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

Memorandum 25

Submission from Johannes Knapp, Head of High-Energy Astrophysics, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leeds

  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 surprise.

  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.

February 2008

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