Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Dr Bryn Jones (APP 26)


1.1 I worked for 10 years as a research scientist in astrophysics in British universities. I worked more recently as an academic on short-term contracts for nearly 5 years and was included in the 2008 Research Assessment Exercise. I left academia two years ago.

1.2 Here I make comments on the current state of astronomy and particle physics, but put a strong emphasis on those particular issues where the Committee has requested evidence.

Impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

2.1 The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) budget has had a substantial capital expenditure in past years, making it potentially vulnerable to cuts in capital spending. In 2010-2011 capital expenditure was £97 million (17% of budget) as opposed to £472 near-cash spending (83%), in a total budget of £569 million. [1] Ignoring spending on space activities that are being transferred to the UK Space Agency, the 2010-2011 international subscriptions are:


Near cash budget (£M)

Capital budget (£M)

Total (£M)

ESO subs.




CERN subs.




ILL subs.




ESRF subs.








(The ILL is a neutron source and the ESRF is a synchrotron source: as such they are beyond the scope of the astronomy and particle physics inquiry.)

2.2 A hypothetical cut of 40% to the STFC capital budget would have meant a loss of £39 million pounds to the total STFC budget (a 7% cut to the total), leaving £58 million for annual capital expenditure across all commitments and projects. It would have been impossible to continue funding all international subscriptions without flexibility regarding classifying spending on subscriptions between capital and near cash funding.

2.3 The STFC Delivery Plan provides details of the draft 2011-2012 budget. This gives a resource budget (no longer listed as near cash) of £376 million and a capital budget of £100 million. [2] The Plan also includes a depreciation/impairment of £75 million.

The 2011-2012 planned international subscriptions are:


Resource budget (£M)

Capital budget (£M)

Total (£M)

ESO subs.




CERN subs.




ILL subs.




ESRF subs.








(The breakdown of the capital budget between individual facilities is not given in the appendices to the Delivery Plan.)

2.4 The immediate conclusion from the published budgets is that an effort has been taken to divert spending on international subscriptions between the capital and resource categories. This was necessary to maintain UK participation in the European Southern Observatory (ESO) and CERN. This is a highly welcome outcome. The loss of either ESO or CERN would have ended ihe international competitiveness of UK particle physics immediately, and of astronomy within several years.

2.5 The settlement for the STFC from the comprehensive spending review must be seen in the light of the considerable cuts in spending over the past few years.

2.6 Given the flexibility that has been given to the STFC, the effect of capital cuts is therefore to reduce total spending, which impacts on funding available for facilities other than ESO and CERN. Other ground-based astronomical facilities, such as Gemini, the Isaac Newton Group telescopes, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope, the United Kingdom Infrared Telescope and the Jodrell Bank Observatory, provide data for projects of varying degrees of international excellence.

Impact of withdrawal from international ground-based facilities

3.1 Within the past decade the UK has joined the European Southern Observatory, and some smaller, older telescopes have become less competitive internationally as more 8- to 10-metre telescopes have come into operation. Some loss of less-productive old facilities is unavoidable.

3.2 The UK has been a partner in the twin 8-metre Gemini telescopes which provided access to large optical/near-infrared telescopes in both the northern and southern hemispheres. This was originally planned in the 1990s to be the only significant access to 8-metre telescopes for the UK. Accession to the European Southern Observatory within the past several years has provided additional access to world-leading 8-metre-class optical/near infrared telescopes through the Very Large Telescope, though this is only in the southern hemisphere.

3.3 The current plans to withdraw from the Gemini project will leave the UK without access to 8-metre class optical/near-infrared telescopes in the northern hemisphere. This will severely affect some research projects which are constrained to the northern skies (for example, because of the need to study one special object, or because observing targets are taken from prior observations from some other type of facility in the northern hemisphere). A majority of research projects can suffice with southern only facilities, but a minority cannot.

3.4 As for my personal experience, I was a significant user of the Anglo-Australian Observatory in the period 1997-2006. The phased withdrawal of the UK from the observatory meant that British-based scientists lost access to world-leading wide-field spectroscopic facilities. This was disruptive to an international collaboration of which I was a member. I felt this was damaging to the reputation of the UK as an international partner.

3.5 The temporary expulsion of the UK from the Gemini project in January 2008 was personally embarrassing to me at a time when I was attempting to finalise the detailed specification of forthcoming observations for an international collaboration that had been awarded joint UK and Australian Gemini time. The immediate crisis was resolved and the UK was readmitted to Gemini, but is now planning an organised withdrawal.

3.6 The early or hasty withdrawal of the UK from front-rank scientific projects significantly damages the reputation of the UK as an international partner. This might make it less likely that other countries will accept the UK as an international partner in major projects in the future.

3.7 The damage of reputation affects individual scientists as they try to contribute to small- or medium-sized international collaborations between researchers. British scientists are less likely to be accepted into particular research projects if there is a risk that UK subscriptions to facilities may be terminated before the projects have reached their conclusions.

3.8 Careful planning is needed to avoid a possible imbalance between relatively cheap ground-based astronomical facilities and expensive space activities.

3.9 The research community needs to be able to plan future projects knowing at least a few years in advance whether it will have competitive access to observing facilities. Sudden changes of plans are highly damaging.

Engagement of the STFC with the research community

4.1 It is evident that some senior figures within STFC management have attempted to increase engagement with parts of the astronomical community in the past two years, for example through online discussions of funding policy.

4.2 Having left academia two years ago, I shall not comment in detail on recent STFC engagement with the research community.

4.3 Engagement between research councils and the research community has largely been restricted to permanent academics. In the case of the Astronomy Forum this involves only the leaders of research groups. Engagement has not extended significantly to researchers on fixed-term contracts at any time in the past decade, either by the STFC or by its predecessor PPARC, even though fixed-term researchers are most strongly affected by funding decisions, most acutely through the availability of funding to employ researchers.

Effect on outreach

5.1 Astronomy, like space science, particle physics and fundamental theoretical physics, maintains a high profile in society and ignites public interest in science.

5.2 These academic disciplines have a powerful, positive effect on the UK economy through inspiring young people to study STEM subjects. This effect occurs by increasing STEM uptake at all educational levels, from GCSE to degree level. Many of these young people subsequently go to work in industry and apply their general STEM skills to activities of direct economic benefit.

5.3 Enthusing young people in science through the media profiles of astronomy and particle physics requires a stream of good news about UK science. It requires a continued British participation in iconic projects, such as the Jodrell Bank Observatory and the Large Hadron Collider.

5.4 Less clear is the extent of the impact on the economy made by people who study to PhD level in astronomy and particle physics.

5.5 Instability in funding produces negative news in the media. This may:

(i) have an adverse effect on enthusing young people about STEM subjects;

(ii) dissuade young people from studying low- and intermediate-level STEM subjects, particularly at GCSE and A-level.

(iii) dissuade young people from applying for physics degree courses, consequently reducing the numbers of graduates who might later take physics skills into industry and business. In turn, this may affect the financial viability of some physics departments.

Effect on research careers and the next generation of researchers

6.1 The current funding cuts have forced a reduction in the grants awarded to support postdoctoral researchers. In the 2010 grants round, recently announced, funding for 56 postdoctoral research assistants (or associates) was approved by the Astronomy Grants Panel. [3] Of these, 42 were on rolling grants, and only 14 on standard (responsive) grants. This was 30% of the total number requested by applicants. This is 35% below the average number supported over the past decade and about 50% lower than the number for 2006 before the STFC recent funding crises errupted. [4]

6.2 A reduction in PDRA positions means that some researchers will have to change their career destinations.

6.3 These cutbacks occur under a situation in which the career system in academic research has been very poor for years. Features of the long-standing careers crisis in academic science include:

(i) There is a strong dependency on short-term contracts with a very large turnover of staff.

(ii) The specialised character of research makes it relatively difficult for researchers to switch between scientific fields.

(iii) The demographics of the research community appear unplanned with regard to numbers of early, mid and senior positions - or if planned, is planned with wholly inaccurate demographic data. The STFC funds large numbers of PhD positions (130 per year in astronomy), a moderate number of PDRA positions and a small number of advanced fellowships. Nearly all long-term jobs in astronomical research in the UK are academic positions funded by universities. My own estimate of the number of astronomy lectureships advertised is 4 - 8 per year in the UK. A small number of university departments operate their STFC rolling grants to provide long-term support jobs; these are few in number.

(iv) The ratio of the number of new PhD studentships each year to the number of long-term jobs advertised each year is a critically important statistic for measuring the state of the career system. It determines the probability that a newly graduated PhD will progress eventually to a long-term post.

(v) My estimate is that the ratio is in the range 1:10 to 1:15.

(vi) There is a strong ageism within the postdoctoral research system: people become more expensive to employ as they get older, and there can be too little money in a grant to fund older, more experienced researchers for the lifetime of the grant.

(vii) A majority of researchers who embark on postdoctoral research careers will be unable to continue in university research in the UK because of the lack of long-term positions. They will have to leave the UK or leave academic research altogether.

(viii) The number of fellowships is too small to offer any protection from the cuts in PDRA positions. Fellowship numbers have been reduced recently.

(ix) There is a potential for employment in industry or business for people within a few years of PhD completion in astronomy and particle physics. However, there are often problems of "over-qualification" or "over-specialisation" for older, more experienced researchers seeking alternative employment. Anecdotal reports state that some potential employers believe, entirely wrongly, that many people with postdoctoral experience expect high salary levels and, if appointed, would leave companies after a short time to look for more lucrative employment elsewhere: they are not employed.

(x) There is no obvious alternative career stream in applied science or in industry for people in mid-career, aged 30 to 45 years. There is even a lack of appropriate careers advice for people in this category.

(xi) There appears to be little appreciation by policy makers of the extent of the long-term problems in the career system in UK academic research in general, and the acute problems in UK astronomy.

6.4 Current higher education funding cutbacks for the 2011-2012 financial year and uncertainties in post-2012 university income make it likely that fewer academic positions will be advertised in the medium term.

6.5 Attracting people with PhDs into academic research is not a problem: there is a massive oversupply of outstanding people for the needs of academia. The negative publicity from financial cutbacks is unlikely to cause difficulties of the supply of good people at PhD level. However, there may be mismatches between the supply of talented postdoctoral candidates and short-term posts in individual, precise research areas.

6.6 The reduction in PDRA positions over the past few years may drive particular individuals out of academic research. This could affect significantly who among the current generation of researchers will eventually get academic positions. Random factors play a powerful role in determining who is appointed to permanent jobs in astronomy.

Declaration of interests

7.1 I am not currently employed in UK science or in any university or by any research council. I am awaiting confirmation of an unpaid visiting fellowship in a British university.

Dr Bryn Jones

16 February 2011

[1] STFC current budget projected from 1 April 2010 taken from


[2] STFC Delivery Plan 2011/12 - 2014/15 . See the Plan's Appendix C for the capital budget, Appendix D for the resource budget. The depreciation/impairment is given in the Plan's Appendix A.

[3] Report by Prof. A. Lawrence, Astronomy Grants Panel chair, available at .

[4] See the figures compiled by Prof. P. A. Crowther published by Prof. A. Lawrence at .