enjoyed the book, by the way, it was well written and Dirac was such an odd character. And it does seem he was pretty near to autistic, but perhaps that’s not uncommon among famous mathematicians and physicists.

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