Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Professor David Carter, Professor of Observational Astronomy, Liverpool John Moores University (APP 13)

Declaration of Interest

1. Liverpool John Moores University owns and operates the Liverpool Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands. I was project scientist for this telescope from 1996 to 2005, and have retained a rôle in the operational phase of the project.

2. I am Deputy Principal Investigator for WEAVE, which is a proposal for a new wide-field spectrograph for the William Herschel Telescope, also on La Palma, designed principally to support the GAIA satellite to be launched by the European Space Agency. If the WEAVE project is approved by the funding agencies, I will maintain a rôle in its design and construction.

3. I am a member of the Projects Peer Review Panel (PPRP), a peer-review committee of STFC.

4. I am Principal Investigator of the Treasury Survey of the Coma cluster of galaxes, on the Hubble Space Telescope.

The Impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

5. Reduced capital funding will make it much more difficult to exploit successfully the international subscriptions, which are now more protected than before. The STFC Projects Peer Review panel is heaviliy oversubscribed with innovative experiments and technology in all areas of its remit, but in my experience in particular in ground based astronomy. Reduced capital funding will make this situation far worse.

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

6. This has several consequences, the loss of access for observational opportunities in the Northern Hemisphere, the lack of opportunities for technical innovation in UK universities, and the removal of support for the ESA space missions such as GAIA in which the UK has invested heavily.

7. If the UK were to withdraw from the island sites, ground based astronomy would be exclusively concentrated in the facilities provided by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) in Chile. The Northern sky contains many unique and important astronomical targets, in my own research areas I point to the nearest large galaxy, the Andromeda nebula, and the nearest rich cluster of galaxies, the Coma cluster. It is embarassing for me as the PI of the major Hubble Space Telescope programme on the Coma cluster, to have to rely on overseas collaborators for the necessary complementary terrestrial observations.

8. Without the island sites, astronomy technological development, as well as observing facilities, are concentrated in the hands of ESO. ESO’s programme is heavily managed from the top down, and gives little opportunity for the kind of rapid technical developments to exploit emerging scientific opportunities in which the UK university sector excels. Examples of this are the RINGO polarimeter, developed by my own university for the Liverpool Telescope on La Palma, the RISE rapid readout camera, designed for measuring transits of extrasolar planets in front of their parent stars, and largely designed by Queens University Belfast, and the UltraCAM fast camera, built by the University of Sheffield for the William Herschel Telescope, also on La Palma.

9. La Palma provides the opportunities and the environment to give the UK university community facilities and opportunities in areas of UK leadership. The William Herschel Telescope will provide the needed support to ESA space missions such as GAIA, and further into the future EUCLID. The Liverpool Telescope provides leadership in the rapidly expanding areas of time variable and transient astronomy, facilities which are not provided otherwise in either hemisphere. The Wide Angle Search for Planets (WASP), an initiative of Queens University Belfast is a major contributor to the science of extrasolar planets.

10. Within the context of the ASTRONET framework, La Palma provides the infrastructure for a unique venture in European co-operation at one of the best astronomical sites in the world. It does not have or need the restrictive top-down management structure of ESO, and can allow natural collaborations to develop and ideas to flourish. Finally, through collaboration with Spain, La Palma can provide access to the time on 10 metre telescopes in the north, which the UK lost when it pulled out of the Gemini partnership.

Whether the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has sufficiently engaged with its research community in these two areas

11. My experience is that STFC engages a lot with a small fraction of the research community, and engages very little with the majority. Funnily enough, having been on the outside for 35 years, in the last 18 months I seem to have become part of the small fraction. My suggestion is that STFC goes to greater lengths to ensure that advisory committee membership turns over regularly, that the same people don’t keep reappearing on one committee after another, and that the workload or the opportunities, whichever way you want to look at it, are more evenly distributed.

Opportunities for, and threats to, outreach

12. Our institutional sumbission covers this in some detail, I would only add that the availability of the different UK facilities and international facilities on La Palma provide an opportunity for a collaborative approach which could generate the resources to make a very substantial contribution in this area.

13. The clear leaders in outreach are NASA, and we need to look at how they approach this. An example is that every major allocation of time on the Hubble Space Telescope to US scientists comes with the opportunity to bid for additional Education and Public Outreach (E/PO) funds to bring the science to a wider community. ESA don’t do this, and the STFC awards are only loosely tied to research.

Professor David Carter
Professor of Observational Astronomy
Liverpool John Moores University

15 February 2011