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

Memorandum 6

Submission from the UK Solar Physics Community


  UK Solar Physics (UKSP) is the body representing UK scientists engaged in solar physics, the study of the basic physical workings of the Sun. Solar physics addresses all parts of the Sun, from the fusion power source in its deep interior to the origin and evolution of the surface disturbances and radiation that affect Earth's near-space environment (space weather). UKSP represents UK scientists at all career stages, in Universities and in Government laboratories. This submission reflects our very deep concern at the 2008-11 Comprehensive Spending Review and the STFC Delivery Plan. These will seriously affect the UK's national capacity and international leadership in Solar Physics, Space Physics and Solar Terrestrial Physics (STP).

  1.  Solar Physics is the study of the fundamental physical processes governing our star. Conditions on Earth, including climate conditions, are to varying degrees sensitive to the everyday radiation output of the Sun, and on its magnetic field (which shields the solar system from external influences). These vary on timescales of years, and are constantly monitored. Frequent but intermittent violent solar activity (solar flares and mass ejections) drives or moderates all aspects of space weather, known to cause serious damage to satellites, global communication systems and power grids. Solar physics is a necessary component of space weather prediction, without which manned exploration of the solar system is manifestly more dangerous. Therefore studying the basic physics of the Sun has obvious environmental, security and socio-economic implications.

  2.  The Sun provides a unique laboratory for studying the basic properties of plasmas, the "fourth state of matter", under conditions not currently achievable on Earth. This plays an important part in our understanding of laboratory-based controlled fusion reactors, an environmentally friendly, realistic solution to our future energy requirements with paramount international interest.

  3.  Solar Physics is closely related to both Astronomy and Solar Terrestrial Physics (STP). The Sun is the only star in the Universe close enough to study in detail, therefore providing invaluable, and in many aspects the only insight into the working of other stars and astrophysical objects.

  4.  The Sun's proximity and its evident effect on human activities, means that solar physics and STP is a highly effective topic for scientific dialogue with the public.

  5.  The International Review of UK Physics and Astronomy Research 2005 stated,

    "UK researchers have an exceptionally strong standing in solar physics as well as space-based and ground-based space physics. The UK has a world-leading role in helioseismology, dynamo theory, coronal activity, magnetic reconnection, and shock physics, thus covering many of the important aspects of the Sun-Earth connection."

  This strong standing exists in all disciplines of solar physics ranging from satellite and ground-based instrumentation design, data collection and analysis, to the development of fundamental theory. UKSP punches well above its weight in internationally leading research, and for a relatively modest investment.

  6.  Continued understanding of the Sun and its frequent dynamic energy releases will be essential for controlling the radiation hazard for future Lunar base and Mars Mission astronauts. Thus, maintaining a strong solar physics base is in the UK is essential for the success of these future endeavours.

  7.  The diversity of research carried out in solar physics, ranging from instrument development and design to data stream communications, image processing and supercomputing techniques, provides a positive economic impact on UK high-tech industries. Many of our graduates go on to apply these skills in the Telecommunications, Space, Defence, Financial and Medical Imaging industries.

  8.  The funding settlement for the STFC has resulted in a shortfall of £80 million compared to the level required to fulfil its responsibilities over the next three years. By cutting this fundamental research the UK Solar Physics community, which currently has a strong and leading international standing, will be seriously disadvantaged. We will not be able to exploit the full benefits of our ESA membership.

  9.  Reductions of this magnitude will result in a serious cut in grants to universities and will undermine the effectiveness of UK research and the future recruitment of science students at all levels, including postgraduate students, for the foreseeable future. It will reduce the national capacity to innovate and generate commercially competitive technology that depends directly or indirectly, on advances in physics and astronomy. Such a loss of capacity in terms of laboratory facilities and personnel will damage not only our current research programmes but compromise future participation in space science.

  10.  Solar physics and solar-terrestrial physics are closely allied disciplines and both are necessary for developing a physical understanding of space physics and a predictive capacity for space weather. Therefore UKSP supports the request from our sister discipline to halt the withdrawal from their ground-based facilities.

  11.  We recommend that:

    (1)  The Select Committee takes a long-term view of the importance of Solar Physics and Space Physics for continued recruitment, education and knowledge exchange within the UK. With this in mind adequate funding should be made available by Government so that the UK continues to meet its present commitments.

    (2)  All proposed cuts within STFC be put on immediate hold until the findings of the Wakeham Review are published and a proper review of UK Space Physics reported. In fact, to retain our international leading position an increase of funding is required.

    (3)  Proper engagement, engendering trust and understanding, must occur between the management of STFC and all areas of the scientific community that it represents.

    (4)  Funding is restored for research, education and training that is adequate to maintain international leadership in solar, solar-terrestrial, and space physics.

February 2008

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