Thursday, 22 February 2018

The £5 million pound grant I'm not writing today

I want to tell you about the 5 million pound grant I'm not writing today.

I'm not writing it because I am on strike against my employer (the University of St Andrews) and more generally many universities in the UK, because they seek to destroy part of the informal social contract between themselves and their staff. That contract is: undertake work for decades at the forefront of your field, and we'll look after you in retirement.  They've now said that they don't want to look after me - and most especially my younger colleagues - in retirement. The result is that today I am not undertaking work at the forefront of my field. Work that could bring in £5 million or more into the University.

So what is the grant I'm not writing today?

You may have heard that Artificial Intelligence (AI) is the hot new thing. It's so hot that at very short notice the government has decided to fund 10 to 20 centres at about £5 million each to fund 50 PhD students in AI each - yes that's funding for about 1000 PhD students.  Short notice?  The call was announced two weeks ago and has a deadline in 5 weeks.  Seven weeks in the world of putting together this kind of bid is a nanosecond in academic time: I heard last week about a bid where it took about a year of negotiations at principal-level to decide which university was going to lead a multi-site bid.

I love AI.  I've been studying it well more than half my life, and in fact half the life of the subject. I started studying AI in 1986, and it was founded (by one count) in 1956. I've published 8 papers in the top journal in the field, and another 5 in the second best.  My "h-index" is 43, all papers about AI.  I only mention these numbers to show that I am quite good at working at the forefront of my field (and yes, full disclosure that's the British "quite" which actually means "very").   So exactly the kind of person you would want to lead an application for a £5 million pound funding bid.   With three working weeks taken out of seven weeks to prepare a bid,  it would be no surprise if we could not write the bid on time and lose any money we might have got.

So why am I telling you this? To correct any impression that the only people strikers are hurting are current students. 


I am potentially hurting myself. Because I might not be able to bring 50 PhD students into the field to share the passion I have lived for so many years.

I am potentially hurting my colleagues throughout the University of St Andrews.  Colleagues who I can help to get funding to have their own PhD students in AI.  Colleagues whose future might be transformed by working with those students.

I am potentially hurting those future students who won't get to study AI at this wonderful university with 600 years of history.

I am potentially hurting this wonderful university's finances by endangering a million pounds a year of income,  roughly half a percent of the university's budget.

And actually I'm not hurting current students very much at all.  I might be missing some lectures and tutorials, but when I asked my Head of School yesterday if he would prefer (after the strike, if a choice was necessary) to prioritise helping those students catch up or get this grant, he immediately said the current students.  I admire this and it's obviously right.

I don't want to give any impression that I am trying to hold anyone hostage with this. I think the chances are we will be able to put in a bid, and also I have gone out of my way to make sure that I don't stop anybody else working on the bid.  But on the other hand, I do think that my own and other universities are jeopardising the future wellbeing of their staff.  This has to be stood up against, and that means striking.  


  1. Whilst I support the strike, I should point out that the rot set in several years ago when many of us (overseas/returning members/new entrants/...) were moved by USS without choice from DB to DC ...

    1. I didn't know that, thanks for the comment Toby (and for your help on the grant if we do submit it!)