Submission from Johannes Knapp, Head of
High-Energy Astrophysics, School of Physics and Astronomy, University
We in Leeds, and colleagues from other UK universities,
are directly suffering from the recent decision at STFC to "
. . . cease to invest in high-energy gamma ray astronomy experiments".
Seemingly, this decision has been taken by the CEO of STFC without
consultation with any of the STFC panels or the wider community.
Even the Head of Strategy of STFC, John Womersley, was taken by
As Gamma Ray Astronomy is a comparatively small
(and cheap) part of Astro- and Particle Physics you may not have
heard yet about this aspect of the funding crisis. With this letter
I just wish to add one more facet to the picture, a facet with
very serious consequences for some of us and for the UK.
High-energy gamma ray astronomy was pioneered
in the UK, and key techniques have been developed here. The UK
was involved in most major gamma ray experiments since the first
successful detection of a gamma ray source in 1989. The amounts
of UK funding available where never generous (order £0.3
million per year), but sufficient to stay a full collaboration
member, alongside our American and European colleagues.
With the most recent generation of telescopes
(HESS, VERITAS) the field experienced a boom. The source count
went from about 10 in 2000 to over 100 now, and there is no end
in sight. Gamma Ray astronomy has become one of the hottest topics
in physics and a well-established discipline, similar to optical
or X-ray astronomy. Exciting results are regularly published in
high-ranked journals such as Science and Nature, prestigious prizes
are given out for results in this area (eg the Descartes Prize
of the European Union), and our students and young scientists
find this field very attractive.
As a consequence of the boom a large European
gamma ray observatory (CTA) is now proposed. It is one of the
top-ranked projects in the "European Strategy Forum on Research
Infrastructures" (ESFRI), the "Astroparticle Physics
European Coordination" (APPEC) roadmap and the "AStroParticle
ERAnet" (ASPERA) roadmap.
The latter is an initiative to co-ordinate funding
of Astroparticle Physics across European funding agencies and
it was set up with significant effort of PPARC (the predecessor
of STFC). There is no doubt that CTA will be built (with generous
funding from Germany, France and other European countries), that
it will detect of the order of a thousand new sources, that it
will yield an exceptional scientific return and that it will push
this and related fields to new heights.
As it stands, however, this will happen without
UK involvement. If we cannot participate in the design and construction
we cannot be members of the collaboration and harvest the scientific
results. Even worse, without funding we will have to leave the
current experiments (HESS and VERITAS) which we have helped to
design, for which we have built equipment and which are now in
a very productive (and comparatively cheap) exploitation phase.
Who would invest in an experiment and then leave when finally
data start to come in? Especially if the cost savings are so modest
as in our case. Gamma Ray Astronomy is extremely good value for
money, compared to other projects funded by STFC. The withdrawal
from running experiments will severely damage our reputation as
collaboration partners and impede future UK involvement in large
European or American projects for many years to come.
The UK community is of the order of 50 physicists
(this was the number of participants at a gamma ray workshop in
Leeds in December 2007), and many peers do have very positive
views on this area of research. I think it would be only fair
to have our field properly reviewed, and reasons given, before
making the decision to kill it. I am sure the outcome of a peer
review would be favourable for us.