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.


Python Provocation

October 2, 2010

Posting slowed down a bit recently. A few life difficulties took precedent followed by almost two solid weeks of chairing the Astronomy Grants Panel. Doesn’t feel right to write about that in any detail for obvious reasons, but I will just say that this article in THES suggesting that we would better off with a lottery is a complete pile of dingo’s kidneys. Maybe I will work up on a post on that, as it made me cross.

But maybe I am just in tetchy mood.  I am even falling out of love with Python.

Being a chap of a certain age, I spent a long time stubbornly persisting with Fortran until it got too embarassing to admit. So I mugged up C. Pretty good, but didn’t feel right. Next up Java. Hello World etc. Java was just too strict and boring and pernickety. Engineer’s language really, not a scientist’s language or a hacker’s language. All that object oriented stuff. Mystical mumbo jumbo. I like algorithms ! Give me procedures !!!

I was getting fed up. Then someone said “try Python” and reluctantly I did. Then, lo, all was warmth and happiness, and the light shone upon the face of the deep. It was easy and flexible, and object oriented but not so you really noticed. You could use it interactively, or write simple scripts, or build massive symphonies if you wished. It came with all sorts of internet goodies built in. Most important, it was extensible and had community backing. Numpy/Scipy seemed the right thing to back, and astro stuff was appearing.

But it still seems a bit ugly, and I have to keep a big notes file full of tricks and reminders of how to do things, cos somehow it doesn’t stick from one month to the next unless you keep using it. Installing and updating stuff is getting gradually easier, but still clunky. There are weird incompatibilities between one version and the next within 2.x, whereas you’d have thought the 2.x world should have been completely backwards compatible, with 3.x becoming a new world. I hear from some developer contacts that this is even more of a problem for key packages like Scipy, with quite frequent changes to the API which mean that your scripts keep breaking.

Then of course there is the speed thing. One of my favourite packages is Pyxplot, a kind of re-imagining of Gnuplot. (I will be writing a post about this and other plotters sometime soon..) Pyxplot used to be written in Python, but the latest version has been completely re-implemented in C. I asked Dominic Ford why, and he explained that it was now ten times faster and took a tenth of the memory. Hard to argue with that.

Python occupies a strange territory between the easy peasy world of “download this app and start clicking” and the stern world of “if you don’t know what a makefile is, you’d better look somewhere else mate”. At first I thought this was precisely its strength : grown up stuff for busy people. But now I ain’t so sure. Neither use nor ornament, as EG used to say.

Over to you Ross.