Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Written Evidence

Memorandum 5

Submission from the Radio and Space Plasma Physics Research Group, University of Leicester


  1.  We are aware that a number of written submissions have been made to the IUS Select Committee investigation of the Science Budget Allocation in response to the statement in the STFC Delivery Plan (11 December 2007) that "We will cease all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities". These submissions emphasise the UK-wide community view of the scientific and societal significance of these facilities, and the negative impacts that will result from the intended cessation of support. The purpose of this submission is to draw specific attention to the effect of this decision on the research programme of the Radio & Space Plasma Physics (RSPP) group in the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Leicester, currently the largest university group undertaking research in this discipline, and its inappropriateness in relation to the STFC's stated mission and remit.

  2.  During the past 20 years the RSPP group at Leicester has built a world-leading research programme in ground-based solar-terrestrial physics, based on applications of radar techniques to studies of the polar upper atmosphere. It has designed, built, and now operates radar facilities in Iceland, Finland, and on Svalbard within the Arctic Circle, the scientific discoveries from which have resulted in major national and international awards to Leicester staff, and the acquisition of a world-class reputation for both scientific and technical excellence. The announcement of the STFC decision promises to bring this programme to an end, with the loss of both scientific and technical capability, and the waste of major investments over recent years both personal and financial. The high-power Spear radar facility on Svalbard, in particular, was completed only two years ago at a cost to the former PPARC of over £2 million, with a planned scientific programme of at least 10 years. The STFC decision will thus disrupt and terminate productive careers at Leicester, resulting in the dismissal of both scientific and technical staff, waste substantial investments of public money, and damage the UK's reputation and prestige through our withdrawal from international collaborations to which we are major contributors.

  3.  Withdrawal of support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics will also have major negative impact on the training of young scientists, who through their work at Leicester gain hands-on experience of research using world-class experimental facilities. Such direct experience has now become a rarity within the STFC remit, where much of research training is conducted at considerable distance using data from large international facilities. The loss to economic benefit and knowledge transfer will also be considerable. Radar systems commissioned from us by other international institutes are currently operating in Alaska, Antarctica, and Japan, earning income to the UK that has exceeded the initial research council investment, and related negotiations are currently in progress with institutes in China and Russia. Such activities cannot be sustained in the absence of an on-going research programme at Leicester. The scientific knowledge gained from this research also has immediate applicability eg to defence radar systems, mitigation of the effect of "space weather" on technological systems, and in novel techniques for geological exploration.

  4.  The existing and future potential for world-class scientific research at Leicester, the contribution to the training of young scientists, and the immediate strong contribution to knowledge transfer, are all in direct line with the government's vision for the mission of the new research council. Against this background the STFC's own decision to withdraw all support from this area of work seems perverse, and to have been arrived at without rational basis. Three recommendations follow.

    (i)  That a detailed independent pre-implementation review be undertaken of the STFC Delivery Plan, in particular of the intent to cease support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities.

    (ii)  That there should be an enquiry into the transparency of decision-making within the research council, including the operation of peer-review, appropriate representation of the client community within the policy-forming structures, and the level of consultation and discussion with the community.

    (iii)  Consideration should be given to transferring grant-awarding activities in this specific field (and possibly across the board) from STFC to another body eg EPSRC or NERC, with appropriate transfer of funds. As a consequence of recent events we have lost confidence in the ability and willingness of the present research council and its executive to provide appropriate future stewardship of university research in our discipline to the benefit of the nation.

February 2008

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