More Physics Funding Shenanigans

Those who hold the purse strings for science funding in the UK aren’t doing any favours to anyone recently. Not to themselves and certainly not to researchers early in their careers like me. The minutes from a recent meeting of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) made their way to my desk this morning. Their contents? Most troubling.

“Things are bad – but are going to get worse.”

A lot of people will probably know about the ongoing saga of the STFC. The STFC (Science and Technology Funding Council), as has been noted in the past, formed from a merger of two previously existing research councils. Upon their formation, they promptly slashed the budget from physics and astronomy — apparently to cover the funding deficit incurred by other areas. This prompted much furore and a few official investigations. Seemingly, things aren’t set to change much any time soon.

Very simply, there’s more talk of planned budgetary reductions on top of the shortfall from previously (which is still taking its toll on UK astronomy). The RAS, understandably, are greatly concerned about all of this and how it might affect the future of astronomy in the UK. The biggest concern is that while the UK is currently one of the world leaders in astronomy research (in some areas, we are the world leader), uncertainty over funds could be highly damaging. The worst part is that the STFC themselves seem to be under the impression that they’re already spending plenty (if not too much) on astronomy. Which… is frankly rather a ridiculous assertion. While some people might study purely to get qualifications which will afford them a better salary in industry, others amongst us are doing what we’re doing because we enjoy doing active research, and wish to carry on as academics. Unfortunately, we’re the ones who might well suffer as a result of this if postdoctoral jobs start to dry up. Some of us are here because we don’t want to take our transferrable skills and work in industry. That’s why we’re happy to take already low salaries and a lack of immediate job stability to do what it is we want to do. The STFC speak of minimising the flow of talent to academic careers in astronomy overseas, but in all fairness, they’re not giving us much of an incentive to remain here. Ironically, those in charge of these research councils should be well aware of this, having been though much the same situation earlier in their careers!

Members of the RAS council are also seemingly concerned that leading figures in the STFC are starting to believe that the UK astronomical community has grown too large. Which seems strange to me. We’re not exactly the largest of scientific fields by a long shot. Indeed, it’s a relatively small scientific community, split into even smaller sub-communities. Which is part of why I like it, to be honest.

Long story short, the RAS are unhappy about the arrangements of the research councils. Not surprisingly. It’s times like this when I’m glad I’m interdisciplinary and get my funding from the EPSRC instead…

With thanks to fellow twitterers, @astromeg and @StephenSerjeant for the heads up!

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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12 Responses to More Physics Funding Shenanigans

  1. pax_athena says:

    Thank you! Will take a look at them tomorrow (since they are not free-access, I need to do that from the Obervatory). But the summaries sound like exactly what I was looking for!

  2. invaderxan says:

    I have a couple of articles for you!
    Actually some of the best introductory articles out there:
    Interstellar Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbon Molecules (Tielens 2008)
    Complex Organic Interstellar Molecules (Herbst & van Dishoeck 2009)
    Diffuse Atomic and Molecular Clouds (Snow & McCall 2006)
    Happy reading! :D

  3. invaderxan says:

    Yeah, that’s the most ridiculous part. Given the consternation recently about declining numbers of students applying for Physics, they’re not really doing much to stoke public interest!

  4. invaderxan says:

    Oh… there too? :
    And yes, I agree with you completely, it’s the worst possible course of action for them to cut back on postdocs specifically. How else are we supposed to progress our careers? It’s sad to think how many potentially brilliant scientists are being turned away because of a lack of funding…
    And on your unrelated note, (and I apologise for the slow response) yes, I know of a couple of rather good review papers (actually, there are a few published in Annual Reviews). Unfortunately, I forget the references off the top of my head — I’ll have a look on my desk tomorrow, for you. :)

  5. invaderxan says:

    Yeah, from what I can ascertain, it doesn’t seem significantly better over there in the US. The trouble is over here, a lot of science has no trouble whatsoever (medical research, for instance, is just fine as far as I’m aware). The stricken areas are almost wholly astronomy and particle physics.

  6. invaderxan says:

    Yah, no kidding!

  7. invaderxan says:

    Frankly, I was planning on looking towards Europe when I come to go for postdoc positions. I hear Leiden and Marseille are particularly good cities…
    And the biggist infuriation, I suppose, is that due to this convoluted mélange of beaurocracies and miguided opinion is that, of course, the ones holding the strings aren’t the ones who end up suffering as a result.

  8. Anonymous says:

    For a fair number of people, fewer jobs in astronomy will mean they leave academia and take those skills into industry, sure. But those that want to stay in astronomy will always look for jobs overseas if they can’t get them here, and that will lead to a net loss.
    The government wants more students going through universities and more of them studying science subjects, with static (or declining) numbers of academics and fewer postdocs to keep up the levels of research, while lecturers are having to cope with larger teaching loads…
    Sure, sounds like a great plan.

  9. pax_athena says:

    *sighs* It’s not different here, though it’s a long process already. It’s pretty sad, that whoever they are who decide cut the postdoc positions especially. Postdocs are the central structure of research – there certainly can be just so many profs, especially since they are also weighted down with teaching and administration and PhD students might do some great research, but it’s something totally different in my field foor example if one has somebody with years of experience on different instruments and just knowing so much more and having a better overview over the whole field …
    And in the long(er) run it ends in brain drain and just a lack of really good people in science :( And what then? I hope we will not have to find out!
    (And a bit of unrelated, but there was a discussion about PAHs here a few days ago and and since you are working in this general field of dust ;) : would you happen to know a good review paper? I know there must be some out there, but I’m not sure I’ll pick a good one by myself …)

  10. That sucks that you’re going through such a mess. It seems that government funding of science has shortfalls and priority skews everywhere (or at least here in the States as well).

  11. madsophia says:

    that is craptastic!

  12. davidnm says:

    They think there are too many UK astronomers? That’s … an interesting take on reality, if nothing else, I suppose. In fact I thought one of the leading problems with the funding structure was lack of jobs, so that people tend to almost have to leave the country to get a first post-doc – i.e. go to the States. Which effectively means that the British education system is subsidising the American universities, contributing to a trans-Atlantic brain-drain…
    What was fascinating last year was the currency exchange business. STFC managed to turn a post-inflation net rise in funding into a net loss through various arcane pricing structures (the ‘rent’ on CERN is in Euros and STFC insist on paying in pounds, that sort of thing…). All very confusing; public-sector bureaucracy at its finest, I think.

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