Astronomy Grant History

February 4, 2011

Time for me to break a rule.

As many of you will know, I am currently chairperson of STFC’s Astronomy Grants Panel. I have steered clear of discussing AGP business on this blog, for obvious reasons. However, the current round is now complete, so I can relax that rule somewhat. I wrote a chairman’s report which went out yesterday on the astrocommunity email list. Paul Crowther has put it on his website, so you can read it if you haven’t already. Telescoping Peter has also done a quicky. I am not keen on getting into nitty-gritty implementation stuff in this arena, but some interesting big picture things have become clearer, which are quite appropriate for the blog. So here we go…

What really has happened to Astronomy grants funding over the last fifteen years ? If you ask any random astronomer over coffee, they will know for sure that grant funding has been cut inexorably for years. On the other hand, if you ask a random condensed matter physicist over coffee, they will know with equal clarity that astronomy funding has been ballooning out of control, forcing ISIS to close half the year etc. Meanwhile we suspect that the average Whitehall Mandarin believes that the essential problem is the growth of the astronomical academic community. Universities know that astronomy courses get bums on seats, so more and more astronomers get appointed, producing a pressure on facilities and postdoc numbers.

So what is the truth ? With help from STFC grants staff and E&T staff, and as ever, the redoubtable Crowther, here are the figures. The size of the academic community is estimated mostly by returns to the PPARC / STFC Education and Training Committee, for the purposes of calculating PhD quota places. It includes permanent academic staff, temporary lecturers, and senior fellows, such as RSURFs and PPARC/STFC Advanced Fellows – what one might think of as the “PI community”. The size of grant funding is characterised by the number of RA awards made in each year. Of course grants also fund technicians and equipment, and recently, part of investigator staff salaries, so the real situation is more complex, but the number of RA awards is a reasonable metric, and it is a number that people are directly interested in. Note that on average the number of RAs in place is roughly three times as large.

Astro grant and community data

Evolution of the astronomical community and grant funding

So what do we see  ?

  • The academic community has indeed grown, but by less than a factor of two, and the growth seems to have flattened off
  • From 2000 to 2006, PPARC, and briefly STFC, responded to this pressure : grant funding improved. But don’t forget this is during the good old Brown days when the Science budget doubled
  • Since 2006, grant funding has plummeted. It is now 50% of the 2006 peak
  • Its not just that we have fallen compared to the historic maximum. Grant funding is now at two thirds of the 2000 baseline.
  • At any one time, about one academic in three is in possession of an RA

Wearing my chairman’s hat, I can tell you that I showed this plot to PPAN, and an earlier version to Keef and Wadey in private conversation. Note that none of this tells the sceptical politician what the correct level of astronomical grant funding should be. But I hope at least it adds a bit of clarity to an often confused discussion.