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

Memorandum 13

Submission from the Standing Conference of Astronomy Professors (SCAP)


  The SCAP is an independent body representing those UK Professors who research and teach in subjects relating to space physics and all of the Universe beyond the Earth's lower atmosphere. In the following, the meaning of the word "astronomy" should therefore be interpreted as including: space environment and exploration physics; solar and planetary science; astrophysics and cosmology; and related work in cutting-edge technology and instrumentation, e-science and high-performance computing.

  I write to you as Chair of SCAP, to communicate outcomes of a special SCAP meeting held on January 16 in London. This meeting was attended by 40 professors from 18 universities. The present letter also incorporates the views expressed in writing by SCAP members who were not able to be present at the meeting. We endorse the main points made in a joint submission from the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society, which accompanied their letter to you dated January 11.

  The SCAP wishes to emphasise the following particular and additional crucial points.

    1.  Astronomy and space physics research groups and their university departments provide a superb and extensive training environment for future generations of scientists. We estimate that around half of all physics students are attracted into the subject by astronomy and space physics. This effectively provides billions of pounds' worth of training of a highly skilled science workforce for the UK economy.

    2.  Our subjects also make a substantial positive impact on the economy via knowledge transfer into high-technology and advanced computing and software. Furthermore they contribute enormously to the development of a science-literate culture, by enthusing society with the results of astronomical and space research.

    3.  The apparent STFC funding uplift within the CSRO7 allocations actually falls far short (to the extent of some £80 million) of covering the responsibilities assigned to the new Research Council following the merger of its predecessor Research Councils PPARC and CCLRC.

    4.  The £80 million shortfall will necessitate a considerable cut in research volume in key areas of astronomy and space physics which are recognized as world-leading. This will affect many universities and also STFC's developing science innovation campuses. In turn, this will surely have a crippling impact on the training programmes. Already, the current crisis appears to be having a very adverse effect on the morale of postgraduate and undergraduate students, and this will inevitably deter many potential future students, thus undermining some of the Government's laudable initiatives to generate a workforce trained in the sciences.

    5.  The precipitous nature of the cuts is forcing the UK to withdraw undiplomatically from high profile international facilities in our subjects, for example, the Gemini Telescopes. Such cuts may therefore reflect badly on the UK's reliability as an international partner across a much wider range of disciplines.

    6.  A significant contribution to the current problems has been the fact that the "near-cash" fraction of STFC's budget is much smaller than for the other research councils. The very exploitation of astronomy facilities which generates the attraction for students, training, etc, is thus dramatically squeezed by funding fluctuations. A fair way of mitigating these effects is for increased running costs of major facilities such as Diamond and ISIS to be allocated to the research councils who most use them.

    7.  Compensation for changes in international subscriptions should be borne at higher level by the Treasury. These subscriptions raise the UK's overall profile on the international stage, and generate significant revenues from contracts placed with UK industry.

    8.  Serious consideration should be given to establishing methods for including the more indirect and long-term benefits of world-class pure science research (points 1 and 2 above, and eg the creation of the World Wide Web in CERN) within all calculations of economic impact. Concentrating too much on near-market impacts seriously risks squeezing huge benefits out of the equation and thence out of the UK.

  Some more detailed information on these points is included below in an appendix to this letter.

  In conclusion, members of the Standing Conference of Astronomy Professors are deeply concerned both by the immediate impact of precipitous cuts in this basic research, and by the longer-term implications. We urge that steps be taken both in the short term to prevent irreversible unplanned decline, and in the longer term to place such fundamental research on a sustainable footing. Investments in STFC basic science will be repaid many times over.

January 2008

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