Astronomy Grant History

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.

41 Responses to Astronomy Grant History

  1. […] Before commenting, I’m first going to calculate the Fourier Transform of Andy’s graph and analyse it in reciprocal space. 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. T … Read More […]

  2. […] here to read the rest: Astronomy Grant History « The e-Astronomer Related PostsDecember 10, 2010 — Bobbi DePorter: Everything Counts in the Classroom […]

  3. Michael Merrifield says:

    From 2000 to 2006, PPARC, and briefly STFC, responded to this pressure

    I believe that STFC came into existence in 2007, as may be apparent from that plot!

  4. andyxl says:

    Ah. Yes. Oh thats a bit depressing.

  5. telescoper says:

    Was PPARC really just “responding to pressure”? Or was it increasing investment in astronomy because of a sustained period of outstanding scientific achievement by UK astronomers? Whether or not the creation of STFC was specifically intended to rein back the investment in astronomy there’s no question that has been the effect.

  6. Michael Merrifield says:

    It rather puts your previous article on EPSRC’s 15% cut in “normal” grant funding over the next few years, into perspective. It would be interesting to see a similar plot, at least for the physics disciplines, for the size of EPSRC’s community and the number of RAs they were funding over the same period.

    • Andrew Liddle says:

      Regarding Mike’s point, a minor example is the nuclear physics community which was transferred from EPSRC to STFC. The 2010 ETCC census, published at , shows that the nuclear physicists had the highest postdoc per faculty ratio, higher even that the particle physics experimentalists.

      My impression though is that STFC have been `correcting’ this imbalance, in a way that the nuclear physicists have found very painful.

      [To work that out you have to rearrange the equation at the top for P/V, bearing in mind that by construction we keep the number of students per faculty, N/V, constant between disciplines. Basically, smaller `C’ equals more postdocs per faculty, with quite a sensitive dependence.]


  7. ian smail says:

    and it also needs to be noted that the big expansion only benefited 2/3rds of the community, as most of the PDRAs are on rolling grants which came back in every 3 years.

    if you join up the dots on a 3 year cycle you see that the big expansion was “enjoyed” by the grants which were most recently renewed in 2009 (and prior to that in 2006). but they have also suffered significant cuts from that peak.

  8. Andrew Liddle says:

    Dear Andy,

    The collapse is even more stark than I would have imagined. It would be interesting to learn what the level of project-funded PDRAs has done over the same period, to uncover whether the drift from responsive to project that some of us have perceived is actually true. ETCC algorithm statistics are driven by a snapshot of responsive+project PDRAs, so a picture will develop, but for now there is only a couple of years of info and the interesting epoch was earlier.

    I had always imagined that the growth in faculty in the early 2000s was at least in part caused by departments pursuing the increase in available grant funding, but I am interested to see from your curves that the faculty growth appears to happen first (and also to predate FEC, which I had also felt was a faculty expansion driver). So I suppose it was the students driving it after all.

    I also see that Sussex funding has been relentlessly phased with the lean years. Sigh! But of course the number of groups/faculty going in for rolling grants is different across the three-year cycle so the comparison might be misleading.



    • ian smail says:

      yes – this year’s round (which never saw the peak in funding, but equally hasn’t been spared a cut this year) is nominally the “smallest” of the three rounds, with last year being the “largest”.

      this year’s round is also the one which beats with the 3-year CSR cycle, which might explain why it never got a boost in funding.

      one other thing to highlight is that the current funding cut-off is actually close to the middle of the peak of high-ranked project grades. so whether an internationally competitive project is fundable/funded or fundable/unfunded is very sensitive to any noise in the gradings. if STFC were able to fund just an additional 15-25 exploitation PDRAs per round (ie the 2000 level) then they would be able to support all of the highest-ranked projects.

  9. 1. Recommendations for expanding funds for exploitation also came from the 2005 international review of UK Physics+Astronomy, sponsored by EPSRC/PPARC/RAS/IoP which advised that ..astronomical observing communities, need building up so as to recoup the investment in access to Gemini,VLT and ALMA.

    2. The 2010 IoP survey of academic appointments in Physics demonstrated that the UK astronomy community grew exactly in proportion with physics departments as a whole in the five years to 2008, and also mirrored the 14 per cent expansion of the higher education sector reported by a RCUK report, `Sustainability of the UK Research Workforce’, over a similar interval.

  10. telescoper says:

    Has anyone managed to reconcile this graph with the one Keith Mason showed at NAM 2008?

    • Here’s another NAM 2008 classic, also rather at odds with Andy’s chart:
      " 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."

  11. andyxl says:

    I think they are fairly consistent. Keith’s version shows the number of RAs in post, as opposed to the number of new awards each year – i.e. his is roughly a three-year rolling average of mine. But there is also two more year’s of data, over which time the RA awards have gone down further, rather than flattening off. That was a conscious decision of PPAN in 2009. We all feared that the CSR would result in yet another cut, but in fact, the astro grants budget remained at the reduced level set in late 2009.

    • telescoper says:

      I struggle to read the numbers on the NAM 2008 graph, but that certainly explains why the spikes are smoothed out and why the level is approximately three times the numbers shown in your graph.

  12. The UK has also been accused of having `too many astronomers’, yet the number of IAU members, per million population (red) or per $tn (blue), is probably closest to the norm with respect to other developed countries – see chart*.

    *Stats compiled by Mike Barlow.

  13. second attempt at link for chart –

    • ian smail says:

      i wonder if the UK’s “moderate” IAU membership has more to do with culture and a lack of clear benefit of membership… rather than reflecting the true size of the UK research community?

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Maybe also that the Royal Astronomical Society is our adhering body for the IAU, whose responsibilities include dealing with membership processing from the UK. When I joined the IAU a number of years ago, they weren’t particularly proactive in recruiting IAU members who weren’t already members of the RAS.

      • 500+ iau members in uk, so not way off stats from stfc or iop. Comparisons on spend per academic more complex.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        IAU membership is open to all PhD-level researchers, not just faculty, so certainly some way off full take-up.

        RAS were quite miffed when I got a note sent out to the astrocommunity mailing list passing on to the whole community the information that they had distributed to their members on how to join. Hopefully, they are being more proactive over their obligations now.

      • telescoper says:

        The RAS in fact pays membership fees for all UK astronomers joining the IAU.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        Yes — rather disingenuously listed as one of the “benefits of membership” of the RAS (, since it is a service that they are obliged to offer to the entire community, and, indeed, are directly assisted by Government block grant to do so.

      • telescoper says:

        The block grant covers 49% of such fees; the other 51% of the cost comes directly from the RAS.

      • telescoper says: is explained clearly and not at all disingenuously here

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        It is on a page entitled “The benefits of membership.” All the other bulleted items such as a free subscription to A&G, use of the premises, free attendance at meetings, etc, are benefits that only members enjoy. So including the payment of IAU dues on that list would seem to be seeking to suggest, somewhat disingenuously, that this service is also a benefit of being a member, wouldn’t you say?

      • telescoper says:

        No, I wouldn’t. The benefits listed are not only for individual members but for the community as a whole, e.g. “Lobbying for UK astronomy and geophysics”. You don’t have to be a member to benefit from the RAS’s lobbying efforts either, but the more members there are the more effective these efforts will be.

      • Michael Merrifield says:

        True enough. I’d just be happier if the RAS were a bit more proactive in soliciting the entire community to join the IAU, which would also be in the wider interests of the UK community.

      • For the record, the 2007 STFC studentship quota exercise indicated a community of 545 astro academics, while the Dec 2008 IoP survey returned 307 permanent astro/astrophysics staff (432 including fellows and temporary staff).

        Indeed, the IAU stats of 521 will include a mixture of faculty, PDRAs and others but I wouldn’t have thought UK stats will be systematically offset from other countries. If someone can (quickly) come up with a superior method of objective international comparisons please let me know.

      • telescoper says:

        Do you understand why the IOP and STFC numbers are so different? Could it be because there are quite a few astronomers working in maths, rather than physics, departments?

      • ian smail says:

        some of the “excess” might be emeritus staff?

      • ian smail says:

        …ignore that – i was thinking about IAU-vs-STFC – the emeritus staff won’t be included in the STFC studentship numbers.

        looking at IoP-vs-STFC – if i was being cynical i’d say the reason the STFC one is higher is because there is a benefit to those who return a “high” number (as their studentship quota is based on it). thus groups will cast the net as wide as possible to identify “astronomers” and this is exacerbated by the fact that there is no option in the returns to indicate the fraction of people’s research time which is spent on astronomy. so someone spending 10% of their time on astronomy research carries the same weight as someone spending 100%.

      • There is certainly some truth to Ian’s explanation – STFC stats include potential supervisors across all HEIs, whereas IoP survey was solely of physics departments, a few of which failed to respond to survey, and so excludes maths depts, observatories, and other institutes.

      • Monica grady says:

        In response to the difference between IoP and STFC figures -there is an additional bunch of astronomers (known as planetary scientists) that inhabit Earth or Planetary science depts, and wouldn’t have been picked up by the IoP. The community is getting on for around 60 or so of your missing hundred bodies, counting pdra, etc.

  14. Albert Zijlstra says:

    To call the seven ‘good’ years the ‘good old Brown’ days may be open to interpretation. I would rather attribute it to Sainsbury, as he was minister of science (and a rather good one) from 1998 to late 2006. Pearson, who took over after him (I think there was briefly someone else in between) did not give the impression of much interest in science when he spoke at Jodrell Ban – in fact that was the first indication I saw that there was trouble on the way.

    I looked up the statements made when Pearson was appointed. Here is one from the BBC:
    “Gordon Brown made the change [appointing a new minister] because he felt it would better fuse science policy with higher education, to bring about more coordinated decision-making on research funding; and to encourage the contribution of science to industry and the “knowledge economy”.” Reading through the tortured grammar, and curring out the non-speak, this seems to say using the science budget to support industry.

    Assuming the egyptian seven lean years to balance the seven good ones, we have the CSR of 2013 to look forward to.

  15. […] an interesting discussion going on over at the e-Astronomer Andy Lawrence’s blog about truth, lies and astronomy grant […]

  16. […] Astronomy Grant History « The e-Astronomer […]

  17. […] not a breach of confidentiality. The most important observation relates to the following figure, borrowed from the e-astronomer (who also happens to be Chair of the […]

  18. Thoi Trang Non…

    […]Astronomy Grant History « The e-Astronomer[…]…

  19. chairs says:

    ergonomic office chairs Perth…

    […]Astronomy Grant History « The e-Astronomer[…]…

  20. ian smail says:

    and i thought that was going to be some cutting remark about how the chair shouldn’t be posting such comments…

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: