Submission from the Department of Physics,
Having recently attended a meeting at University
of Durham, where our local MP (one of your members, Dr Roberta
Blackman-Woods) discussed the funding situation with STFC, I was
moved to write a brief account of the personal impact this funding
cut will have on my own research and employment.
My name is Dr. Sam Nolan and I am currently
employed by the University of Durham as an Associate Fellow in
Astronomy. For several years before this I was employed by PPARC
on various research grants in the field of gamma-ray astronomy.
The success of these grants (more of which later) being such that
in November last year the department of Physics at the University
took me on as full time staff.
When I started my PhD, 10 years ago, my field
of astronomy was in its infancy. But thanks to the hard work of
my collaborators and I in Durham and within the European and African
collaboration in which I work, we have brought this field to maturity
in recent years and produced many Nature and Science
articles. Although our grant from STFC has been a modest £150,000/annum,
our collaboration (HESS) has recently been awarded with the 2 million
Euro Descartes prize for European collaborative science. With
the recent decisions from STFC, not only will the UK's involvement
in this rapidly evolving area of astronomy cease, but there will
also be significant problems for our European partners as a result.
This is due to the fact that the UK provides key calibration data,
without which the telescopes are unable to take high-quality data.
Although the field of ground-based gamma-ray
astronomy had modest beginnings at Harwell in the early 1950s
it is fair to say that all the key breakthroughs that have created
its recent successes are due to either science carried out in
the UK or by UK scientists using international facilities. I therefore
find it difficult to see why, for such a small investment and
large return, our funding has been withdrawn without consultation.
After finishing my PhD in Durham for example
I went to work in the States on a NASA fellowship, but it was
the continuing commitment to this evolving field and the significant
expertise available within the UK that made me return to Durham.
Currently I am involved in a large amount of
teaching within not only Durham University but the Open University
as well. In addition I believe that science cannot afford to exist
within a vacuum and so I give regular talks to local schools and
societies, attempting to explain and enthuse the next generation
of students. In addition our research has appeared in several
news articles as well as being the topic of a recent BBC Radio 4
documentary in the Frontiers series. None of this would be possible
without the current STFC funding. Having grown up myself in rural
Cumbria, I know how vital these outreach events are, as without
them I would never have been encouraged to learn physics or become
In addition, for the small investment we require
to operate, we are developing two spinout technology companies.
One that seeks to design high performance mirrors -for not only
astronomy but also solar light collection for heating and light.
The second project (in collaboration with AGI Ltd) is developing
an atmospheric quality monitor for use by the military on aircraft
carriers. The nature of this is directly related to the calibration
systems we currently use for our telescopes. Therefore in effect
this current STFC decision will cease these industrial collaborations
Now that I have reached a point in my career
where I am able to become an independent researcher, and working
within such a developing field which is truly the newest form
of astronomy, and can shed light on many of the big questions,
such as the origin of cosmic-radiation and the nature of dark
matter, I find it truly unimaginable that STFC has chosen its
current path. Without review or consultation with any academic
in the field, STFC has informed us that the UK "will cease
to invest in high-energy gamma ray astronomy experiments".
Not only does this raise questions about the future of my own
career at the University but that of at least a dozen of my colleagues,
some students and some postdoctoral researchers.
I therefore would urge the parliamentary committee
to question at the highest levels the threat that is befalling
this small but rapidly evolving area of Physics. Without at the
very least a review of the subject, STFC have written off one
of the most successful experiments in recent years and removed
the ability for UK scientists to become involved in future projects
within this field.