UNDERGRADUATE AND POSTGRADUATE STUDY
35. There are currently around fifty universities
in the UK offering significant modules in astronomy at undergraduate
level. About twenty-five of these universities offer postgraduate
courses. There are
approximately three hundred PhD astronomy students funded by PPARC,
and many more funded by the universities.
Professor Murdin described astronomy as "one of the growth
areas of physical science education in universities attracting
large numbers of people who are, incidentally, learning about
] going on to be electronic engineers [
being attracted into science by studying astronomy."
Students tended to major in mainstream subjects such as physics,
mathematics or electronic engineering, and then bolt on modules
36. Professor Murdin believed that astronomy could
be the saviour of physics "[physics enrolment in universities]
has been declining for a long time, it has plateaued now but the
astronomy education in universities is rising by ten per cent
a year." There
had been a time when one university every year was adding astronomy
into its physics teaching because of its attraction to students.
Professor Sir Martin Rees agreed "Astronomy is a prime value
subject at a number of universities [
] it has certainly
proved to be a great enhancement to physics."
Professor Murdin also confirmed that there were a large number
of overseas postgraduate students coming to the UK to study astronomy.
Professor Halliday of PPARC confirmed that the number of astronomy
courses is growing much faster in comparison to courses in more
37. There are approximately 33 observatories attached
to universities. These observatories are where the majority of
observing is done.
Training is carried out on easily observed astronomical objects,
theoretically or by use of sites overseas.
However, Professor Murdin said "it is not practical to take
students to Hawaii for a weekend trip to teach them how to use
Dr Ron Hilditch of St Andrews University told a Member of the
Committee that optical telescopes were an important element in
attracting students to study astronomy as they were keen to gain
practical observational experience. The university observatories
are not subject to special protection from the encroachment of
light, and many local authorities are unaware of the observatories'
existence. Even if
local authorities are sympathetic, observatories can suffer from
light coming from a source some miles away. For example, St Andrews
University Observatory is affected by the lights of Dundee; some
ten miles away.
38. PPARC do give grants to universities to keep
the facilities working - even though the observatories are not
producing "cutting edge research" - with the stipulation
that the observatories are involved with schools in the neighbourhood.
Professor John Brown said of the PPARC funding of schools and
universities: "they funded [Glasgow University] to set up
some equipment and train the Paisley Observatory and Coates Observatory
Astronomical Societies to use it."
However, significant investment by PPARC into the university facilities
is not made due to the effect of light pollution in the UK,
and also due to the fact that PPARC does not consider it productive
to invest in instruments, usually built in the 19th
century, which are not capable of producing competitive research.
They are supported for educational and teaching purposes only,
and not research.
39. As the Report later discusses, the Government
and PPARC support the protection of the dark skies around the
multi-million UK-funded international facilities, but when asked
if PPARC supported efforts to mitigate light pollution affecting
observatories and societies in the UK, Professor Halliday replied
"No, I am afraid we pass the buck."
40. We regret that PPARC and the Government have
adopted a defeatist attitude towards light pollution and astronomy
in the UK. There are substantial numbers of amateur astronomers,
astronomy undergraduates and postgraduates and professional astronomers
observing in the UK. Amateur and professional astronomers have
undertaken a dual role of showing and explaining the night sky
to students, pupils and the general public, whilst campaigning
for the last ten years to prevent further degradation of the night
sky. It is time they receive support from PPARC and the Government.
41. Dr Helen Walker told us that current developments
in professional astronomy meant that "The UK is in an excellent
position to blow the children's minds with the work we are doing".
The extensive media coverage this year of Beagle 2, the Annular
eclipse and the close approach of Mars to Earth in August is an
indication of the wide appeal of astronomy to the general public.
There is a real opportunity of using the enthusiastic astronomy
community to increase the numbers of school pupils taking astronomy
and continuing into physics. PPARC and DfES together should bring
to bear more pressure on ODPM and DEFRA to find a way to protect
the skies, particularly around those observatories who work with