Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by the Government (APP 00)


1. Astronomy and particle physics fall under the remit of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). In common with other Research Councils, STFC’s discretionary capital budget allocation following the recent Spending Review has been cut by around 40%. Nevertheless, over the next Spending Review period, STFC’s indicative capital allocation provides around £70m for its core programme, £88m for cross-Council facilities and £132m to fund international subscriptions. In addition, the Spending Review settlement also confirmed that the Diamond Light Source facility in Oxfordshire will receive £69m of public funding over the Spending Review period for further development in partnership with the Wellcome Trust.

2. STFC understands the need for economic reform, has welcomed its overall SR10 settlement, and recognises the Government’s strong support for its science and technology programme. STFC carried out a thorough prioritisation of its programme in 2009 which focused support on its highest priority activities. This forms the strong basis of the STFC’s Delivery Plan for the next four years. 

The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

3. STFC is responsible for several major capital facilities. Much of its capital budget in the last Spending Review period was spent on maintaining and developing facilities that support the UK research base. With the support of the other Research Councils, STFC has been allocated sufficient operating capital to make the running of these facilities sustainable, through the capital allocation for UK facilities. STFC has worked closely with BIS to re-evaluate its capital needs, reassessing priorities, identifying funds to sustain its world leading facilities and the changing requirements of the international subscriptions to CERN and the European Southern Observatory (ESO). The reassignment between capital and resource funding in its allocation reflects the changing profile of those requirements over time.

4. Nevertheless, the reduced capital available will potentially have impacts on programmes such as accelerator R&D, the Muon Ionisation Cooling Experiment (MICE) at RAL, and funding for equipment in university grants. In all these areas capital spend will be reduced.  STFC is currently developing an implementation plan to focus the available capital on the highest priority projects.  

Impact of withdrawal from international ground-based facilities on the UK’s research base and international reputation

5. The cost of providing world-leading facilities for astronomy is escalating as the demands of the science increase and, recognising this, early in the last decade the UK decided to join ESO in order to benefit from shared developments with the UK's European colleagues. The cost of the UK’s accession to ESO was to be found partly from savings resulting from withdrawal from existing ground based telescopes on La Palma (the Isaac Newton telescopes) and Hawaii (Gemini), and partly by additional funding.  Ongoing commitments meant that withdrawal took a decade to complete, and STFC’s policy for the Hawaii and La Palma telescopes is therefore the consequence of decisions made some years ago.

6. STFC’s priorities in ground-based astronomy were set following input from a dedicated ground-based astronomy review panel, commissioned by STFC in 2009 and chaired by a former President of the Royal Astronomical Society. This panel carried out a detailed community consultation. STFC also sought advice from STFC’s standing science advisory panels, which include practising UK astronomers. They gave a higher scientific priority to STFC exploiting its investment in ESO (with facilities in Chile) than to STFC’s older investments in Hawaii and the Canary Islands. This confirmed STFC’s policy in this area.

7. STFC’s withdrawal from Gemini followed the recommendations of the ground based astronomy panel. The lower priority of Gemini in comparison with ESO reflects the more complete nature of the ESO package together with concerns about the long-term sustainability of Gemini as a world-leading facility.

8. The research community has made it clear to STFC that there is still scope to undertake good optical and infrared wavelength science research in the Northern hemisphere.  STFC has been able to extend its support for the UK Infrared Telescope (in Hawaii) through to 2013 by making significant economies in its mode of operation.  STFC continues to operate STFC-owned facilities in Hawaii (JCMT, UKIRT) and the Canaries (ING) and it is discussing future management arrangements with new partners (Hawaii) and with Spain (Canaries) which may include access to some if not all of these facilities. STFC’s science committees will have to consider the case for continued UK investment in these facilities in competition with other demands on its science programme budget.

Engagement with the research community in these two areas on its strategic impact and impact of budget reductions

9. During the prioritisation of its programme in 2009 and in preparing and developing its submission to BIS for the recent Spending Review, STFC worked closely with its research community. These include its Science Board, which advises on all aspects of STFC's science and technology programme, supported by its science committees – the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN); and the Physical and Life Sciences Committee (PALS),working in close collaboration with their respective advisory panels.

10. Alongside this, STFC has held regular meetings and consultations with learned societies such as the Institute of Physics (IoP), and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), and held regular town hall meetings with the particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy communities. STFC has consulted closely with its international partners, CERN, ESRF, ESO, ILL, universities, Diamond, and other Research Councils. STFC has made a clear commitment in its Delivery Plan to developing these relationships further.

Opportunities for, and threats to, outreach and inspiring the next generation of astronomers and particle physicists

11. In its Delivery Plan, STFC has confirmed the commitment that it made in the outcome of the prioritisation of its programme in 2009 to sustaining support for public outreach and science communication. STFC will achieve this by funding projects and personal fellowships, particularly supporting researchers via facilitation and training, to:

· inspire and enthuse new generations about science

· encourage them to continue study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects

· improve public understanding of scientific advances

12. STFC will work with RCUK in the collective Research Councils public engagement programme, and will maintain a distinct STFC-led programme focused on its research areas. STFC will also work in partnership with the UK Space Agency given the thematic closeness of astronomy and space science.

13. STFC will maintain resource spending on grants and keep studentship numbers constant in astronomy and particle physics, and will introduce a new Fellowships scheme and a new Studentship Enhancement Programme to nurture future research leaders .

February 2011