Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Stephen W. Hawking CH, CBE, FRS (APP 22)

1. I am pleased to be able to make a submission to the select committee about UK funding for particle physics and astronomy. I am sure you all recognise that a healthy science base is necessary for a healthy economy. However, to target funding only using narrow economic criteria is to misunderstand the value to society of science and our Universities. It has been said that not all research and development comes from our Universities, but that all the researchers do. The frontiers of fundamental scientific knowledge, like particle physics and astronomy, have always been an inspiration for the next generation of scientists.

2. The erosion of funding for astronomy and particle physics in recent years has harmed the position and reputation of the UK in the international scientific community and reduced the important educational impact that it can have upon young people. My own research group has been affected by this funding environment. An accumulation of spending cuts over the last three years, has left STFC awarding one third fewer postdoctoral fellowships in astronomy than average this year. The UK punches significantly above its weight in the competitive world of particle physics and astronomy and has a remarkable history of discoveries and fruitful international collaboration. We are key participants in important international collaborations like the LHC and the current Planck satellite mission. We must ensure that we can support the young people who are poised and able to exploit the new science that comes from projects and telescopes of this sort.

3. The blue skies research pursued by particle physicists and astronomers has had a huge influence upon school students. It is an inspiring shop window for them to glimpse the frontiers of human thinking about the deepest problems of the universe. This creates an enthusiasm for learning about the physics and mathematics that are needed to understand more. In turn, this provides universities with a pool of keen and able students who will diversify into many other areas of pure and applied physics and their associated sciences. Without strong support for subjects like particle physics and astronomy we will suffer the economic and cultural consequences of a lack of students in the physical sciences.

Stephen Hawking

Director of Research

Centre for Theoretical Cosmology

Department of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics

University of Cambridge

15 February 2011