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

Memorandum 30

Submission from Dr Mark Thompson, Centre for Astrophysics Research, University of Hertfordshire

  I was fortunate enough to hear your comments on last weeks Today programme and very glad to hear that your Select Committee would be looking into the issue of the catastrophic settlement for Physics & Astronomy from DIUS.

  I am writing to bring your attention to a number of issues resulting from the funding cuts to Physics and Astronomy and to urge the Select Committee to consider these issues in the New Year. I am a recently appointed lecturer in Astrophysics at the University of Hertfordshire, a practising research scientist and also the Admissions Tutor for Physics for the University.

  Firstly, as I understand it, the settlements in the Spending Review for scientific research seem to have been made on a very short-term economic potential basis. This basis will cause significant damage to UK Science all for the short-term good of UK plc. The cuts of 25% to the grants line at the Science & Technologies Facility Council (STFC) will result in the loss of many of our youngest and best scientific minds at the precise time when our country is becoming the best place in Europe to perform scientific research.

  I would draw your attention to the recent funding announcement by the European Research Council for their Starting Grant Scheme. Along with many other European researchers I took part in this competition this year, which is designed to reward scientific excellence by giving young researchers the funds to set up their own research teams.

  Unfortunately I was not successful, but UK-based researchers were the clear winners in this very competitive process: the UK has both the largest fraction of awarded grants and is the country of residence of the largest fraction of successful applicants. In monetary terms the strong success of the UK's researchers has resulted in somewhere in the region of ð€ñ120 million being brought into the country. Whilst not all of this benefit is due to researchers working within the purview of STFC, it is clear that this success is entirely due to the strong research culture of the UK and the support given to postdoctoral researchers through the grants line. These postdoctoral researchers (of whom I was one just three years ago) contain the next generation of scientific leaders. With a 25% cut to the astronomy and particle physics grants line many of our best researchers will be lost, the research environment will be weakened and it is very unlikely that the UK will be able to compete as significantly as it has in the European (or worldwide) funding arena.

  Secondly, the UK has long enjoyed a very strong astronomy and astrophysics research base. Indeed we are the preeminent astronomy research country within Europe and second only to the US. In a number of fields, my own of sub-mm astronomy included, we are the clear world-leaders. This is in no small part due to the researchers supported by the grants line, who compete in one of the most darwinian research cultures in the world. These researchers put their personal lives and careers on the line to answer some of the most fundamental questions in the Universe and have truly given the UK its preeminent position. This position makes the UK a very attractive place for the researchers of all nationalities to come and work in.

  My own university department has recently recruited astronomical researchers from Germany, the US, Spain, France, Mexico, all of whom were keen to come to the UK to take part in its strong research base.

  For the UK to withdraw in large part from astronomy and particle physics will not only mean the loss of top foreign researchers wanting to come here, but will also give rise to the most savage brain drain yet experienced in astronomy or particle physics.

  Finally, I must stress the effect of this terrible announcement upon undergraduate applications to study Physics. The nation's sixth form and college students are currently choosing their subjects and universities for UCAS applications. These students do not choose to study Physics because of an innovation-driven culture, nor to study applied science, nor because of immediate economic benefit to themselves or the nation. They are attracted to study Physics because of the headline fundamental research that goes on in our Universities - particle physics, the Higgs boson, astrophysics, astronomy and cosmology. Indeed, many University Physics departments have been recruiting astrophysics lecturers because of the perceived attraction that astrophysics has in encouraging students to study Physics. In my own experience, I am receiving increasing numbers of applications to study astrophysics and moreover these applications are not just from the UK, but coming from across Europe and the rest of the world.

  Physics, as I'm sure that you know, is one of the strategically important and vulnerable subjects identified by HEFCE for priority support of £75 million over the 2007-2010 period. The Government has identified STEM subjects as critical to the success of the UK's economy and has pledged to increase the number of scientists and engineers in the UK's workforce. So for DIUS to carry out a raid on the very research funding that keeps Physics departments in existence and that crucially inspires the next generation of physicists to study Physics is both criminally irresponsible and in direct counter to the national strategy as pursued by HEFCE. Physics departments will close as a result of this funding decision by DIUS and the competitiveness of the UK will be decreased yet further.

  I hope that the committee will be able to take my points on board and I earnestly hope that this terrible decision by DIUS can be reversed or mitigated before the UK's strong science leadership is irretrievably damaged. At the moment I am very despondent about the future of my own research career, which I have fought hard to achieve over the last ten years, and which our nation's leaders have recently seen fit to inform me how little it is valued.

February 2008

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