Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Far Universe Advisory Panel (FUAP) and Near Universe Advisory Panel (NUAP) (APP 21)

1. We are writing to you as members of the Far Universe Advisory Panel (FUAP) and Near Universe Advisory Panel (NUAP), which are two of the five advisory panels established in March 2009 by the STFC Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee, or PPAN. The remits of NUAP and FUAP cover all parts of the astronomy and space science programmes at STFC; from our Solar System to cosmology.

2. Since 2009, FUAP and NUAP have been providing scientific and programmatic advice to PPAN and STFC in general, including working with the astronomy community to help set funding priorities. Our biggest task to date was an extensive community consultation in the second half 2009 as part of the STFC Programmatic Review, that was published on Dec 16th 2009. Since then, FUAP/NUAP, and the community, have had little input into the preparations for the 2010 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR), nor into the implementation plan of the recent CSR outcome.

3. During the FUAP/NUAP consultation in 2009, one of the key priorities raised by the astronomy and space science communities was the continued stable funding of research grants to our universities, as well as the continued support of our young scientists (both PhD studentships and fellowships). The community gave this issue highest priority over any specific astronomical facility, STFC-funded experiment or space mission, and the importance of this prioritization was clearly communicated to PPAN, Science Council and STFC in general.

4. As UK astronomers and space scientists, we must say that this key piece of advice does not appear to have been taken as seriously as hoped, inspiring the chairs of the five PPAN advisory panels (including Bob Nichol and Michele Dougherty as the FUAP and NUAP chairs respectively), to write to Keith Mason, Michael Sterling, Lord Drayson and David Willetts, as well as your committee (on January 10th 2010), to stress the potential impact on our communities of the continuing savage cuts to research grants. To put this into perspective, the number of postdoctoral researchers supported on STFC research grants has halved since 2007, and is now below the number of young researchers supported by such grants in the year 2000. There has also been a similar curtailment of studentships and fellowships, e.g., the STFC Postdoctoral Fellowship scheme has been cancelled altogether, resulting in many of our brightest graduating students being forced abroad to continue their careers.

5. That said, we do appreciate the tough priority decisions made by STFC over the last two years given the financial pressures on capital funding, inflation in subscription costs to our major international facilities, and the overheads of merging two research councils (PPARC and CCLRC). However, we feel the management of STFC is more interested in maintaining the funding to large experimental facilities at the expense of maintaining the research capacity of our university communities. This imbalance is partly recognized in the recent STFC Delivery Plan (20th December 2010), which highlights the need to provide stable grant funding to universities over the coming few years, but unfortunately STFC has set that funding at a level lower than even a decade ago, thus entrenching the savage rounds of multiple grant cuts since 2007.

6. We do feel STFC has not fully acknowledged one of the key parts of our 2009-community consultation, namely the importance for continuing a vibrant research-active community in our universities (students and postdoctoral fellows). The chairs of the five advisory panels to PPAN have all stressed the potential negative social and economic impact of such cuts to physics research in our universities, especially in our ability to train and inspire the next generation of scientists, e.g., 90% of physics graduates go on to pursue careers in high-tech, high-added value sectors of the UK economy. Moreover, Astronomy is highly effective in attracting young people into science and our universities.

7. We would therefore ask your committee to stress again the importance of investing in people, as well as facilities, to Parliament and STFC, to ensure we can continue to compete on the world stage; other countries are investing heavily in astronomy (Japan, USA, South Africa, Australia, Brazil), while we are cutting back to levels not seen since last century. The "Brain Drain" is happening again in the UK.

Bob Nichol, University of Portsmouth (FUAP Chair)

Michele Dougherty, Imperial College London (NUAP Chair)

Sarah Bridle, University College London

Emma Bunce, Leicester University

Anthony Challinor, University of Cambridge

Rob Fender, University of Southampton

Ian Franchi, Open University

Tom Hartquist, University of Leeds

Paul O’Brien, University of Leicester

Sarah Matthews, MSSL, University College London

Paul O’Brien, University of Leicester

Don Pollacco, Queen’s University Belfast

16 February 2011


FUAP & NUAP reports to PPAN discussing the 2009 community consultation carried out as part of the STFC programmatic review: