Submission from the Space Plasma Environment
and Radio Science Group at Lancaster University
1. Solar Terrestrial Physics (STP) addresses
the Earth's space environment and has important applications to
space technology and the potential for significant economic benefits.
The UK STP community is internationally recognised as world-leading
in this field. Most of the research is currently funded through
the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) and will
be harmed severely by the new strategy delivery plan. The cut
to STP within the new delivery plan is inconsistent with the remit
of STFC, which is focussed on maximising economic and societal
return from the science that it funds. We make a series of recommendations
for resolving the important issues outlined within this document.
2. The Space Plasma Environment and Radio
Science (SPEARS) group forms part of the Department of Communication
Systems at Lancaster University. Much of our funding relies on
a rolling grant from STFC and our research hinges upon combining
ground- and space based instrumentation to study the near-Earth
space environment. SPEARS' expertise in ground-based instrumentation
is demonstrated by the fact that it has been awarded contracts
to build instruments for other UK research groups as well as India,
Norway and China and its position as the principal investigator
for a consortium of 14 countries investigating charged particle
dynamics in the Earth's plasma environment. SPEARS has a leading
role in one of the identified International Polar Year programmes.
Our outreach activities in promoting science include the popular
website and a leading role in the Sun Earth Plan website,
a showcase for UK solar system science research.
Solar-Terrestrial Physics (STP): What it is and
why it matters
3. STP and Technology. STP seeks
to understand the influence of the Sun on the Earth's space environment.
This environment is of great importance to modern civilisation
which relies heavily on space-based technology such as communication
and navigation satellites. The term Space Weather was coined
to describe the large transient events that can cause major damage
to satellites. Increased radiation hazards from such events pose
risks to air crews and electronics. This is only a small, but
important, part of the work that we do. UK STP scientists are
also involved in applications concerning the effects on radio
communications, and electricity and oil supply networks. A recent
study for the European Space Agency (ESA) suggested that the potential
market for space weather services was in excess of EUR 1 billion
over 15 years.
4. Climate Change. According to the
IPCC in 2007, " . . . uncertainties remain large because
of the lack of direct observations and incomplete understanding
of solar variability mechanisms over long time scales".
It is increasingly essential that we establish how important the
solar effect on climate change is so that anthropogenic effects
can be properly defined. As recently as May 2007 Sir Keith O'Nions
asserted that "the physics of the upper atmosphere will be
a very key part of climate change".
UK STP scientists are well placed to drive this area of research
and ground-based instrumentation plays a vital role in supplying
those long-term monitoring capabilities that the IPCC has identified
as so important.
STP and its Position in the UK Research Portfolio
5. UK STP research has been recognised as
world-leading by the 2005 review "International Perceptions
of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy".
UK expertise lies in combining ground- and space-based observations.
The multi-disciplinary nature of STP requires such a synergetic
approach in order to see the complete picture. The international
review panel explicitly recognised that strength: "UK researchers
have an exceptionally strong standing in solar physics as well
as space-based and ground-based space physics".
6. In many ways STP operates in a manner
similar to the geosciences, eg the role of long-term monitoring
and the growing importance of understanding complex systems. This
is recognised internationally by the positioning of STP in international
geophysical organisations (eg AGU, EGU, IUGG). A recent example
is the decision of the EU COST programme to recognise the science
of space weather as part of Earth System Science. In the UK, STP
has long been considered as a subsidiary of Astronomy and consequently
STP as a distinctive field in its own right has often attracted
minority funding and has little or no representation within the
7. Though there is much "blue-skies"
research in the field, this is necessary to underpin the important
technological and predictive applications achieved through long-term
monitoring and modelling.
Impact of the STFC Delivery plan
8. A new science strategy delivery plan
has been brought forward by STFC with a distinct lack of transparency
and consultation within the wider science community. This new
delivery plan states that:
"We will cease all support for ground-based
solar-terrestrial physics facilities."
"We will target our investment in astronomy
grants taking account of reduced facility availability."
9. There is no justification for this statement
within the document and no further mention of space-based STP
or solar physics. Existing space-based STP missions that monitor
the Earth's space environment are approaching the end of their
operational lifetimes and are likely to be ranked as low priority
by STFC in their on-going programmatic review. As such the delivery
plan effectively removes all capability in STP from the UK along
with our international reputation. Indeed, suggesting that STP
can be performed without a ground-based capability is disingenuous;
this has been likened to attempting to describe the weather patterns
for North America using just a handful of thermometers, without
knowing exactly where they are.
As mentioned earlier, STP provides an important contribution to
understanding climate change; STFC has highlighted the importance
of climate change in its remit by including the question "How
does our climate work?" in its own delivery plan. This makes
their decision to cut such an important resource even more unfathomable.
10. The chief executive of STFC has suggested
that the stated withdrawal of funding is a consolidation of decisions
made under PPARC's 2005 programmatic review. However, the decisions
arrived at in that review pertained to a limited number of instruments,
hardly "all . . . ground-based solar-terrestrial physics
facilities", and in fact institutes that operated some
of those instruments were encouraged to seek additional funding
through the grants line (including the current round of grants).
11. It is clear from the delivery plan and
comments from the STFC executive that STFC is pursuing a policy
of maximising economic impact from the science that it supports.
It would seem that STFC has completely overlooked the fact that
STP and solar science have large economic and societal impact.
In fact the decision to remove funding for STP ground-based facilities
was taken under the old PPARC remit rather than under the auspice
of STFC. The ESA report referred to earlier also highlighted the
cost-effective nature of ground-based measurements for space weather
monitoring; the UK receives a large scientific return for very
small investment. They are a key element in stimulating the growth
in this market and if STFC invests to support innovation in the
ground-based STP programme, significant benefits could be accrued.
To operate the current levels of ground-based instrumentation
in STP for a year costs less than £1 million (including an
international subscription to the world-leading EISCAT radars).
Since STFC is attempting to cut £120 million over three years
this equates to a saving of less than 2.5% whilst removing a complete
area of scientific expertise from the UK.
12. Recommendation 1: Investigate whether
STP is appropriately placed within the STFC. Given the nature
of STP it might be better positioned within another research council,
such as EPSRC or NERC, or even within a new funding organisation
dedicated to Space Science representing solar, planetary and solar-terrestrial
physics and associated technology.
13. Recommendation 2: To recognise that
the new delivery plan does not have the backing of the scientific
community since no peer review or consultation has been carried
out in its production. To request STFC place implementation of
the delivery plan on hold, or dismiss it with a view to producing
a proper delivery plan.
14. Recommendation 3: The Royal Society
has stated that the announced review of physics is not a solution
to the crisis and suggests that money be used from the capital
budget to cover the shortfall. We endorse the RS statement and
request Government to respond to this request.
15. Recommendation 4: We request that
funding for research in STP be restored in order to maintain our
national capability in this important area of science, recognising
STP's contribution to knowledge exchange and economic and societal
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