Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by the School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Manchester (APP 28)

The School of Physics and Astronomy at the University of Manchester is unique in the UK in having both experimental and theoretical groups in all three areas of STFC science: Astronomy, Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics. The School has great strengths in almost all areas of physics research, as evidenced for example by the award of the 2010 Nobel Prize in Physics to two of our professors of Condensed Matter Physics. However the overall health of the School has clearly been impacted by recent crises in the STFC, and we are concerned about the future provision for STFC science.

The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability;

1. Astronomy, Nuclear and Particle Physics at UK universities have been in a difficult position since the STFC funding crisis of 2007. Grants and project funding have reduced by a large fraction since that time. Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics have already seen large effects of recent cuts which had severe impact on their programmes. Since Astronomy grants are awarded for three years, about 1/3rd of university astronomy groups still have grants awarded during higher levels of funding. These groups, including the Manchester one, are expecting a significant cut in their funding from next April, purely based on past cuts to budgets.

2. Capital funding pays for equipment and some new projects, and its reduction will greatly affect instrumentation groups, as well as groups with high computing demands. Future projects in all areas, including Nuclear and Particle Physics, will be difficult to fund for STFC, and this will affect instrumentation work in all three areas of STFC science, hitting severely the international competitiveness of the UK.

3. The new STFC Delivery Plan suggests a reduction in support for technology research and development in the Universities, with a concentration of such work in the central laboratories, an idea that is probably a response to reductions in capital funding. However this proposal represents a serious misunderstanding of how new technologies for STFC science are developed, in a collaborative effort involving scientists with many different types of skills. It is essential for retaining world-class research at universities that technology research and development, construction of experiments and their exploitation are closely linked in university groups. Indeed, it is those university groups who have this diversity of skills where most of the expertise and international leadership currently exists. In addition, this policy would further reduce the opportunities for educating undergraduate and postgraduate students in the areas of technology research and development.

4. A viable funding level for university groups is based on grants, overheads and a full economic costing component (fEC) which pays part of staff salaries. As an interim measure (which seems to have become permanent), STFC only pays for 80% of the cost of grants. For the STFC-funded e-Merlin project, STFC and Manchester agreed to include the fEC component in the cost of the project, so that effectively Manchester pays for approximately 40% of the project. The rapid reduction in grants funding has also reduced the fEC funding for the university groups, and the issue of the viability of astronomy, nuclear physics and particle physics groups and of physics departments needs to be considered.

5. Jodrell Bank was a founder member of the European VLBI Network of radio telescopes (EVN), a global network of at least 18 telescopes, stretching from Puerto Rico to Shanghai, and South Africa to Sweden. Most of the telescopes can be connected in real time with bandwidths up to 1 Gb/s. The strategic importance to Manchester of EVN as technical pathfinders for the Square Kilometer Array (SKA), as a key collaborative venture by the European community developing SKA, and as a global network which may provide some of the longest baselines of the SKA, is recognised by STFC. We consider it important that STFC remains able to continue to fund at a modest cost such items of strategic importance.

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;

6. To remain competitive internationally, the UK became a member of ESO in 2003. ESO exists to provide observational facilities which the member states cannot afford individually. This includes both the telescopes and their instrumentation. Almost all ESO member states also maintain their own observational facilities, in most cases with 2- to 4-metre telescopes.

7. After joining ESO, the UK had some duplication in facilities, which included Gemini-South (very close to the VLT), and withdrawal from some facilities was expected. Withdrawal from all non-ESO ground-based facilities is, however, very damaging. Almost all astronomy today is the result of international collaborations. In these collaborations, our position has become severely weakened because we have no facilities to offer.

8. Of the current ESO members, only Poland, Austria, and Portugal do not have access to optical/infrared telescopes outside of ESO. The UK will be in this situation after 2012, when, in astronomy, STFC will be a facilities council without facilities.

9. Withdrawal entirely from northern hemisphere astronomy leaves us unable to study the outer galaxy, the major galaxies in the Local Group, and more than half of the accessible extra-galactic sky. It also affects STFC-funded space missions, which by nature observe both hemispheres but for which we can only request follow-up observations in the south, and only through ESO.

10. We are also concerned about the impending reduced access to the ESO VLT telescopes for UK astronomers. It is expected to be reduced by approximately 25% per semester over 4 semesters, or alternatively full loss of access for one semester. This loss of access may especially endanger time-critical PhD projects.

11. Manchester operates the STFC-funded e-Merlin radio array, the UK's major SKA precursor. It is located in the UK and, as such, observes the northern hemisphere. Its unique capabilities have no counterpart in the southern hemisphere. The scientific return on this investment from STFC and Manchester will be limited by the lack of opportunities for ground-based follow-up observations.

12. We suggest that STFC should, in consultation with its community and with UKSA, review the balance between space-based and ground-based astronomy. The two should be treated as complementary rather than as competing. The high cost of space missions makes it essential to maintain a correct balance.

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; and

13. Communication and engagement have improved much over the past two years. The STFC advisory panels on Astronomy, Nuclear Physics and Particle Physics have provided important reports on priorities, based on extensive consultation with the communities. Regular meetings with the relevant communities for each of the science areas have also been beneficial. We commend STFC for this change in its approach.

14. However, Manchester does not recognise some of the statements made by the STFC Chief Executive in his evidence to the Parliamentary Select Committee. We are not aware of any plan for correcting a 'deliberate over-investment in astronomy' or of any public strategy to withdraw from northern hemisphere observational facilities.

15. Also, the proposed move to concentrate technology development in the laboratories, as discussed above and described in the STFC Delivery Plan, was not subject to any consultation with the research community before publication of the Delivery Plan. We believe that there would have been very strong opposition to this proposal, and an open discussion of the issues would have clearly shown that it was misguided.

16. We would welcome more openness on the procedure to appoint a new Chief Executive. We understand this process has started but there has been no advert or recent announcements. Manchester gives great importance to cooperation between STFC and the universities, and would welcome a commitment from the new Chief Executive to continue to work with its community.

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

17. Astronomy, Space and Particle Physics have always had the power to inspire. This was most recently demonstrated by the incredibly successful BBC Stargazing Live broadcast from Jodrell Bank Observatory. In a prime-time slot on BBC2 the programme attracted around 3 to 4 million viewers each night over 3 nights, remarkable for a science subject. The programme enabled us to showcase a wide range of British astronomy and space activity, including the work of Jodrell Bank’s Lovell and e-MERLIN telescopes, but also UKIRT, JCMT, ESA, the public-access Faulkes Telescopes, solar physics, the solar system and meteorites, and much more. The outreach work of Manchester particle physicist, Professor Brian Cox, is of course also very well known.

18. The first year of the operation of the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) has received broad coverage in media due to the enormous public interest in the fundamental questions addressed by Particle Physics. Particle Physicists from Manchester are regularly visiting schools and present at public events.

19. The impact of BBC Stargazing Live was clear: there were many positive reviews; telescopes and other astronomical equipment sold out in major retailers; a record-breaking 2.3 million people downloaded the BBC Stargazing Guide; and an estimated 40,000 people attended over 300 linked events nationwide. This programme and others like it, such as Brian Cox’s Wonders of the Solar System, will have a lasting legacy in bringing young people into scientific and technological careers, not just in astronomy, space and particle physics.

20. The University of Manchester is currently constructing a new public Discovery Centre at Jodrell Bank Observatory, funded by the Northwest Development Agency, the Northwest European Regional Development Fund and the University. The Centre intends to showcase live science and inspire the scientists of the future. In addition to this, independent economic assessment indicates that this ~£3 million project will generate £26 million of additional economic benefit for the region.

21. STFC and their forerunners should be congratulated for encouraging and supporting outreach through a range of funding opportunities over some years. Indeed, they have maintained much of this support through the recent pressures on funding and have been strongly supportive of the outreach work done at Jodrell Bank. The astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics communities, including the STFC, have shown a strong commitment to outreach. Indeed, in publishing outreach material regarding the use of ESO facilities (e.g. press releases), the UK is second only to ESO itself, according to information provided by ESO.

22. However, the positive impact generated by the high-quality outreach work in these areas is put at risk by the regular appearance of stories in the media concerning closure or threats to major STFC-funded facilities. We experienced this ourselves in the 2007/8 STFC funding crisis and we still get asked about this today. For a school student making choices of what to study at university and about their future career, this uncertainty can only have a negative impact on the future of STFC science areas and physics in general.

23. Furthermore, much of the outreach work is done by postgraduate students and early-career researchers. Their enthusiasm and commitment to the subject is infectious and plays a key role in engaging with younger people in particular. The large reduction in funding for postgraduate students and post-doctoral researchers means that fewer people are available for outreach. Also the constant squeeze on funding for research posts and facilities is not only leading these people to leave the UK for jobs elsewhere, but also causes a loss of morale, again with serious consequences for outreach and inspiration.

These points were collated from the community of astronomers, nuclear and particle physicists working in the School of Physics and Astronomy at The University of Manchester.

Professor S. J. Watts

Head of School

School of Physics and Astronomy

The University of Manchester

16 February 2011