Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report


The appeal of astronomy

6. From the evidence we have received it is obvious that the science of astronomy holds a fascination for thousands of people in the UK. Many witnesses spoke of awe-inspiring observations in their childhood sparking off a lifetime of scientific study, with travels around the country or world in search of clearer skies, or the simple pleasure of studying the stars with a telescope from their back gardens. Advances in technology have given amateurs access to high quality telescopes similar to those used by professionals, which has further encouraged enthusiastic participation by local astronomical societies.

7. The Campaign for Dark Skies, a section of the British Astronomical Association, has coined the phrase that the night sky is a site of special scientific interest and an area of outstanding natural beauty - a phrase that has struck a chord with many of its supporters. Many memoranda used emotive language and imagery to illustrate their frustration at the erosion of the night sky by the effects of light pollution. Professor Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, explained the special appeal of astronomy: "the night sky is one part of our environment we have shared with all cultures in all periods of human history."[1] Five thousand years ago the Sumerians and Egyptians had already established a tracery of symbols, creatures and gods in the sky that were to develop into the eighty-eight mapped constellations of the modern night sky.[2] Professor Mark Bailey of the Armagh Observatory warned of the danger of losing sight of the night sky:

    "Astronomy is the oldest science, with roots extending more than five thousand years to the building of Newgrange, Stonehenge and similar structures. It is a key part of mankind's cultural inheritance which attracts people towards science and into a scientific way of thinking. Concepts and ideas derived from astronomical theories and observations are often found in fields far removed from science […] the 'inspiration' of astronomy extends into many areas of our lives, including philosophy and religion, and provides us with a unique, and rapidly changing, perspective on our universe […] To draw a veil across this aspect of humanity's cultural heritage […] is to deprive us of a source of inspiration that has operated for thousands of years."[3]


8. Light pollution affects not just astronomers, but the general public and the environment. Indeed, the Committee received memoranda from people suffering from light pollution who had no direct interest in astronomy.[4]

9. Although a fuller description of the types of light pollution is given later in the Report, essentially, lighting spilling over into an astronomer's garden from another property or from street lighting can prevent a view of the night sky. Astronomers' eyes need to adapt to the dark, but the sensitive receptors in the eyes will cause the iris to contract if lights suddenly come on, causing a delay of twenty minutes to regain dark adaption.[5] Over-sensitive security lights switching on and off all night would ruin an evening's observation. Light pollution can also be seen as the visible orange glow seen over towns and cities which creates a veil over the night sky so that interesting stars and the Milky Way are invisible to the naked eye or telescope.

Professional Astronomy in the UK


10. There are currently no world-class optical telescope facilities in the United Kingdom. Light pollution makes this impossible. For example, the Royal Observatory at Greenwich relocated in 1954 to Herstmonceux in Sussex, and then Cambridge, to escape the light pollution in London.[6] The Isaac Newton telescope was relocated from Sussex to La Palma in the Canary Islands in 1984.[7]

11. The Science Budget currently provides £54 million per annum for astronomy, through PPARC. The tables below show facilities currently funded by the Government. The Government states that there are no optical telescopes in the UK funded by the Science Budget "carrying out leading-edge professional research".[8]

Table 1 - Operational telescopes currently funded by PPARC

Anglo-Australian Telescope (AAT)
Optical/Near Infrared
Carlsberg Meridian Telescope (CMT)
La Palma
Isaac Newton Telescope (INT)
La Palma
Jacobus Kapetyn Telescope (JKT)
La Palma
James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT)
Hawaii and Chile
Optical/Near & Mid Infrared
UK Schmidt Telescope (UKST)
UK Infra Red Telescope (UKIRT)
William Herschel Telescope (WHT)
La Palma
Optical/Near Infrared

Source: Office of Science and Technology

Table 2 - Telescopes currently under construction

Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA)
Liverpool Telescope (LT)
La Palma
Optical/Near Infrared
Visible and Infrared Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA)

Source: Office of Science and Technology

12. Light pollution is not the only reason for the lack of professional observational facilities in the UK. First class ground-based optical, InfraRed or millimetre wavelength telescopes need to be built where the local atmosphere is free of dust, water vapour, air-borne pollutants and light pollution.[9] Facilities are also necessary in both hemispheres. These telescopes are multi-million pound facilities, each telescope costing roughly £70 million apiece,[10] and costing thousands of pounds per night to operate, which is why it is essential that they have access to good clear skies. Irrespective of light pollution, the British Isles simply do not have the weather and atmospheric conditions to make the siting of a world-class multi-million pound astronomical facility feasible. The UK could not afford to build its own telescopes in isolation - most facilities have been built in collaboration with one or more partners.[11]

13. Despite world-class astronomical observation being based outside the United Kingdom, the UK supports and participates in the best international facilities, through its membership of the European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory, and its partnership in the facilities based in Mauna Kea, Hawaii; Cerro Pachon and Paranal, Chile; La Palma, Canary Islands; and in Australia.[12] Funding from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) enables the UK research community to have access to and participate in research at these facilities.[13] Professor Ian Halliday, Chief Executive of PPARC, told the Committee: "Apart from the Americans, British astronomy is the best in the world. We have access to facilities which are second to none."[14] Professor Sir Martin Rees told the Committee: "there is a very strong and broad programme as measured by all of the scientific indicators of citations and publications."[15]


14. The Science Budget also funds the UK-based MERLIN telescope at Jodrell Bank, Cheshire, which carries out radioastronomy. Radioastronomy is largely unaffected by atmospheric conditions and light pollution, and so can operate in the UK. It involves listening to the radio signals emitted by astronomical sources and needs radio silence. Despite strict controls maintained by the Radiocommunications Agency (soon to be part of the Office of Communications under the Communications Act 2003) around the sites of the radio dishes, radio astronomy is being threatened by growing demands on wavelength access from the telecommunications industry and from satellite-based developments which do not respect international boundaries.[16] A number of memoranda submitted to the Committee raised concerns over the threat to radioastronomy. Although radioastronomy is not within the remit of this current inquiry, we may return to this subject at a future date.


15. Professor Paul Murdin of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) told us that there were roughly 200-300 tenured academics in astronomy in the UK, and several thousand who make a living from astronomy, including PhD students.[17] He confirmed that not all professionals worked exclusively on overseas world-class facilities; many were training students. He said:

    "there is more to professional astronomy than using the very largest telescopes. There are also people who use moderate-sized telescopes from night to night, from hour to hour and from week to week […] for professional purposes, there is also a requirement for access to smaller telescopes within the UK and those telescopes are inhibited by light pollution."[18]

16. At St Andrews University the telescopes are used almost exclusively by undergraduates as post-graduates tend to use facilities abroad. Some joint research projects were carried out with telescopes abroad. For example, St Andrews is being used in conjunction with the Hubble Space Telescope.

Amateur Astronomy in the UK

Research undertaken by amateur astronomers

17. As well as receiving many memoranda from local astronomical societies and individual astronomers, we received evidence from the two largest amateur astronomy groups, the Society for Popular Astronomy (SPA) and the British Astronomy Association (BAA).[19] Also, the RAS counts about 30% of its approximately 3,000 members as amateurs.[20] Mr Guy Hurst, President of the BAA, told the Committee that they also had approximately 3,000 members. Of this number, he estimated that 2,000 members observed once a week, whilst 200-300 observed 120 nights of the year.[21] He commented that this enthusiasm "astonishes our overseas' colleagues, who have better conditions but do not observe anywhere near as much as in this country."[22]

18. Much of the evidence to the Committee commented on the unique nature of astronomy's very close links between amateur and professional astronomers. Dr Helen Walker, of the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, and representing the RAS, told the Committee: "professional astronomers, unlike a lot of other sciences, rely on the work of amateurs to support them. We rely on amateur astronomers to spot comets, supernovae and gamma ray bursters."[23] Professor Murdin told us of the RAS's organisation called PROAM which is a collaboration between professional and amateur astronomers, which organises programmes of work.[24] Mr Hurst of the BAA told the Committee:

    "Often professionals ask me to get a group of people together to observe a particular global star […] for a week, maybe, just to run it concurrently with a satellite programme that the professionals are running, and virtually every week there is a PROAM project in process."[25]

19. We received evidence showing specific examples of how amateurs contribute to the professional research community:

  • Croydon Astronomical Society members work on the hunt for near earth objects and asteroids and discovering comets;[26]
  • Mr Michael Gainsford makes astronomical observations on variable stars and comets used by professional astronomers;[27]
  • Members of the Cotswold Astronomical Society's research programmes include asteroid and neo astrometry and supernova patrols; [28]
  • Hampshire Astronomical Group contribute to databases used by the professional community for further research - most recently the Group's observatory has been used for confirmation observations of discoveries of exploding stars in distant galaxies;[29] and
  • Mr Roger Dymock assists professionals to define the orbits of Near Earth Asteroids.[30]

20. Dr Darren Baskill, of the University of Leicester, told the Committee that whilst professional astronomers carry out detailed studies of individual objects, amateurs monitored the whole sky. His PhD thesis, based on the X-ray emissions from stars, contained tens of thousands of optical observations made by amateur astronomers world-wide. He said:

    "it is not unusual for an amateur astronomer to detect a star to suddenly brighten, inform a UK professional astronomer, who can then co-ordinate telescopes world-wide (both ground based and space-borne) to observe that star in detail. Such observations by amateurs have even caused the NASA Hubble Space Telescope to interrupt an observation, and to rapidly observe a brightening star, in order to detail unusual or rare behaviour."[31]

21. Professor Halliday seemed less convinced about the value of observations to the professional community but acknowledged: "It is useful, it is serendipitous; they find comets, they do all sorts of things. […] It is a real resource in the UK science structure that we have these extremely enthusiastic people putting in a huge effort."[32] However, he admitted "I have a hidden constituency, which I was not really aware of".[33]

22. Dr Walker from the RAS told the Committee that professional astronomers simply do not have the opportunity or funding to spend much time on the world class facilities abroad:

    "when I went out to Australia the stars I was studying faded and when they faded not even the Anglo-Australian telescope could observe them. So we had a group of New Zealand amateurs monitoring all the stars we might possibly want to look at, and they would tell us if one of these stars was going to fade because we would have to reorganise our programme […] Variable stars are something professional astronomers cannot follow […] there is no way we are going to just scan the skies night after night on the off chance there might be a comet, a supernova, or something else, we have to rely on the amateurs to tell us there is something new."[34]

23. We conclude that there is convincing evidence that many professional astronomers benefit from the valuable input made to professional astronomy by the observations of amateurs.


24. Although some remain unconvinced that amateur astronomers carry out essential 'back-up' research for professionals, it is generally acknowledged that the amateur astronomy community also plays a valuable role in showing the wider public the wonders of the night sky. Most local astronomical societies hold open-days (and evenings) when members of the public are invited in to use the observatories or telescopes. Professional and amateur astronomers visit schools, groups and societies, sometimes using planetaria to demonstrate how the Earth is placed in the universe. Professor Murdin of the RAS said: "the queues at the University of Cambridge to line up to put their eyeballs to the eyepiece to experience it for themselves rather than watch it projected on the screen are quite extraordinary. People want that first-hand experience."[35]

25. Dr Walker said "a lot of people come to science - not just astronomy - because they have seen the night sky, they have been to amateur observatories and they have been to public viewing evenings at public observatories […] there is a lot of excitement there and it fuels all the way through the system because people can actually do astronomy in the UK." Dr Chris Baddiley of the BAA's Campaign for Dark Skies (CfDS) told us that "I, like many of my colleagues in astronomical societies, go up and down the country giving lectures in our spare time. We are also involved in things like National Science Week where there is an encouragement to get school children particularly interested in sciences, and astronomy is an excellent way."[36] We received evidence that teachers were keen to learn more about astronomy to assist them in the teaching of the national curriculum.[37]

26. Professor Halliday told us "[amateurs] play a serious role in the dynamic of producing astronomy students, producing people who want to do PhDs."[38] Professor John Brown, the Astronomer Royal for Scotland told us "[PPARC] are not relying heavily on the amateurs to provide research analysis but they are using amateurs to inspire school kids to help not only astronomy but the technological careers that this country needs more of, the good, high-tech people, and astronomy is a way into that."[39]

27. We believe that amateur and professional astronomers have played a valuable role in the introduction of young people into science. As Sir Patrick Moore commented "the amateur [astronomer] of today is the professional researcher of tomorrow".[40]

The study of Astronomy in the UK

The National Curriculum to GCSE level

28. The Government has acknowledged that pupils need encouraging to study science. Evidence received from witnesses suggests that astronomy is a successful and long lasting means by which school pupils can be "turned onto" science. Mr Bob Mizon of the Campaign for Dark Skies told us "teachers tell me over and over again that there are two things in primary science that light up the eyes of little children, they are Space and dinosaurs."[41]

29. The National Curriculum, at Key Stages 2 (7-11 year olds), 3 (11-14 year olds) and 4 (14-16 year olds) requires school pupils to learn about the sun, earth, moon and the solar system. The Government memorandum states that pupils are "encouraged to supplement their learning with activities such as visits to a planetarium, observing the night sky, and using online resources, including webcam pictures and satellite images of astronomical phenomena." On the effect that light pollution has on school pupils observing the night sky "the Government has no information on the extent to which this is the case."[42] Whilst planetaria do indeed engage children's interest, as Mr Bob Mizon of the Campaign for Dark Skies told us "sitting inside a plastic dome with little dots on the ceiling is nothing like sitting below the real night sky".[43]

30. The DfES estimate that approximately 480 students sat astronomy at GCSE level in June 2003. This shows an increase in numbers on the previous two years. We were also told by DfES that of the twenty four Science Specialist Colleges which came on stream in September 2002, only one planned to offer GCSE in Astronomy. However, of the fifty seven new Science Colleges to be operational from September 2003, three are planning to offer GCSE in Astronomy and one is offering Astronomy at AS level. [44]

31. Astronomy at GCSE level is currently only offered by Edexcel. Section 4.30 of the GCSE syllabus for Astronomy states that:

    It is necessary to "Describe the appearance of the Milky Way as seen with the naked eye, with binoculars and with a small telescope".

However, the Milky Way is only visible from approximately 30% of the country on a clear night.

32. The Minister for School Standards, Mr David Miliband MP, has told us on a previous occasion that science "does not mean that science teaching and science classes are restricted to giving them the facts."[45] In this inquiry, Mr Miliband told us "In science, practical work has a particular meaning and it is important to supplement the more traditional book or lecture based methods […] if we cannot give young people access to the night sky because of where they live, we have to find other ways of giving them practical engagement with the subject."[46] We were told by the Minister that the Government had put funding into "the two Australian telescopes to allow every school in the country to buy time through these telescopes and down the internet and to book half and hour at a time to study the stars through this Australian telescope […] I am told authoritatively that there is great viewing of the Milky Way through this Australian telescope".[47] We were surprised that the Minister for School Standards did not see the irony of his own words. Schools are now obliged to buy time to enable their pupils to view stars in the southern hemisphere, when the UK's own night skies should be there for all to view for free. Astronomy in the UK plays a valuable part in supporting the work of professionals, engaging young people in science, and producing astronomers and physicists through UK universities. It is not good enough that PPARC and the Department for Education and Skills had to pay for young people in schools to "book time" on overseas telescopes to see the night sky as it should be.

33. Whilst the development of new technologies is welcome, as Professor Murdin commented, "we would not ask that question for sport, would we. We would not say, 'is it okay for children to watch sport on a Saturday afternoon on the TV and not play it themselves'. Education is about experiencing things for yourself, not through somebody else's experience of it."[48] Viewing foreign skies through the internet should be used in tandem with practical observations of the stars in this country. Professor Sir Martin Rees told the Committee that the technical advances in the production of small telescopes allowed the viewer to see more varied objects whilst being within the affordable reach of schools as teaching aids.[49] Pupils should be able to study the night sky at school primarily with the naked eye or through a telescope rather than via a computer and the internet.

34. Many professional astronomers, physicists and teachers have written to us describing how the inspiring nature of the stars and the night sky led them to a career in science. Professor Halliday himself told us that "I was brought into science as a 15 or 16 year old first of all by being taken out to see the Northern Lights in Scotland by my father, expressing interest, then getting engaged with a local society which was interested and is still there."[50] Professor Halliday told us of the growing partnership between PPARC, DfES and the increasing use of professional astronomers to engage local schools in astronomy: "We have an invitation from Charles Clarke to try to use space in a similar way, to get visibility in schools for things happening now in science."[51] There seems to be an acknowledgement within Government that Space is a good way to engage young scientists, but there is little real support for schools to use observing facilities in this country. The Department for Education and Skills should be supporting efforts to make the night sky available to all. We regret that it is not doing so at present.


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.[52] There are approximately three hundred PhD astronomy students funded by PPARC, and many more funded by the universities.[53] 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 electronics […] going on to be electronic engineers […] being attracted into science by studying astronomy."[54] Students tended to major in mainstream subjects such as physics, mathematics or electronic engineering, and then bolt on modules in astronomy.

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."[55] There had been a time when one university every year was adding astronomy into its physics teaching because of its attraction to students.[56] 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."[57] Professor Murdin also confirmed that there were a large number of overseas postgraduate students coming to the UK to study astronomy.[58] Professor Halliday of PPARC confirmed that the number of astronomy courses is growing much faster in comparison to courses in more applicable physics.[59]

37. There are approximately 33 observatories attached to universities. These observatories are where the majority of observing is done.[60] Training is carried out on easily observed astronomical objects, theoretically or by use of sites overseas.[61] However, Professor Murdin said "it is not practical to take students to Hawaii for a weekend trip to teach them how to use the telescopes."[62] 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.[63] 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.[64]

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.[65] 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."[66] However, significant investment by PPARC into the university facilities is not made due to the effect of light pollution in the UK,[67] 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.[68]

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."[69]

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".[70] 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 local schools.

1   Q 64 Back

2   Bob Mizon Light Pollution, Responses and Remedies, Springer-Verlag (London, 2001) p 25. Back

3   Ev 44 Back

4   Ev 215, 55 Back

5   Ev 115. For a more detailed description of the workings of the eye, see Light Pollution: Responses and Remedies, p 3. Back

6   Ev 197 Back

7   Ev 176 Back

8   Ev 223 Back

9   Ev 223 Back

10   Q 211 Back

11   Ev 204, Ev 223 Back

12   Ev 204 Back

13   Ev 203 Back

14   Q 221 Back

15   Q 66 Back

16   Ev 204 Back

17   Q 20 Back

18   Q 5 Back

19   Ev 160, 109 Back

20   Q 16 Back

21   Qq 15-18 Back

22   Q 15 Back

23   Q 4 Back

24   Q 16 Back

25   Q 16 Back

26   Ev 143 Back

27   Ev 35 Back

28   Ev 93 Back

29   Ev 96 Back

30   Ev 104 Back

31   Ev 129 Back

32   Qq 200-201 Back

33   Q 200 Back

34   Q 13 Back

35   Q 33 Back

36   Q 31 Back

37   Ev 53 Back

38   Q 200 Back

39   Q 65 Back

40   Ev 59 Back

41   Q 31 Back

42   Ev 224 Back

43   Q 31 Back

44   Ev 233 Back

45   Science and Technology Committee, Session 2002-03, Science and Technology from 14 to 19: The Government's Response, Minutes of Evidence, HC 1273-i, Q 58 Back

46   Q 199 Back

47   Q 181 and Q 183 Back

48   Q 32 Back

49   Q 64 Back

50   Q 200 Back

51   Q 200 Back

52   Q 1 Back

53   Q 205 Back

54   Q 7 Back

55   Q 9 Back

56   Q 10 Back

57   Q 63 Back

58   Q 12 Back

59   Q 202 Back

60   Ev 234 Back

61   Ev 176 Back

62   Q 5 Back

63   Q 48 Back

64   Ev 177 Back

65   Q 207 Back

66   Q 65 Back

67   Q 212 Back

68   Qq 212, 217 Back

69   Q 216 Back

70   Q 37 Back

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