Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Professor Paul Crowther, University of Sheffield (APP 19)

Thank you for the opportunity to provide input to the Science & Technology Committee inquiry into astronomy and particle physics. I am writing in a personal capacity as a research active academic within the astrophysics group of the Department of Physics & Astronomy at the University of Sheffield.

I declare that our astrophysics research group are in receipt of several research grants from STFC, including support for PhD studentship training, visiting academics and travel & subsistence for observing at telescopes. I have previously served as chair of the UK Gemini National Time Allocation Committee (NTAC), a sub-chair of the European Southern Observatory (ESO) Observing Programme Committee (OPC), and currently serve on the STFC UK Steering Committee for the proposed European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT).

Historical Context

1. The 2005 International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy (sponsored by EPSRC/PPARC/IoP/RAS) noted the `positive outlook’ of those involved with research at all levels and advocated maintaining a healthy balance between large investments in international facilities and national spending for exploitation. The UK astronomical observing community was singled out as needing `building up’ to recoup the investment in VLT, ALMA and Gemini.

2. The CSR 07 settlement for the newly created STFC led to a disproportionate and precipitous reduction in funding of exploitation grants for UK astronomy, set out in the 2008 Science Budget Allocations report by the Innovation, Universities, Science & Skills committee. In addition, UK led astronomy projects (e.g. CLOVER) were terminated at short notice, with plans to withdraw from all non-European Southern Observatory (ESO) ground-based facilities in 2012.

3. There is a common perception that the growth in UK astronomy leading up to CSR 07 was spiraling out of control. Indeed this may have contributed to the poor STFC settlement for astronomy; reinforced by claims of a 40% expansion in UK astronomy academic numbers from 2005 to 2007 by STFC’s Chief Executive at the 27 Feb 2008 evidence session of the Innovations, Universities and Skills Committee. In reality, growth was only 4% based on PPARC/STFC’s studentship quota exercise statistics over this timescale. In addition, the IoP Survey of Academic Appointments in Physics showed that the UK astronomy academic community grew by 14% in the 5 years leading up to 2008, directly in proportion to the expansion of physics departments, and indeed the entire Higher Education sector over this timescale. In summary, no evidence supports the impression that UK astronomy was experiencing unsustainable growth in the last decade.

4. The SR10 settlement for the STFC was at the high end of the research community's expectations, for which credit should be given to STFC's spending review team (both scientists and management) and BIS staff. In addition, it is important to acknowledge that BIS were able to maintain the UK’s subscription for ESO, permitting continued access to the top priority UK ground-based telescopes (VLT, ALMA) throughout SR10. Communication between the scientific community and STFC management is now much improved, in part due to regular policy discussions with senior academic staff through the Astronomy Forum, chaired by the RAS President.

5. BIS are to be commended for following through with STFC structural changes proposed by Lord Drayson in 2010, enabling resolutions to the issues of currency fluctuation relating to subscriptions, and the tensioning between funds for the operation of national facilities used by other Research Councils and facilities/exploitation directly relevant for STFC’s user communities.

The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability;

6. Uncertainties in long-term capital funding for STFC will make future planning very difficult. Of particular concern to UK astronomy is the next major ground-based optical/infrared telescope project for Europe, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT). UK groups are taking a leading role in the R&D effort for E-ELT instrumentation, while UK industry also stands to benefit from construction; however such benefits are predicated on UK capital investment in E-ELT.

7. The relatively poor settlement for UKSA raises concerns about the level of support for UK space science and its future health. At the time of writing, there are no details of the planned UKSA expenditure on post-launch support for space science missions, which is of direct relevance to the capability of UK astronomy (e.g. GAIA mission).

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;

8. The UK competitiveness in astrophysics and space science - second only to the US according to Thomson Reuters - arises in large part from the multi-wavelength, multi-hemisphere, ground-based and space-based facilities. Over the course of a few years, the UK leadership in ground-based astronomy within Europe – strategically built up over decades - has been eroded, and will shortly become a distinct disadvantage following the withdrawal from non-ESO telescopes.

9. As recently as the 2007/08 STFC Delivery Plan, equal priority to ESO (southern hemisphere) and Gemini (both hemispheres) were planned for the UK, contrary to evidence to the S&T Committee from STFC's Chief Executive on 19 January 2011. Advice from STFC’s advisory panels and ground-based review panel noted that access to a northern hemisphere telescope beyond 2012 was of high priority, in part due to international space-based facilities for which the UK plays a leading role (e.g. Herschel, Swift). Withdrawal from Gemini will reduce UK access to 8m telescopes by ~40%, which will be further compounded by a 25% reduction in access to VLT by UK astronomers over a 2 year timeframe, as partial compensation for the late delivery of the VISTA telescope to ESO.

10. The forthcoming withdrawal from island sites (La Palma, Hawaii) will greatly reduce opportunities for UK-led innovative instrumentation development. For example, ULTRACAM was the first visiting instrument at ESO’s Very Large Telescope, which was only made possible having initially been commissioned at the Isaac Newton Group on La Palma.

11. Flip-flopping over Gemini membership by STFC management between late 2007 and early 2008 certainly damaged the international reputation of the UK. Following the initial ejection from the partnership in January 2008, as the then chair of the UK Gemini National Time Allocation Committee, I consulted first hand with non-UK Gemini Board members in order to establish how this action had occurred. Replies included `I’m afraid the STFC’s actions have been baffling to all’ and `it was really seen as not serious by the other partners and almost rude and arrogant.’ Even following the UK’s readmittance into the partnership, STFC’s Chief Executive denied STFC responsibility during the NAM Community Forum on 3 Apr 2008: `I tear my hair out about Gemini frankly, and this is a case where you were all had, and you were all had by the Gemini Board.'

12. Prior to the transfer of post launch support for space missions to UKSA, a second example of the damage to UK’s international reputation arose from STFC’s planned withdrawal from support to Cassini in late 2009. In a letter to The Times in February 2010, the PI of Cassini’s magnetometer instrument Prof Michele Dougherty noted: `the STFC is breaking obligations to international partners and undermining the UK's future position in multinational space projects.’

Whether the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has sufficiently engaged with its research community in these two areas on its strategic direction and impacts of budget reductions;

13. STFC was slow to put in place advisory structures, having prematurely wound up advisory bodies to the predecessor PPARC organization. Administratively, despite the new post-Drayson arrangements for operating national facilities, changes to Science Board and its advisory committees have not yet been made. Consequently, scientific panels for astrophysics and space science (NUAP and FUAP) are too far removed from the decision making process. The dissolution of Science Board would cut out a now unnecessary layer of committee structure, and greatly assist a sense of ownership of STFC’s scientific priorities by the respective user communities.

14. Concerns remain about the size and composition of STFC's Council. Following criticism in the 2008 RCUK Review of Physics about the low fraction of STFC councillors who were independent academics, additional scientists were appointed to Council. However, only 4 out of 12 STFC councillors are currently academics. For comparison, academics comprise 8 out of 16 councillors at BBSRC. Indeed, the composition of BBSRC’s council ensures that in addition to the Chair and Chief Executive, at least half of the 14 other councillors are appointed for their qualification in science/engineering.

15. In the absence of a visible science strategy for STFC, there are concerns that strategic/political priorities trump scientific priorities. For example, the NUAP advisory panel ranked access to northern ground-based telescopes at a higher scientific priority than the Aurora exploration programme, yet only the latter avoided being cut. The January 2010 report from STFC’s Particle Physics, Astronomy & Nuclear Physics (PPAN) committee noted: `It was recognised that, given the high profile UK commitment to Aurora, to propose withdrawal would have a very high political cost both for STFC within the UK, and for the UK space programme internationally. PPAN did not consider it feasible to achieve a reduction in the planned Aurora subscription.’ Aurora subscriptions have since been transferred to the UKSA, preventing the possibility of a subsequent reversal in priorities.

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

16. NUAP and FUAP advisory bodies to STFC’s PPAN committee argued that the highest priority should be given to grants (and fellowships), yet these were reduced by STFC in the December 2009 prioritization exercise.

17. Research grant support, as measured by responsive postdoctoral research assistant (PDRA) numbers is at a level of 2/3 of the 2000 baseline, or 50% of the 2006 high-point. For the most recent Astronomy Grants Panel (AGP) 2010 round, 76 PDRA positions were assessed to be world-leading, of which only 56 could be awarded, i.e. 136% of funded research in astronomy is world class according to the AGP chairman's report. 28 PI’s of AGP 2010 grant proposals, myself included, received the following feedback: `Panel recommended support as requested, as a high priority. Fundable – Unfunded.’ This translates into no PDRA support for the next 3 years, plus no funds either for equipment or travel.

18. STFC also supports PhD studentships and independent fellowships through its education, training and careers committee (ETCC). PhD allocations across STFC's scientific areas have been relatively stable, totalling 256 in 2008 and 2009, with reductions to 235 in 2010 and 220 thereafter, of which 56% are for astronomy and space science. Unfortunately, the sharp fall in PDRA positions, and the withdrawal of independent junior (post-doctoral) STFC fellowships has meant that there is little opportunity for most new PhD graduates to remain within the UK. By way of example, the last three astrophysics PhD students who have completed their studies in our group have taken up post-doctoral positions in Zurich, New York and Heidelberg.

19. Changes set out above reduce the international research competitiveness of UK astronomy and space science with respect to other developed countries and are likely to do long term damage to the attractiveness of the UK for prospective postgraduate students, PDRAs and academics. The future health of UK astrophysics relies upon a critical mass of junior staff being retained within the UK or returning to the UK after time overseas, for which stable funding and access to leading international facilities is crucial.

Paul Crowther

Professor of Astrophysics

University of Sheffield

15 February 2011