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

Memorandum 32

Submission from A P Van Eyken, Director, EISCAT Scientific Association

  I presently have the honour to be the Director of the EISCAT International Scientific Association, the World's leading upper atmosphere research radar institution, and an international partnership in which the United Kingdom plays a major role. In spite of my name, I am also a born and raised UK citizen. While the contents of the recently published Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) Delivery Plan distress me greatly in both capacities, I understand that the Chairman of the international EISCAT Council will express the Association's views and I write here primarily as a concerned, and saddened, UK citizen.

  The United Kingdom's scientific community are world leaders in the development and exploitation of radar for atmospheric research. In particular, the UK has led the way in the exploitation of the EISCAT radars and together we have achieved a great deal of excellent science that is also of direct benefit to humankind.

  I would like to emphasise the implications of the UK withdrawal from all ground-based Solar Terrestrial Physics (STP) which was announced—seemingly with no warning or consultation whatsoever—in the first Delivery Plan to be issued by STFC last week.

  EISCAT is an international consortium of the UK, China, Norway, Sweden, Finland, Japan, and Germany and provides a number of radars and other facilities in northern Scandinavia and on the Svalbard archipelago in the Arctic. The research we carry out in the STP area is applicable to many areas but is of direct and immediate benefit to the forecasting of the geo-effectiveness of Earth-bound disturbances generated by the Sun (which can effect, and damage, a huge range of technological systems from cell-phones to the electrical supply grid), the design and operation of satellites in the hostile environment of space, the efficient operation of communication and navigation systems (including both one- and two-frequency GPS/Galileo positioning systems), satellite debris and space environment monitoring, satellite orbit prediction, the development of oil and mineral exploration radar, not to mention a variety of military applications.

  In the UK, EISCAT participation had been funded through "blue skies" research councils starting in the days of the Science Research Council (SRC) and progressing through the Science and Engineering Research Council (SERC) to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), where the direct economic, military and wealth-creation benefits of the research were not major factors in the decision making. Nevertheless, two years ago the UK EISCAT community submitted an excellent science case supporting their continued involvement. This case dealt with, inter-alia, fundamental plasma physics, upper atmosphere cooling (caused by global warming), solar control of near-Earth space, upper-middle-lower atmosphere coupling and studies of the solar system condensation using EISCAT's unique capabilities for micrometeorite studies. Indeed, PPARC's Science Committee agreed and signed up to the rolling 5-year membership commitment, a decision reinforced by STFC's early actions in steering UK groundbased STP interests towards specific exploitation of UK's access to the EISCAT facilities which are, as noted above, the finest such resources in the World.

  Given that the research carried out with EISCAT has so many immediate applications, we very much welcomed STFC as a new research Council with a broader remit to cover the economic benefits of our research. However, instead of supporting solar-terrestrial physics as an outstanding example of marrying world-leading research with technical benefits to society as a whole, STFC has singled out this field of research to be cut. The impression given is that this delivery plan is very poorly thought out, hurriedly written and that it targets ground-based STP just to pad out the list of savings. However, it is a tiny saving compared to that required and yet, by completely abandoning this entire field, does incalculable damage to the nation's support for its space industry. The Chief Executive is on record as saying that the cut was decided upon two years ago, in the programmatic review, but that they only decided to implement it now. Firstly, EISCAT-related STP was specifically not deprecated in that programmatic review, and, secondly, that was a review conducted under quite different circumstances by PPARC. Surely it has not been forgotten that the new research council has a different remit? It is not at all clear that any changes have been made to the STFC interpretation of the programmatic review to ensure that the economic impact of projects like EISCAT are genuinely given more weight than they were in the PPARC regime; indeed, the whole procedure seems to have been rather opaque.

  Finally, I would like to make some comment on the reputation of the UK, its scientific community, and their trustworthiness in international collaborations. The prospect of the UK belonging, for several more years, to an international association, namely EISCAT, which it does not then exploit, is very damaging to its credibility as a competent research nation. That the UK would not honour its commitment, thus also destroying its reputation as a trustworthy partner for international collaboration, is presumably quite unthinkable. Driven by the requirements to address currently identified major science issues, and with strong backing from the EU, EISCAT is moving forward towards a new generation of radars which will be invaluable not just in space weather activities but also in studies of solar system formation and it painful for me, as a UK scientist, to imagine that all this could take place without our participation and without benefiting UK society in any way.

  When STFC first cut back resources for UK ground-based STP, the Chairman of the EISCAT Council wrote to the STFC Chief Executive deploring the situation, but never received any response. I am therefore distributing this letter more widely, and by email in the interests of speed, in the hope that it may at least be read in some quarters before being consigned to the rubbish bin along with the fine and unrivalled reputation of UK atmospheric physics research.

December 2007

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