Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 48

Submission from a group of interested scientists

  We would like to bring to the attention of the Committee a potential problem related to the incorporation of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) into a new Large Facilities Council (LFC). The UK has a major planetary science community which has extensive links with industry and generates substantial public interest. Some important areas of UK planetary sciences are booming and ripe for discovery as demonstrated by increased numbers of Science and Nature articles for example. However, these are not all linked to specific missions or large facilities. At present PPARC provides support for much of this research through its Solar System Sub-Panel (SSSP). Although the basis for establishing the LFC makes sense it is unclear how these particular programmes would be treated in future as more pressing large facilities costs eat into basic science spend. This should be discussed and planned strategically rather than being a matter of speculation.

  Planetary science includes planetary geology, cosmochemistry, mineral physics, astrobiology, impact research, geophysical fluid dynamics and parts of theoretical astrophysics. Most of these involve sophisticated lab-based activities, theory, computer modelling, field studies and image processing that would not normally be thought of in the context of a "large facility", nor is their viability necessarily dependent on the outcome of planetary missions, though they clearly benefit from these and often provide the scientific justification and underpinning for such activities. Indeed, many such UK programmes run alongside mission-related exploration technology development aspects in the same group or department.

  These areas of science are concerned with how stars and planets form and function, and how to make and sustain habitable environments. The big science questions addressed include: Where do the elements come from? How and why did the Sun form? How are planets, including the Earth-Moon system, made? How did Earth acquire its atmosphere, water and carbon? Are the conditions that gave rise to our Solar System, our Earth and life likely to be common to planetary systems elsewhere in the universe? These are subjects of deep significance and widespread fascination that the public want to see answered. It is high impact science that goes right to the heart of the subject of origins—why we are here. The research carries that sense of wonder that captures our imagination whether we are professional scientists, or teenagers deciding which A-levels to take.

  Although much of the current research seeks to understand the formation of our own Solar System it is increasingly linked to observations of other stars, discs and solar systems. As such it is providing vital information that needs to be fed into searches for exosolar Earth-like planets and life in the Universe. With some notable exceptions (eg mineral physics and Diamond) it does not use large facilities and many of the outputs, such as Science and Nature articles, are not related to missions. Yet it is very relevant to some of the big parts of the PPARC science agenda. Furthermore, it impacts research funded by other UK funding bodies. These obviously include NERC-funded studies of the Earth and its climate as well as life in extreme environments. They also interface with EPSRC-funded work on robotics and communication and BBSRC-funded astrobiology and planetary protection.

  Two examples serve to illustrate the vitality of this sector of UK science.

  The first example is cosmochemistry. This subject has been booming internationally in recent years, thanks in part to new mass spectrometry technologies developed by companies in the UK, France and Germany. We are world leaders in this area technology-wise. Furthermore, the UK has some well known scientists who have been producing many prominent scientific publications. So strong has the growth of this field been that it has put significant pressure on funding within PPARC.

  A glance through any recent major review volumes on the subject will demonstrate that the UK punches well above its weight in cosmochemistry. One gets the same impression from looking at the top science journals Science and Nature, as illustrated by the following examples from 2005 alone. Authors from Oxford and Bristol published details of how the Earth's core formed. Scientists from Cambridge and the Natural History Museum published a major article on the timescales for the evolution of the circumstellar disk from which the Solar System formed. A group from the Open University found evidence from asteroids of global-scale melting in the early Solar System. Manchester University scientists demonstrated how the Earth acquired its noble gases. Oxford University scientists established the age of the Moon. In articles soon to appear in the journal Science, groups from half a dozen UK institutions will join NASA scientists in describing the first materials returned from a comet. These are stunning results from experiments that in many cases utilise custom-designed technology that define the cutting edge in analytical methods. The UK is very good at this and the field should be nurtured and stimulated.

  Second, mineral physics, is a good "horizon scanning" example. The scope for studies of planetary interiors is considerable in the UK. The subject as a whole links the fields of planetary geophysics, fluid dynamics, petrology and mineral physics. However, the limits on our understanding have been moved forward most dramatically by new kinds of computational models and experimental techniques that simulate extreme high pressure environments as characterise the interiors of planets. This is an area where major discoveries are expected in the coming years. For example, we need to understand the physics and chemistry of what happens when worlds collide and rip each other apart and then re-accrete, which is the main way in which terrestrial planets are made. Until recently this was impossible; we did not have the ability to acquire the physics and chemistry data to model these amazingly energetic events. But now we are getting very close and the UK has some of the clever people and labs to be Europe-leading and second only to the US in this area. Not surprisingly the opportunities for knowledge transfer perceived by the defence industry are also significant and this area of science ties into facilities like Diamond.

  The primary purpose of this letter is to draw attention to the importance of such research for the UK science agenda and request that a properly thought through vision, prioritising and strategy be put in place in order that these science areas are stimulated and developed further within a sensible, forward-thinking funding framework. There may well be other parts of PPARC science to which this also applies. The LFC could be exactly the right kind of council for supporting all of these areas of science in such a manner. However, this has not been made clear and it would seem that more discussion is necessary.

Prof Chris Ballentine, Manchester University

Dr Gretchen Benedix, Natural History Museum

Dr Phil Bland, Imperial College London

Prof David Clary FRS, Oxford University

Dr Gareth Collins, Imperial College London

Dr Tim Elliott, Bristol University

Prof Philip England FRS, Oxford University

Dr Albert Galy, Cambridge University

Dr Matt Genge, Imperial College London

Dr Jamie Gilmour, Manchester University

Dr Simon Green, The Open University

Dr Richard Greenwood, The Open University

Prof Alex Halliday FRS, Oxford University

Prof Chris Hawkesworth FRS, Bristol University

Dr Pat Irwin, Oxford University

Prof Andrew Jephcoat. Oxford University

Mr Anton Kearsley, Natural History Museum

Dr Ian Lyon, Manchester University

Dr Tamsin Mather, Oxford University

Prof Dan McKenzie FRS CH, Cambridge University

Dr Joanna Morgan, Imperial College London

Dr Stephen Parman, Durham University

Dr Don Porcelli, Oxford University

Prof David Price, University College London

Prof Peter Read, Oxford University

Dr Mark Rehkamper, Imperial College London

Dr Sara Russell, Natural History Museum

Dr Mark Sephton, Imperial College London

Dr Caroline Smith, Natural History Museum

Prof Grenville Turner FRS, Manchester University

Prof Mike Warner, Imperial College London

Prof Duncan Wingham, University College London

Dr Helen Williams, Oxford University

Prof Ian Wright, The Open University

October 2006

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