Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Professor N. R. Tanvir, University of Leicester (APP 25)

I wish to make some brief remarks on the impact of reductions in funding which began in 2007 and are ongoing.

[1] By many measures UK success in astrophysics and space science is second only to the US in recent decades. This has been achieved not by out-spending other comparable nations, but is thanks to our long and proud history of leadership in fundamental science, strategic investment of the funding which was available, and making profitable use of those facilities. One result of this was a "brain-gain" of outstanding foreign scientists coming to the UK to work in these fields. Another result has been the high level of activity in our universities and laboratories, which has inspired many young people into STEM studies, and, one hopes, increased our national self-confidence in these vital areas.

[2] One of the characteristics of this successful period has been the access UK astrophysicists have had to a very diverse range of experimental facilities. Many breakthroughs have come about thanks to putting together data from different telescopes and satellites, often operating in different spectral ranges (optical, X-ray, radio etc.). There is every reason to expect such a strategy would be even more successful in the future, as we become able to combine traditional observations using electromagnetic radiation, with new windows, such as gravity waves and neutrino detectors.

[3] Of particular interest to me, and a growing field in astrophysics, are the observations of transient phenomena, and in particular exploding objects in space. Events like supernovae and gamma-ray bursts are amongst the most exotic known, and in the latter case are so bright that they can be seen close to the edge of the observable universe. Indeed, in 2009 I led an international group which discovered a gamma-ray burst which was the most distant object known up to that time. Such discoveries are not merely about breaking records, but provide unique information about the universe shortly after the Big Bang when the first stars and galaxies were being formed. This discovery illustrates well the critical requirement for facilities spread both across the electromagnetic spectrum and spread geographically: the burst was discovered in gamma-ray light, and its position found in X-ray imaging by the Swift satellite. We then made observations over the next 48 hours using telescopes on five continents (most importantly Gemini-North in Hawaii and the ESO/VLT in Chile), and finally used the Hubble Space Telescope to search for the galaxy in which the burst occurred. This discovery would not have been possible had we only had the facilities which will be available post-2012.

[4] The consequences of the UK’s sudden decline in funding for astrophysics and space science, and in particular the planned withdrawal from many facilities, is already being keenly felt. There has been an exodus of young talented scientists to other countries, which despite suffering in the global economic turn-down as did the UK, seem to have recognised the wider importance of maintaining a high level of activity in inspirational, fundamental science. The almost complete lack of access to northern hemisphere optical/infrared telescopes post-2012, is a especially bleak development, since many important sources in the sky are not observable from the south, and particularly the short-lived events I have described can occur unpredictably in the sky. These northern telescopes are complementary to other facilities we are retaining and many new international facilities (e.g. northern facilities such as LOFAR, all-sky observatories such as the GAIA satellite, gravity wave detectors etc.), so I view it as strategically very important that we retain at least some access to them, even if it be at a lower level than a few years ago.

[5] It has been argued that by joining ESO in the early 2000’s it was inevitable (and even planned) that other, older telescopes would be under pressure to close. I agree with this, and indeed the UK has withdrawn from the AAT and the UK Schmidt Telescope in Australia, and significantly reduced its spending on the WHT in La Palma and UKIRT in Hawaii. However, as far as I am aware, what was never suggested (publicly) or planned was withdrawal from the Gemini telescopes. These are not old facilities, and they remain at the forefront of astronomical research. It is true that the capabilities of Gemini-South (in Chile) do duplicate those of ESO/VLT, and it made sense to reduce our investment there (as we did). However the decision to withdraw from Gemini-North, came out of the blue, was not the result of a community consultation, or any well developed strategic plan. It did considerable damage to our reputation as an international partner, and taken together with the withdrawal from UKIRT and WHT leaves us without any world-class optical/infrared facilities in the northern hemisphere.

[6] Subsequent to 2007, various efforts have been made to patch up the damage done by the initial budget cuts to astronomy and some rear-guard attempt to re-engage the community. Unfortunately, of course, in an era of closures and "fire-fighting" this has not been a great success. The ground-rules for grant funding seem to be changing on a yearly basis, and we seem to be evolving to a new system which, whilst intended to save money, looks very likely to produce lower quality science, mainly due to there being less flexibility, and less oversight and peer-review. Indeed, the relatively efficient (and tested) operation that STFC inherited from PPARC seems to have been almost entirely dismantled. That said, I believe the damage to astronomy could be greatly alleviated by some small reinvestment in northern hemisphere optical/infrared telescopes – the highest strategic priority would be to renegotiate some access to the 8 meter Gemini-North telescope (e.g. at the 15-20% level, which is much less than our previous 25% share of both Gemini telescopes). This would require new agreements with international partners, but I would be surprised if they were not receptive to the proposal. The WHT on La Palma, as I’ve indicated, would also continue to provide an important resource, if some access could be retained. As I’ve attempted to stress, this is not about keeping old telescopes so we can continue to do more of the same, it is about providing UK scientists with access to a coherent global network of facilities, so they can be at the forefront of the discoveries of the future.

Professor N. R. Tanvir

University of Leicester

16 February 2011

Declaration of interests: my only interests are as a working scientist who makes use of many of the facilities threatened with withdrawal of funding.