Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) (APP 33)


1. The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is an independent, non-departmental public body of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) and is one of the UK’s seven research councils [1] . STFC makes it possible for a broad range of scientists to do the highest quality research tackling some of the most fundamental scientific questions.

2. This submission does not include or necessarily reflect the views of the Science and Research Group in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.

Q1. The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

3. STFC carried out a thorough prioritisation of its programme in 2009 which focused support on its highest priority activities. This forms the basis of the STFC’s Delivery Plan for the next four years [2] alongside our Corporate Strategy [3] .  STFC has welcomed its CSR settlement and recognises the Government’s strong support for science and technology.

4. STFC is heavily dependent on capital. A large proportion of our capital budget in the last Spending Review period was spent on maintaining and developing facilities that support the UK research base; very little was spent replacing old infrastructure. With the other research councils, STFC has stressed the requirement for sufficient operating capital to make the running of these facilities fully sustainable. The capital allocation for the UK facilities in CSR 2010 addresses this need. STFC has worked closely with BIS to re-evaluate its capital needs, reassessing priorities, identifying funds to sustain its world leading facilities and the changing requirements of the international subscriptions to European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) and European Southern Observatory (ESO). The rebalancing between capital and resource funding in its allocation reflects the changing profile of those requirements over time.

5. Nevertheless, the reduced capital available will potentially have impacts on programmes such as accelerator research and development, the Muon Ionisation Cooling Experiment (MICE) at Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, and funding for equipment within University grants. In all these areas capital spending will have to be reduced based on the current funding allocation.

Q2. The impact of withdrawal from international ground-based facilities on the UK’s research base and international reputation

6. STFC’s Delivery Plan details the UK’s commitment to facilities in the UK and across the globe, e.g. commitments to CERN, Institut Laue Langevin (ILL) and European Synchrotron Radiation Facility (ESRF) in mainland Europe; and investments further afield, such as ESO telescopes in Chile, as well as closer to home, such as ISIS, the Diamond Light Source and the Central Laser Facility in the UK.

7. STFC is grateful, on behalf of its science communities, that CSR2010 did not mean that the UK had to withdraw support for any of these commitments.

8. With regard to astronomy, early in the last decade the UK astronomy community decided to join ESO in order to benefit from shared developments with its European research community colleagues. In particular, the priorities focused on the new facilities being built in Chile, including Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array (ALMA) and the UK’s investment in the Visible and Infrared Survey Telescope for Astronomy (VISTA) telescope, but also leading on to UK participation in the next generation of giant optical telescopes, which have most notably included the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) [4] .

9. The cost of the UK’s accession to ESO was found partly from savings resulting from phased withdrawal from existing ground based telescopes on La Palma and Hawaii and in Australia, and partly by additional government funding. Ongoing commitments to high priority science programmes and to international partners meant that withdrawal took a decade to achieve. STFC withdrew from the Anglo-Australian Observatory in 2010 and currently foresees withdrawal from the Hawaii and La Palma telescopes within the current CSR period.

10. Throughout these processes, STFC and its predecessor Councils communicated the plans clearly to all of the UK’s international partners and maintained an open dialogue.

11. Within the current CSR period, STFC’s priorities in ground-based astronomy were re-addressed through a dedicated independent ground-based astronomy review panel, commissioned by STFC in 2009 and chaired by Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson [5] . This panel carried out a detailed community consultation. Advice was sought from STFC’s standing science advisory panels, which include practising UK astronomers. The peer reviewed advice gave a higher scientific priority to STFC exploiting its investment in the ESO than to STFC’s older investments in Hawaii and the Canary Islands. This confirmed the previously agreed position.

12. The research community has made it clear to STFC that there is still scope to undertake excellent optical and infrared wavelength science research in the Northern hemisphere. Furthermore, the Northern hemisphere facilities offer good opportunities for student training and as a testbed for technology. In the light of this, STFC has been able to extend support for its UK Infrared Telescope in Hawaii through 2013 by making significant economies in its mode of operation. We have also confirmed a limited extension to support for the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) [6] in Hawaii in order to exploit a new instrument. For these telescopes and our facilities in the Canaries we are discussing future management arrangements with potential new partners which may include access to some, if not all, of these facilities.

13. As with all supported disciplines, STFC’s and its science committees have to consider the case for, and balance of, UK investment in astronomy facilities in competition with other demands on the STFC’s overall science programme budget.

Q3. Whether the Science and Technology Facilities Council has sufficiently engaged with its research community in these two areas on its strategic direction and impact on budget reductions

14. During the prioritisation of its programme in 2009 [7] and in preparing and developing its submission to BIS for the Spending Review, STFC worked closely with its research community, as indeed we endeavour to do at all times.

15. STFC’s engagement with the disciplines we support most importantly includes the operation of our Science Board which advises on all aspects of STFC's science and technology programme [8] , supported by its science committees – the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science c ommittee (PPAN); and the Physical and Life Sciences committee (PALS). These work in close collaboration with their respective advisory panels.

16. However, in addition, during the period of CSR2010, STFC’s Council deemed it important to establish a CSR Working Group which met regularly and worked intensively with the STFC Executive [9] . The Working Group comprised Professor Keith Burnett (Chair of the Working Group, VC Sheffield University), Professor Martin Barstow (pro-VC Leicester University), Professor Sir Peter Knight FRS (Imperial College), Dr Philip Kaziewicz and Mr Marshall Davies [10] .

17. At all times during the CSR process, the Working Group provided oversight on the strategic impact of the potential CSR settlement on the research community and the breadth of the STFC’s science programme. Under certain planning scenarios, CSR2010 could have had very much greater impact on parts of the science programme than resulted from the final allocation. The operation of this advisory body of STFC Council was integral to providing appropriate engagement with the research community with regard to CSR2010’s strategic and local impacts.

18. STFC holds regular meetings and consultations with learned societies such as the Institute of Physics (IoP), and the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), and regular town hall meetings with the particle physics, nuclear physics and astronomy communities. STFC consults closely with its international partners, CERN, ESRF, ESO, ILL, universities, Diamond, and other research councils.

19. STFC has made a clear commitment in its Delivery Plan to further embed and develop these relationships.

Q4. Opportunities for, and threats to, outreach and inspiring the next generation of astronomers and particle physicists

20. STFC has always recognised that the research science it supports plays a key role in inspiring future generations across the STEM disciplines. STFC’s Public Engagement strategy: ‘Inspire and Involve’ is based on the inspirational science, technology, and engineering in our programme.

21. Around 90 per cent of physics undergraduates mention science within the STFC portfolio as topics that drew them to their studies.

22. In our Delivery Plan, STFC has confirmed the commitment that we made in 2009 to sustaining support for public outreach and science communication, and indeed to expanding our work in these areas.

23. STFC’s methods of engagement primarily involve funding projects and personal fellowships, particularly supporting researchers via facilitation and training to inspire and enthuse new generations about science, encourage them to continue study in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) subjects, and to improve public understanding of scientific advances. STFC research grant application forms all include a request for an ‘impact plan’, which is intended to encourage thought and initiate the exploration of possible routes of engagement by the applying groups, and this is used as a proposal assessment criterion.

24. STFC’s outreach programme [11] includes: stimulating and responding to public interest in research developments (including via the mass media, new and social media); linking young people and schools with STFC science and technology; supporting researchers; and capitalising on STFC Laboratories and Campuses at Harwell and Daresbury, as excellent technical sites for regional STEM and skills activities.

25. In encouraging researchers in these ways we are implementing and hope to encourage the national and international engagement in science, including the Public Engagement Concordat [12] . STFC works with RCUK in the collective research councils’ public engagement programmes [13] , whilst maintaining a distinctive STFC-led programme focused on our research areas. STFC works in partnership with the UK Space Agency [14] . given the thematic closeness of astronomy and space science.

26. Recently, the BIS Expert Group Report on Science and Trust [15] and the President of the Royal Society (Sir Paul Nurse) [16] , have argued that increased public engagement is an important element of gaining public trust. STFC appreciates the importance of public confidence in science. STFC’s science areas often provide suitable topics to engage citizens with the process of science and the people who do it.

27. In linking research projects with public and schools, we emphasise the UK’s role and UK people in the given project. Our public education funding schemes, personal fellowships, training and facilitation aim to help researchers inspire and enthuse young people and encourage them to continue to study STEM subjects.

28. With regard to the National Schools Observatory, in which we are aware the Committee has a close interest, STFC has supported this and many other projects through our Science in Society grants schemes [17] , and also ‘in kind’ through co-operation and support. The distinctive astronomy outreach offer to UK schools through the existence of robotic telescopes (such as the Faulkes Telescopes [18] , the Liverpool Telescope [19] used by the National Schools’ Observatory [20] and the Bradford Robotic Telescope [21] ) compete for STFC’s public engagement funding through an open and competitive peer review process. STFC has supported all three of these initiatives through its public engagement funding schemes.

29. Aside from grant funding for the La Palma telescope in its early stages (for use as a research tool), STFC has had no operational involvement in the day to day running of these telescopes. Their continued operation is the responsibility of their respective owners and partners. However, we wholeheartedly support their outstanding work in public education in schools and beyond and we continue to encourage and welcome bids for financial support for their work through our Science in Society funding programmes.

30. Overall, STFC makes investments in public engagement activities through our portfolio of schemes and activities to make the greatest impact, whilst retaining a strategic overview. This strategic overview includes a mandate that we are primarily a research body. At all times we refer to our Royal Charter obligations:

· To promote and support high-quality scientific and engineering research by developing and providing, by any means, facilities and technical expertise in support of basic, strategic and applied research programmes funded by persons established in Our United Kingdom and elsewhere.

· To promote and support, by any means, high-quality basic, strategic and applied research and related post-graduate training in astronomy, particle physics, space science and nuclear physics and research in any other field which makes use of scientific facilities where access is provided, arranged or otherwise made available by the Council, having regard to the objects of the other research councils.

· To promote and support the advancement of knowledge and technology (including the promotion and support of the exploitation of research outcomes) and to provide trained scientists and engineers, and thereby to contribute to the economic competitiveness of Our United Kingdom and the quality of life of its people, meeting the needs of users and beneficiaries.

· In relation to the activities as engaged in by the Council above and in such manner as the Council may see fit:

o to generate public awareness;

o to communicate research outcomes;

o to encourage public engagement and dialogue;

o to disseminate knowledge; and

o to provide advice.

STFC and the House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee

31. STFC welcomes the Committee’s continued interest in STFC’s mission, vision [22] and operation. We look forward to continuing to contribute to the valuable work the Committee undertakes in supporting the UK’s research base, the science community and the international context in which we operate.

Science and Technology Facilities Council

16 February 2011

[1] The seven research councils are: Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC); Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council (BBSRC); Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC); Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC); Medical Research Council (MRC); Natural Environment Research Council (NERC); Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). Research Councils UK (RCUK) is a strategic partnership established in 2002 to enable the councils to work together more effectively to enhance the overall impact and effectiveness of their research, training and innovation activities, contributing to the delivery of the Government’s objectives for science and innovation.












[13] E.g.