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

Memorandum 18

Submission from the Space Plasma Environment and Radio Science Group at Lancaster University


Executive Summary

  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 AuroraWatch[34] website and a leading role in the Sun Earth Plan website[35], 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[36].

  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"[37]. 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"[38]. 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"[39]. 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 research council.

  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[40]. 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 impact.

January 2008

34 Back

35 Back

36   by Systems Engineering and Assessment Ltd. (available from ESA, contact A. Glover: Back

37   IPCC Technical Summary. In: Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. Back

38   in oral evidence given to the Commons Public Accounts Committee. Back

39 Back

40   Dr. Reiner Friedel (Los Alamos National Laboratory), Space Weather Week Workshop, 2003. Back

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