Submission from the Royal Astronomical
PUTTING SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING AT THE HEART
OF GOVERNMENT POLICY
1. The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS),
founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy,
solar-system science, geophysics and other closely related branches
of science. The RAS organises scientific meetings, publishes international
research and review journals, recognises outstanding achievements
by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library,
supports education through grants and outreach activities and
represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. The Society
has more than 3,000 members (Fellows), including scientific researchers
in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians
of astronomy and others.
2. The RAS is pleased to offer the Committee
supplementary evidence on this important topic. It follows the
four points listed in the Committee's call of 24 March 2009.
3. Without having had time to consult its
Fellowship widely, the RAS is unable to offer a firm view on the
value of a discussion on the balance of investment in science.
However, it is clear that to be of lasting value such a discussion
should be open and inclusive, and should lead to general conclusions
4. The government decision making process
which would follow such a debate should be open and transparent,
and the reasoning behind the strategies adopted should be made
public. The RAS endorses the five key principles set out in Lord
Drayson's speech to the Royal Society and would suggest that what
follows from those excellent principles is not that UK science
funding should "favour those areas in which the UK has clear
competitive advantage" but that it should favour those areas
that are essential for the development of UK science and particularly
those in which the UK needs to be competitive in the long term.
The implications of adopting a strategy aligned to Lord Drayson's
proposals could be profound for some sectors of UK science.
5. It can also be argued that a top down
approach to science funding is at variance with the Haldane principle.
Funding scientific research is not like investing to win Olympic
medals, where specific short-term objectives can be set and achieved.
Science advances on a broad front and has indefinite horizons.
Short-term strategies tend to be backward looking and targeted
funding does not guarantee success when the goal is to be "ranked
no1 or no2 in the world". It is surely better to concentrate
on funding excellence and on ensuring that the funding is sufficient
to achieve the ambitious goals that should be set.
6. As stressed in many speeches, "it
is vital that we maintain our investment in pure, fundamental
science". This most certainly applies to astronomy and astrophysics,
which is an area of enormous public interest (as clearly witnessed
by the global success of the current International Year of Astronomy),
attracts young people at all levels into science (and not just
astronomy), draws on a wide range of scientific disciplines, has
a superb record of technical innovation and, above all, is an
area in which the UK continues to excel.
7. It is generally agreed that the UK ranks
2nd or 3rd in the world in terms of scientific output in astronomy
and space science, measured by papers, citations, or citations
relative to GDP. It is also generally agreed that the UK spends
less on this research than comparable countries such as Germany,
France, and Italy, although obtaining accurate and reliable data
is complicated by different national structures and funding methods,
and mundane issues such as exchange rates.
8. Astronomy is a global activity, facilitated
by large multinational collaborations such as the European Space
Agency or the European Southern Observatory, of which the UK is
an important member. These collaborations give UK innovation and
businesses access to world-wide markets at the cutting edge of
technology. Examples include e2v Charge Coupled Devices (CCDs)
and other imaging devices, which are used by all major collaborations
and space agencies, Surrey Satellite Technology and EADS-Astrium,
a major player in the world satellite business.
9. Data handling, storage, management and
access are areas of growing importance in all fields, and astronomy
is no exception. The international astronomical community is developing
advanced tools through the Virtual Observatory (and the UK AstroGrid
project) with the goal of making the world's huge astronomical
data banks transparently useable, in just the same way that the
World Wide Web makes documents all over the world feel part of
a single interlinked system. This has implications which stretch
far beyond astronomy or even scientific data.
10. In terms of Lord Drayson's "three
criteria" it can be stated that in astronomy and space science
The UK already has a competitive
advantage, through the continued excellence of the people attracted
into the field and judicious past investment;
The growth opportunities both at
home and within the collaborations such as ESA and ESO are considerable,
and the potential benefits to UK technological development (including
IT) are very significant;
The UK is already in the top group
of the "astronomy premier division" and can realistically
expect to maintain this position given the necessary funding priorities.
11. In summary, therefore, the Royal Astronomical
Is in favour of an open, inclusive
and independent debate on the balance of funding in science;
Urges a transparent presentation
of the government decisions which flow from such a debate;
Stresses the importance of the Haldane
principle, the focus on excellence, and the maintenance of investment
in basic science, which underpins all science and without which
the long term vitality of the science base would be undermined;
Is concerned that a narrow focus
on "economic impact" could result in funding being diverted
to meet short term priorities, to the detriment of basic science
and long term growth;
Notes that the UK is already well
placed in astronomy and space science to meet Lord Drayson's three
Recommends accordingly that astronomy
and space science must be seen as priority areas for increased
funding within the envelope of basic science funding.