Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by the Science Faculty, Durham University (FSS 04)

1. This is a submission from Departments and Institutes within the Science Faculty at Durham University to the inquiry into "Astronomy and Particle Physics in the UK" being undertaken by the Science and Technology Select Committee of the House of Commons. This submission has been compiled on behalf of the Departments and Institutes by the STFC Liaison Group at Durham.

2. We appreciate the constraints under which STFC is operating, some of which can be traced back to the £80M deficit it inherited at its creation. However, we have concerns about the long-term impact of cuts to capital spending, grant and fellowship support on the international competitiveness of Astronomy and Particle Physics Theory research within the UK. If sustained over a period of years, these cuts will also erode the infrastructure necessary to undertake world-leading science in the UK, not only in Astronomy and Particle Physics, but also across the full range of science supported by STFC’s facilities. In particular, we believe it is essential that these cuts do not preclude some planning for the next generation of facilities.

3. The Department of Physics at Durham is currently the largest departmental recipient of grant funding from Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) with £35-M worth of grants (Durham and Cambridge Universities are the largest recipients of STFC funding with £38.1M each). STFC funding to the Department supports the world-leading research activities within the UK’s national centre for Particle Physics phenomenology, the Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology (IPPP), and the Astronomy Group, including the Institute for Computational Cosmology (ICC) and the Centre for Advanced Instrumentation (CfAI). STFC funding is also held and STFC-funded facilities are exploited by a number of other research groups in the Departments of Physics, Mathematics, Chemistry and Biology at Durham University.

4. As a major recipient of STFC funding, we have undertaken to constructively engage with the Council, over a period of years, to ensure that they understand our needs and concerns and that likewise we understand the constraints under which they operate. To this end a large number of our academics contribute their time by sitting on STFC committees or advisory bodies. We believe that this engagement has been very positive and has a number of benefits for the wider UK research community, for example, through the establishment of the IPPP and the development by CfAI of novel instrumentation for the European Southern Observatory. Hence we feel that our views are heard within STFC and so we are keen to continue to positively engage with STFC in the future.

5. Nevertheless, we note with concern the impact of reduced funding on blue skies research within both the Particle Physics Theory and Astronomy grant and fellowship programmes. Such reductions reduce the competitiveness of the UK community at recruiting top-quality researchers, and hence impact on the ability of the academic system to both inspire and train the next generation of scientists. In the short term, the effect of these cuts will be less obvious, but the longer-term impact of removing our ability to drive future developments will have more serious consequences on the UK’s leadership in these areas.

6. In our opinion, the reduction in grant funding in Astronomy has resulted in our being unable to efficiently exploit the facilities which STFC funds, losing leadership of key science to our international competitors. As grant support represents a small fraction of STFC’s budget, even a modest increase in funds going to exploitation grants, £5M per annum, would significantly improve this situation, and provide a world-leading scientific return on the UK’s investment in these facilities.

7. We are also concerned by the planned reductions of capital funding, which will particularly affect a capital-intensive Council such as STFC. This has potentially severe impact on the up-keep of our well-founded laboratories, as well as to the entire Astronomy programme, including instrument development and work on the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). This is an area where the UK could expect substantial returns on investment and so these reductions appear especially short-sighted.

8. We strongly endorse STFC’s decision to put ESO membership at the core of its long term plans for observational astronomy in the UK. Hence, given the financial climate, we accept the need to withdraw from some STFC-funded facilities for observational astronomy and for the community to concentrate on maximizing our exploitation of ESO facilities. In the light of this, we believe that the withdrawal from the Gemini Observatory could have been better organized, but we do not feel that this will have any lasting impact on the UK community’s scientific output. The withdrawal of support from the Isaac Newton Telescope Group will have some impact on our instrumentation work in support of E-ELT development, but we are hopeful that these effects can be mitigated.

9. Whilst we broadly support STFC’s current priorities for its facilities, in the longer term the withdrawal from participation in, or even planning for, future facilities such as the International Linear Collider, the CCAT submillimetre telescope, the Cerenkov Telescope Array, the New Light Source, the European X-ray Laser Facility (X-FEL) and the Linac Coherent Light Source will pass leadership of new science areas to our international competitors. The cost of early participation and planning is relatively small and the UK needs to have a strategic plan for inclusion in future facilities. 

10. We note that the publicity associated with STFC’s financial position will undoubtedly have a negative impact on young researchers intending to undertake a PhD, or obtain a job or a fellowship in an STFC-supported area. However, we stress that the purpose of this training is not solely to produce "future astronomers and particle physicists" and we are also hopeful that these cuts and their influence will be short lived. We welcome STFC’s introduction of STEP fellowships and hope that these will be administered in as flexible and efficient way as possible, while keeping studentship numbers at their present level.

11. Finally, we would like to highlight the concerns of those research groups at Durham who are users of STFC-run facilities, but are outside of the Particle Physics and Astronomy communities. We endorse STFC’s strong support for Diamond as essential to maintain the UK’s leadership in areas of biochemistry, nanoscience and structural chemistry (and to compensate for the future reduction in UK access to ESRF). However, we note that STFC’s cuts to other facility operations have already begun to impact the world-leading structural chemistry work at Durham and the structural biology in the School of Biological and Biomedical Sciences. The loss of half the beam-time on the ISIS neutron source over the past ~5 years now limits our research into areas as diverse as the structures and chemistry of new smart materials and the development of Hydrogen energy and storage materials, all areas with significant impact potential.

12. We declare our interests in this matter arising from the funding by STFC of research grants and projects at Durham University and our use of Council-funded facilities to undertake elements of our research.

Professor Ian Smail

Chair of STFC Liaison Group

Durham University and Head of Astronomy

14 February 2011