Let me start this first email of 2015 by congratulating a number of colleagues. I know that many people in the University and beyond will have been delighted to learn that Professor Terry Rees was made a Dame in the New Year’s Honours list. Terry has made a genuinely extraordinary contribution, not just in academic life but much more broadly and not only in Wales but at UK and international level. I’d like to congratulate Terry warmly on behalf of all of us here at Cardiff University. Congratulations too to Professor Steve Eales, who has been awarded the highly prestigious Herschel medal for investigation of outstanding merit in observational astrophysics, and to Dr Haley Gomez, who has received the Fowler Award for noteworthy contribution to astrophysics. These awards complement of course the outstanding performance of Physics in REF, and it’s great to see such a record of success. It doesn’t stop there, however, because the School of Physics and Astronomy achieved a triple bullseye when three European Research Council (ERC) research grant applications succeeded in the same round. It is particularly gratifying that the successful applications were for highly competitive consolidator grants, which are aimed at academics who are building their career towards a senior professorial position. The three awards were won by Dr Haley Gomez (again!) for a project entitled ‘Lighting up the dark – the evolution of dust throughout cosmic time’, Dr Mark Hannam (‘Mapping gravitational waves from collisions of black holes’) and Dr Oliver Williams (‘Superconducting Diamond Quantum Nano-Electro-Mechanical Systems’). Together these grants amount to a total of over €6.5 million and augur very well for the future. Once more, congratulations to all concerned.
In less welcome news, the ERC is likely to be adversely affected by a proposal made by the European Commission earlier this month that will remove around €2.2bn from the Horizon 2020 programme, of which the ERC is a part. This proposal would redirect funds from Horizon 2020 to help create a European Fund for Strategic Investment (EFSI) in an effort to stimulate growth and jobs. The ERC would lose €221m, mostly from calls in 2016 and 2017. Whether growth and jobs will indeed be stimulated remains to be seen, but it is now becoming clear that this new fund will actually be directed towards allowing the European Investment Bank to make loans — creating public debt, in effect — and that it is likely to be distributed on the basis of geography. The ERC distributes funds on the basis of excellence, and in the form of grants not loans. So even if a small proportion of the new EFSI is directed towards research, as has been mooted, it will not undergo the rigour of a peer review process, nor is debt finance of much use in terms of pure research. This is an extremely irritating development after the years of negotiation which resulted in the former Commission and the Parliament agreeing the circa €80bn settlement for Horizon 2020. I will be leading a UUK delegation to Brussels in February and we will be lobbying vigorously on this issue. I fear that our capacity to get a real change in the proposal will be limited, but we will do what we can. Unfortunately it is capricious moves like this that tend to reinforce the negative impression of the EU that we are trying to combat in this country, and that is a point I think we need to get across. Having said that, please do keep up every effort to win grants from the ERC; it is a real success story for the UK and for Cardiff University and we’ll want to keep that up.
As I said in my email last January, the Students’ Union elections are coming up and I would ask all academic colleagues to facilitate those students who are standing or are otherwise involved. Please agree to reasonable requests for time to engage with this process during the campaigning period which this year is 23-27 February; it’s important that students are properly represented and that we support the democratic process by which that happens.
I’m pleased to report that in December we finally concluded our master-planning process and Council gave its approval to the resulting plan. As I’ve explained before, a master plan gives a broad indication of the direction of travel in terms of the development of the estate over the next ten to twenty years, and does not give detail on specific projects. However, it is an essential part of the decision making process when it comes to capital investment, so I’m very pleased we now have it in place. If you’re interested you can find out more here.
Finally, you will be aware that UUK and the UCU have been able to reach agreement on the pensions issue and so the industrial action that had been suspended since November will not resume. It’s not an occasion for celebration because nobody wants to be in a position of having to reform the USS pension provisions, but we do at least now have a constructive way forward and the interests of students have been protected.
With best wishes