Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Robert Kennicutt, Plumian Professor and Director, Institute of Astronomy,

University of Cambridge (APP 12)

I am writing to offer views on the four points raised in your recent inquiry on astronomy and particle physics. As introduction I hold the Plumian Chair at the University of Cambridge and since 2008 have served as the Director of the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy. Since our Institute is funded by the STFC I clearly have an interest to declare, though I submit these views on my own behalf and neither as a representative of the IoA nor the University. Prior to 2005 I worked in the US (where I am a member of the National Academy of Sciences), and I continue to participate in numerous science policy activities there and internationally. As such I believe I can offer both a local and an international perspective on the issues raised in your inquiry.

The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

1. Much of this funding is used to support small to medium-scale instrumentation and telescope projects. My greatest concern is that should there be an extended period of sharply reduced funding in this area, the UK will suffer a permanent loss of leadership and skilled scientists in astronomical instrumentation. This is an area of astronomy which provides excellent value for money (because of the large amounts of international funding it attracts), and one with strong links to UK industry and the high-tech economy. The UK currently hosts a number of world-class instrumentation groups (e.g, Cambridge, Cardiff, Durham, Edinburgh, Oxford, UCL/Mullard) which compete successfully for EU-funded projects (ESO, ESA), and assure UK leadership in the projects as well as attracting outside funding for UK-built projects. Our system is resilient enough to absorb short-term losses in funding (as we have over the past 3 years), but a long-term major funding cut, while institutions in Germany, the Netherlands, and elsewhere are building up their capabilities, will jeopardise UK leadership in this area, and force restructuring with the risk that some groups will go out of business for good.

The impact of withdrawal from international ground-based facilities (for example the Gemini Observatory and Isaac Newton Group of telescopes) on the UK’s research base and international reputation

2. I can speak with some expertise on this matter, as I served as the Vice-Chair of the STFC’s Ground-Based Facilities Review (GBFR) panel. That panel conducted a broad consultation exercise with the UK research community and recommended priorities for facilities which (we are told) formed the basis of the subsequent decisions by the STFC Executive. The Chair of the GBFR panel, Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, has submitted a separate document on this subject, so I shall only highlight a few key points here.

a) The withdrawal from the Gemini Observatory was based on cost-effectiveness considerations and recognition by our research community that overall savings in facilities costs would need to be realised to meet national budgetary pressures and to make funding headroom for future projects. It was not based on any southern hemisphere strategy, as has been alleged before your Committee. To the contrary, the loss of northern hemisphere access was recognised as a major problem that needed to be addressed via other facilities (below).

b) The GBFR panel recommended that if the UK did withdraw from Gemini, access to other large UK facilities in the northern hemisphere (e.g., ING telescopes) be preserved, at least through mid-decade. We also recommended that STFC arrange for a small allotment of time on other northern hemisphere telescopes, to mitigate part of the loss of northern hemisphere access from Gemini. Since the GBFR was released the STFC has moved forward with its recommendation on Gemini withdrawal, but it is not yet clear whether it intends to honour the other recommendations which were intended to mitigate the impacts of this withdrawal (at a small fraction of the cost savings from our other recommendations).

c) Speaking directly to the question, I believe that withdrawal from Gemini can be accomplished without serious damage to the UK research base or international reputation in astronomy (while admitting that our community is not unanimous in this assessment). The same can be said for other facilities which were ranked at or near the bottom of those reviewed by the GBFR; the panel’s rankings generally mirrored those in our polling of the community. However if the closures were extended to other facilities which were highly ranked in the GBFR (for example the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes), there would be serious damage, in particular for subjects which rely heavily on those facilities (e.g., exoplanetary astronomy) and for support of current and future UK-led space missions such as the Herschel Space Observatory an the Gaia mission.

Whether the STFC has sufficiently engaged with its research community in these two areas on its strategic direction and impacts of budget reductions

3. I regret to say that a disturbing disengagement – sometimes bordering on an adversarial relationship – has developed between the STFC Council and its research community. By contrast interactions and communications between the Science Programmes Office and Astronomy Division to the community remain strong, with regular exchanges through the standing STFC panels and an informal Forum with astronomy group leaders (via the Royal Astronomical Society). However the STFC Council itself often appears to be out of touch, most of all its Chief Executive. Some level of tension between these groups is inevitable and necessary, of course, and the financial pressures present since the STFC was formed have not helped; but the level of disengagement and acrimony that I have seen here is unlike anything I have observed in 30 years of professional life in the US and UK. Although many will claim to have a simple explanation for this state of affairs, I believe its origins are complex and include irrationalities in the structure of STFC when it was formed, insufficient core scientific representation on its Council, and a leadership vacuum from its Chief Executive.

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

4. I believe that the question actually understates the opportunities before us. Astronomy has long served as a "gateway" science for young people, one that attracts and inspires not only future astronomers and physicists but future engineers, chemists, and teachers as well. I see direct evidence for this in the thousands of people who attend our public evenings, open days, and schools programmes at the IoA every year. Today is a prime time to exploit this potential, as the pace of discovery in astronomy and particle physics has reached historic levels, and IT make it possible to connect the public to remote observatories in ways that were not possible even a decade ago. From my perspective the UK (along with most of the rest of Europe) was at least a decade behind the US in recognising the importance of this area, but in this case I credit the STFC with recognising the need, and promoting and fostering public engagement. Those are the opportunities, but I do see threats as well. Apart from the obvious need to maintain funding for the most effective programmes, it is important not to allow the distinction between the STFC’s outreach mission and its core research mission to become too blurred. As a specific example that arose during the GBFR, facilities with outstanding outreach components such as the Liverpool Telescope ought to deserving of STFC support from its outreach funds, but if (as in this case) the importance of its core research is weaker, that support ought not to jeopardise the funding of other facilities on the research budget line. By the same token the allocation of outreach funds ought not necessarily be locked into the research facilities or projects pecking order. There should be room for fostering the very best science and the best outreach without forcing a marriage between the two at every level. The other threat I see, regrettably, is the impact of negative publicity regarding public support for science on the very young people we whom are trying to attract. In this area as with the others you raised, there is a dire need for leadership and a positive vision, which appears to be sorely lacking in the Council today.

Professor Robert C. Kennicutt, Jr

Institute of Astronomy

University of Cambridge

15 February 2011