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

Memorandum 26

Submission from Dr Sam Nolan, University of Durham

  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 a 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 I therefore find it difficult to see why, for such a small investment and large return, our funding has been withdrawn without consultation.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 an astronomer.

  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 as well.

  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.

February 2008

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