Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by the Chair and Vice-Chair of STFC’s Ground Based Facilities Review panel (APP 16)

We are writing to offer views on Point 1 in your inquiry:

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

We write as the Chair and Vice-Chair of the Ground Based Facilities Review (GBFR) panel, which was set up by the STFC in 2009 to recommend priorities for astronomical facilities. The panel consisted of Michael Rowan-Robinson Michael Rowan-Robinson (Imperial College London, Chair), Rob Fender (University of Southampton), Melvin Hoare (University of Leeds), Rob Ivison (Royal Observatory, Edinburgh), Rob Kennicutt (University of Cambridge, Vice-chair), Richard McMahon (University of Cambridge), and Don Pollacco (Queen’s University, Belfast). The Panel’s recommendations were broadly accepted by Science Committee and STFC. A key part of the GBFR panel’s work was a poll of the UK astronomy community on the priorities it attached to different facilities. The poll also included a number of strategic questions. A copy of the final GBFR report can be found at http://astro.ic.ac.uk/~mrr/gbfrev/GBFRFinal13.pdf

We list here some of the main recommendations from the Executive Summary, with a comment on whether STFC’s 2011-15 Delivery Plan (DP) incorporates them.

1. The Panel emphasised the importance of the UK’s subscription to the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and,placed this as its highest priority.

Comment: The DP supports the ESO subscription.

2. The Panel placed very high priority on UK participation in both the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA). There was very strong, and almost exactly equal, community support for both projects. We agreed that both are of equal scientific priority, and recommended that both should go ahead, and that the UK should seek a leading role in both. Comment: The DP makes no specific mention of E-ELT or SKA, though support for E-ELT is presumably implicit in the continuing support for ESO. Keith Mason in his evidence to the Select Committee says that he hopes that E-ELT will still go ahead.

Comment: We would like to have heard a stronger commitment from STFC to these two key projects.

3. On UK membership of the Gemini Partnership, we noted that there is strong community support for, and a convincing scientific case for, continued access to a one or more 8-m telescopes in the northern hemisphere. However the GBFR panel found that the level of community support for Gemini, and its cost-effectiveness, is insufficient to justify continuing involvement in the GeminiPartnership at the present level.

Comment: STFC has announced UK withdrawal from Gemini.

4. In order to mitigate some of the northern hemisphere access resulting from withdrawal from Gemini the Panel recommended that STFC should investigate options for securing of order 40 open-access UK nights per year on one or more northern 8-m telescopes.

Comment: we are not aware of any effort by STFC to implement this recommendation. Loss of access to northern facilities is one of the most serious negative impacts of withdrawal from Gemini.

5. In addition the Panel made a very strong case for continuing UK involvement in the William Herschel Telescope (WHT) on La Palma for at least the next five years.

Comment: we are concerned that STFC is moving to close the UK’s La Palma activities at the earliest opportunity. We accept that the foundation of the UK’s future lies with ESO and the southern hemisphere, but there is a heavy past UK investment in northern hemisphere surveys with space telescopes such as Spitzer and Herschel, and with ground-based instruments such as UKIDSS and SCUBA2. We therefore believe there is a strong case for access to 4-m (WHT) and 8-m telescopes in the northern hemisphere for the next several years (our Panel’s recommendation was to 2016).

6. The Panel also made recommendations on strategy for radio, submillimetre, and near infrared astronomy.

Comment: Rather than comment on these in detail, we note that we are not aware of immediate deviations from our recommendations in these areas.

7. The Panel took the view that the university grants line is of very high priority for the future of ground-based astronomy, both for exploitation of our facilities investments and for independent theoretical work that paves the way to new observational ideas.

Comment: The DP states that the grants line will be protected.

In appendices below we give GBFR’s table of priorities for different UK ground-based facilities, and GBFR’s schedule for its proposed decadal plan.

We conclude this submission by quoting the concluding remarks from the GBFR review:

The next decade will be an exciting one for astronomy, and ground-based astronomy will be at the forefront of new developments. Ground-based astronomy has reached a level of maturity such that the next facilities, from ALMA onwards, will be massive international collaborations, with a scope and cost comparable to large space missions or accelerators. In its response to our questionnaire, the UK community showed that it is ready for this challenge and is committed to moving in this direction. We have set out strategies for the different ground-based observational wavebands that continue and complete exploitation of past UK investment in ground-based facilities and their instrumentation, while at the same time preparing the way for the facilities of the future. While some additional funding will be needed to deliver the major UK role in construction of E-ELT and SKA that we are recommending, most of what we recommend can be delivered within the present ground-based astronomy funding level. The power of these facilities is such that observing runs may be measured in minutes rather than nights. The impact on public interest in science and as a stimulus to UK advanced technology will be immense.’

Prof Michael Rowan-Robinson, Imperial College London

Prof Robert Kennicutt, University of Cambridge

16 February 2011


Table 1 : Panel’s final priority list for UK-funded facilities:

 

High cost(>£5m/yr) Medium cost(£1-4m/yr) Lower cost(<£1m/yr)

Very high ESO subscription ELT instruments

priority (VLT, ALMA,

VISTA etc)

SKA, E-ELT

High priority N.Hemisphere 8m access WHT to 2017

JCMT to 2014 LOFAR running costs

WFMOS on Subaru SuperWASP to 2012

e-Merlin to 2014 Wide field units

UKIRT(if UPF) to 2014 Alma Regional Cent.

LSST (UK Role) MROI

CCAT

Medium high 25% share in MOS on WHT MROI beam-combnr

priority Gemini partnership

Good science INT

but lower JIVE

priority LT

Gemini support


Appendix: GBFC’s Schedule for Proposed Decadal Plan

2009-14

The ground-based programme will contribute to STFC’s short-term funding problems in two ways: the completion of payment of the ESO joining fee in 2012 will save ~£10m per year thereafter and replacement of the current Gemini agreement (~£5m) with the purchase of 40 northern 8-m nights (~£2m) will save a further ~£3m per year. Only small savings can be made in the period 2009-2012 without disproportionate damage to the programme, but over a five-year period the ground-based programme would contribute its pro rata share of savings, even with a start-up of funding for the build of E-ELT in 2012.

2014-2017

The proposed closure date for JCMT, e-Merlin and UKIRT of 2014 has been partially dictated by the need for funding to open for E-ELT and SKA. For each facility a good scientific case can be made for extending them further, but the case for involvement in E-ELT and SKA is stronger, and choices have to be made. The telescope that we identify as most valuable for support of GAIA (2014-17) is the WHT and so we recommend keeping the WHT open to 2017, but with no recommendation on new funding for instrumentation. If the start of the construction phase of SKA were to be delayed, then the case for extending JCMT, UKIRT and e-Merlin beyond 2014 should be looked at again.

2017-2020

Towards the end of the decade, the UK ground-based programme will be realized mainly through ESO (VLT, ALMA, E-ELT, and other smaller ESO telescopes) and SKA. In addition we propose a small UK involvement in CCAT. Other opportunities may arise through ESO, for example LSST, or through bilateral partnerships, for example PanSTARSS4.