Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Professor Carole Mundell and

Dr David Shone (APP 30)


1. Reduction in capital funding for Astronomy and Particle Physics is a serious issue in itself, but this is one symptom of structural issues within STFC. The formation of STFC from the former Council for the Central Laboratories for the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Councils (PPARC) was a crucial and damaging factor.

2. STFC displays a damaging lack of confidence in the value of fundamental research and is striving to excuse its existence by changing its emphasis and funding priorities to reflect this.

Lack of Openness and Accountability

3. STFC governance is opaque; whereas PPARC was a relatively simple organization focused on research funding, STFC is dominated by its own operations and facilities, with much of its structure serving a community beyond and much larger than PPARC and which is also funded by other research councils. Consequently the creation of STFC introduced layer of decision-making that has an impact (usually detrimental) on funding of Astronomy and Particle Physics but which is not accountable to the research community formerly served by PPARC.

4. A clear example of this was the ad hoc diversion of £24 million from Astronomy and Particle Physics to the Physical and Life Sciences areas to exploit STFC facilities such as Diamond Light Source in 20091. This was presented to the Astronomy and Particle Physics Community as a fait accompli by the STFC executive and resulted in significant and immediate cuts to University astronomy research group grants. Together with the still-unexplained £80 million shortfall in the budget arising from the merger of CCLRC and PPARC, this has had a destructive effect in fundamental research.

5. Publication of minutes of STFC Council Meetings ceased in 2010, replaced by distilled "News from Council"; perhaps minutes are available on request, but these are no longer directly accessible and this erodes transparency and accountability.

New Consolidated Grant Scheme

6. STFC intends to introduce a new grant scheme for university researchers; this will replace the Rolling Grant and Standard Grant schemes. Rolling grants have provided departmental research teams with funding for integrated programmes of research, giving a degree of long-term stability as these grants are for five years but reviewed and renewed - or two-year notice of termination is given – every three years. The Standard Grant scheme provides support to fund post-doctoral research assistance for individual scientists in a department.

7. In 2009, due to a financial crisis apparently precipitated by the sudden removal of £25 million from the research grant line, STFC altered its rules on existing grants that had already been awarded and removed the two-year notice period with immediate effect. This had a catastrophic impact on a number of UK research groups and resulted in young postdoctoral researchers having their contracts terminated prematurely.

8. The new consolidated scheme is to be introduced this year with an application deadline in May. The full application details are yet to be published and the community waits for guidance. On the basis of conversations with members of the committee that conducted the review to produce a new scheme and panel members involved in its implementation, it is clear that some of the original intentions and benefits have been lost and also that this scheme is largely the creation of the STFC executive and bureaucracy, with little or no support from the community it is intended to serve. In particular, the suddenness with which it is being introduced, just months after the initial review published its recommendations, has left no time for full consultation with the community or preparation by STFC staff for a coherent delivery.

9. The scheme is ill considered and is being hurried through by the STFC executive with no obvious good reason other than the claim that it will simplify administration for STFC and reduce effort required by departmental researchers.

The benefit is dubious; it comes at the cost of largely eliminating the opportunity for innovative researchers to strike-out in a new direction, since will result in only incremental development of a departmental research, threatens to remove control from researchers and is likely to cause considerable damage to opportunities for innovative research in the long term.

10. One of the authors (CGM) has benefited from the Standard Grant scheme, receiving funding for postdoctoral assistance that has enabled her to establish a world-class research team that has placed the UK at the forefront of a new field of astrophysics; similar successes might not be readily repeatable under the new scheme.

11. This measure to introduce the new scheme should be suspended immediately; at the very minimum, it should be subjected to review in a new regime under the next STFC Chief Executive, but we be believe that more drastic measures, outlined in our recommendations, are required.

STFC and The National Schools Observatory

12. Professor Keith Mason’s response to the select committee (Oral evidence, January 19th , Q132-136) on the subject of the National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) was somewhat disingenuous; his initial dismissal of the NSO as "a different animal" because "this is not an issue for the research councils because it is an education issue" is wrong. One unique strength of the NSO is its foundation on world leading fundamental research using the Liverpool Telescope, placing it firmly within the STFC remit.

13. The NSO is operated by Liverpool John Moores University as part of the function of the Liverpool Telescope on the Canary island of La Palma. The Liverpool Telescope is funded in part by STFC to provide a unique research capability as the world’s largest fully instrumented and autonomous robotic telescope. Evidence of its impact as a premier research facility includes the work conducted by the Liverpool Gamma Ray Burst Team, who have used PPARC and STFC funding, won through rigorous peer review (awarded in 2004, 2007, 2011), to establish a world-leading reputation in the early time automatic robotic follow-up of Gamma Ray Bursts. Evidence of excellence includes publications of results in high-impact journals such as Nature2 and Science3 and independently commissioned perspectives on key results4,5 and award of the Times Higher Education ’Research Project of the Year’ 2007 prize6 for ‘Measuring Gamma Ray Bursts’, work described in the judges citation as "brilliantly innovative discovery into the fundamental nature of the Universe that could have profound impacts in decades ahead". Professor Mason is fully acquainted with the importance of this research, having led a GRB group at MSSL, with whom the Liverpool team both competes and collaborates.

Impact of Withdrawal from international ground-based facilities

14. The Isaac Newton Group of telescopes occupies a prime site for astronomical research on the island of La Palma. Access to this site for installation of new telescopes is difficult to obtain, with new telescopes often being sited on the adjacent island of Tenerife, with less optimal conditions for astronomy. The UK currently has a valuable presence on La Palma and one which is becoming increasingly sought after by competing nations. It is therefore surprising that STFC seem keen to relinquish this privileged position so lightly. In particular, the integration of the robotic Liverpool Telescope with more traditional but larger aperture telescopes such as the William Herschel Telescope continues to provide a unique observational capability for the rapid optical followup of discoveries by high energy satellites. The work of the Liverpool GRB team and teams at the University of Leicester, Hertfordshire and University College London using the La Palma telescopes continues to produce world leading reseach that exploits expensive satellites in which STFC and now the UKSA continue to invest and regard highly. A strong UK presence on La Palma therefore goes significantly beyond a simple strategy for ground-based astronomy. In short, withdrawal from these facilities and the underpinning infrastructure that has been driven from the UK will impact severely on the UK’s competitiveness in space research as well as ground-based astronomy programmes. Having a small number of large telescopes in the Southern hemisphere alone, as STFC claims is their goal, is therefore a flawed and dangerous strategy.

Impact on outreach and the next generation of astronomers and particle physicists.

15. Since the inception of STFC in 2007, the impact on the morale of astronomy and particle physics researchers has continued to deteriorate. Young postdoctoral researchers, if they have managed to keep their jobs despite year-on-year grant budget cuts, have significant concerns about their futures in the UK. STFC funding has proven to be volatile, even for those of us with highly rated world-class science programmes. The continuing struggle to make STFC recognize the importance and value of its own researchers and overall astronomy portfolio leads us to conclude that a long-term future in the UK is unviable if STFC continues in its current form.

The wider impact of fundamental research in Astronomy and Particle Physics.

16. Inevitably, in any discussion of the funding of fundamental science, the issue of the impact and value of the research arises. STFC recognises the importance of addressing this issue – indeed, in the hearing on January 19th the Chair of the Select Committee referred to the leaflet issued by the Royal Astronomical Society which was written in conjunction with STFC. However, this only scratches the surface, and we believe that the leaders of STFC – and even many in the scientific community – fail to appreciate and convey the full impact of fundamental research. There is a tendency to view the impact of this fundamental research as being indirect; "spin-offs" that are somewhat peripheral; while this is often the case (and these are valuable in themselves), perhaps the greatest value comes from the long-term impact of the research itself. Brief consideration leads to a more extensive list, tabulated below. This is by no means exhaustive but reflects examples of impact arising directly from fundamental curiosity-driven research as well as from "spin-off" benefits.

17. We have no doubt that others could provide additional examples and we have described examples with an astronomy connection; we have omitted examples from other areas of fundamental physics, such as Electromagnetism and Quantum Mechanics, both of which provide the foundation for modern electronics and information systems, and both of which represent the fundamental "blue-sky" research of their day.

Discovery or Invention

Scientific Motivation

Wider Impact

Historic (pre-1945)

Newton’s Laws of Motion and Gravitation

Understand the observed motion of the moon and planets

Basis for the whole of mechanical engineering and the mathematical framework (calculus) that is used in all branches of science and engineering as well as other fields such as finance.

Einstein’s Special and General Theory of Relativity

Theoretical understanding of motion at or close to the speed of light and in strong gravitational fields; reconciliation of observation and theory relating to measurements of the speed of light and planetary motion

Critical for precise measurement of time and position; GPS navigation systems rely on this to function accurately.

Modern (post 1945)

Optical Intensity Interferometry and Quantum Optics (Hanbury-Brown-Twiss Effect)

Measurement of diameters of stars using a technique developed for radio astronomy. At first, many physicists did not believe this could work but ultimately it did, changing our understanding of the quantum behavior of light.

Major influence on the development of Quantum Optics, and consequently lasers and fibre-optic communications technology.

Carbon "BuckyBalls" (C60 Buckminsterfullerene) – a new fom of Carbon

Laboratory simulation of the atmospheres of old, Carbon-rich stars, thought to host long-chain Carbon molecules7

Expected to have a long-term radical impact on materials science and nanotechnology. Early applications are in high-performance lubricants, with a consequent saving in energy use 8,9

International Celestial Reference Frame based on Quasars

Discovery and investigation of quasars - the most distant and energetic objects in the universe. Quasars turn out to be sufficiently distant and luminous that they act as a giant grid reference system.

A universal reference frame applicable in precise measurements of position; along with Relativity (mentioned above), this is critical to development of GPS navigation with accuracy to allow a wide range of applications such as blind landings for aircraft and future automatic navigation for ground, air, sea and space travel.

Smoothed-Particle Hydrodynamics

A computational technique for understanding the structure and evolution of stars and other astrophysical phenomena10.

Diverse applications in simulation and design of systems across a range of engineering disciplines such as aerospace11.

The Authors’ background in declaration of interests

18. Jointly, the authors have nearly 50 years experience working in research, higher education and high-technology industry. Both are Physics graduates with PhDs in Radio Astronomy. CGM is a senior university academic; DLS is a senior technologist and business development director in a large multi-national IT company. All views expressed here are the personal views of the authors and not necessarily shared by their employers.

19. As an academic working in astronomy, CGM is eligible to apply for STFC funding and currently holds an STFC standard grant. As an academic staff member at Liverpool John Moores University, CGM has privileged access to the Liverpool Telescope as part of her world-leading research into Gamma Ray Bursts.

20. DLS has no other direct interest other than being married to CGM. Both have an interest in the long-term national economic strength that accrues from vibrant pursuit of fundamental research.

Professor Carole Mundell and

Dr David Shone

16 February 2011


[1] Memorandum submitted by the Royal Astronomical Society (FC 26) 2009, Point #21 .htm

[2] Steele et al. 2009, "Ten per cent Optical Polarization from GRB 090102" , Nature, 462, 767

[3] Mundell et al. 2007, "Early Optical Polarization of a Gamma Ray Burst Afterglow", Science, 5820, 1822

[4] Covino 2007 "A closer look at a Gamma Ray Burst", Science, 5820, 1798 Covino (Perspective on the Mundell et al. 2007)

[5] Lyutikov "Gamma Ray Bursts: Magnetism in a Cosmic Blast" Nature, 462, 728 (News and views, perspective on Steele et al. 2009)

[6] The link to the associated award of THES Research Project of the Year 2007 for this work is here:

[7] Kroto, H. W., Heath, J. R., O’Brien, S. C., Curl, R. F. and Smalley, R. E., 1985

"C 60 : Buckminsterfullerene" Nature , 318 , 162.

[8] Baughman, R.H., Zakhidov, A.A., & de Heer, W.A., 2002

"Carbon Nanotubes – the Route Toward Applications"

Science, 297, 787.

A copy is available on-line at:

[9] Yadav, B.C., and Kumar, R., 2008

"Structures, Properties and Applications of Fullerenes"

International Journal of Nanotechnology and Applications, 2, 15.

[10] Gingold, R.A., and Monaghan, J.J., 1977

"Smoothed particle hydrodynamics - Theory and application to non-spherical stars"

Monthly Notices of the Royal Astronomical Society, 181, 375.

[11] Applications of Smoothed Particle Hydrodynamics in BAE Systems