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

Memorandum 27

Submission from Jim Hinton, STFC Advanced Fellow, School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Leeds

  I am writing to you as someone heavily affected by the STFC funding crisis, in particular the statement in the Delivery Plan 2008/9-2011/12 that the STFC will *"cease to invest in high energy gamma-ray astronomy experiments"*, in the hope that this issue could be brought up at the Science Budget Allocations meeting this Wednesday. I realize that the decision to axe gamma-ray astronomy was made in the context of a general crisis in astronomy funding, but I would like to try to persuade you that this particular decision is unnecessarily damaging to UK science.

  Gamma-rays lie at the extreme high energy end of the electromagnetic spectrum and as such represent a frontier in astronomy. The first source of TeV photons (12 orders of magnitude more energetic than visible light) photons was discovered in 1989 and within the last few years rapid progress has been made using an instrument called HESS More than 70 sources are now known and new classes of TeV emitters have been announced in a string of papers in the journals Nature and Science. HESS recently won the European Union Descartes prize for Science Research

  The Cherenkov Telescope Array (CTA) project is a next generation instrument, planned to be ten times more sensitive than HESS, which is highly ranked in several European science roadmaps (eg ASPERA and involves 11 European countries.

  The UK is well represented in these projects despite a very small share in the total costs. Of the seven science working groups in HESS, two are led by UK scientists (myself and Paula Chadwick at Durham). In CTA, three UK groups are involved and I am the coordinator of the working group designing the array through performance simulations (arguably the most important aspect of the design study). It is a bitter irony that ground-based gamma-ray astronomy has been supported in the UK through two decades of difficult pioneering activity, but now that the field has emerged as major astronomical discipline, the UK is planning to withdraw. Now is really a time to reap the benefits of these years of low level investment.

  The impact of this decision on me personally is very negative. I received my PhD from the University of Leeds in 1998 working on cosmic rays with Prof. Alan Watson FRS. I then spent 6 years abroad, working in the field of very high energy gamma-ray astronomy, firstly at the University of Chicago and later at the Max Planck Institute for Nuclear Physics in Heidelberg. After being awarded an international prize (the Duggal Award£duggal), I returned to the UK in September 2006, to take up a 5 year STFC Advanced Fellowship, to continue my research in the gamma-ray field. For this work, I was recently awarded the UK Institute of Physics (IOP) Nuclear and Particle Physics Division Prize for 2007. In the light of these achievements, I had hoped to secure a permanent post working in the UK in gamma-ray astronomy in the near future. Having just bought a house in Leeds, I am now faced with the choice of moving back to Germany (or France, Italy, Spain, Ireland . . . ) or the USA to continue my work, or giving up my prominent place in an exciting and rapidly moving field, for an uncertain future in a different area of astrophysics.

  My colleagues in the department are similarly affected and my PhD student Joanna Skilton, who started in 2007, has also been placed in a very unfortunate position. This decision sends the wrong message both to young scientists in the UK and to the international community: that the UK is not the right place to do cutting-edge research. I consider gamma-ray astronomy to be excellent science and good value for money.

  Less than 1 million pounds is needed in total over three years to exploit current instruments and prepare for the future. This is also an area of research that is inspiring to many non-scientists (this is the high energy frontier of astronomy and we deal with very exotic objects such as supermassive black holes and supernova explosions). To leave this field now would in my view be a huge wasted opportunity for UK science.

February 2008

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