Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by senior figures within the UK experimental particle physics, theoretical particle physics and astro-particle physics communities (APP 34)

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee is today launching an inquiry into astronomy and particle physics in the UK, and in relation to these, invites views on the following:

1. The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability;

1.1) Since schools have little access to high-technology equipment, the only exposure of students is at undergraduate level (mainly through project work with active research groups) and, obviously, at postgraduate level. Capital cuts will hit both of these hard, impacting on student recruitment to STEM subjects and on the quality of training that can be provided to graduates, leaving them ill-equipped for the highly competitive global economy (where other countries do provide student exposure to cutting-edge technologies). A lack of new equipment is further exacerbated by the cut-backs in new capital projects on which UK students and post-doctoral researchers can train. The proposal, as we understand it, to concentrate new equipment at STFC centres as discussed below, would have a disastrous effect on the training of the next generation of scientists, essentially all of which takes place at universities.

1.2) The cuts in capital funding, both in their implications for equipment grants to universities, and given the high fraction of STFC costs associated with facilities and international subscriptions, further erode a research base which is still reeling from the consequences of the underfunding of the PPARC-CCLRC merger to create STFC in 2007. This manifests itself in the statement below, from page 8 in the STFC Delivery Plan, which appears to imply that major reductions to the grant support for university based technology research and development are being planned. (See "We will foster a complementary partnership between STFC and universities by increasingly focusing the capabilities of STFC’s in-house researchers on technology, instrumentation and detector development, leaving university scientists to concentrate on scientific research."). Historically, STFC and the universities have worked in partnership very effectively, most recently on the LHC, and it is surely very risky to upset the broad parameters of that partnership. The proposal also misses the fact that the majority of recent particle physics technology development, detector construction and sub-system delivery to experiments has had a strong university lead, with many of the recognised international experts employed (often on STFC grants) in the university sector. This proposal also flatly contradicts the requirement on universities groups to be able to demonstrate impact from their scientific programmes, since much of their spin-out and links with UK industry rely on this university based technological expertise, backed by strong in-house capabilities.

1.3) Experimental particle physics requires those who exploit the data to be directly involved not only in specifying the highly demanding technical requirements, but also in developing the new technologies required to meet the unique challenges. Given that this is also the practice for all the international partners with whom we collaborate, any UK-specific changes of the nature discussed above would both undermine our leadership in technology development and make it even harder for UK industry to compete successfully for contracts in this area.

2. 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;

2.1) The termination by STFC, in its 2009 Delivery Plan, of UK participation in the International Linear Collider programme (see ), without any consultation and after years of PPARC encouragement for universities to invest staff and effort into this major worldwide project, has impacted very negatively the UK’s reputation for reliability in international collaborations.

2.2) It is impossible to do world-leading science with second- or third-rate equipment. It is also impossible without active participation in the ongoing international programmes to enhance the capabilities of existing experiments or to define and develop new projects. Too many opportunities have been wiped from the current STFC "roadmap" for particle physics, with examples including: LHCb upgrades, direct dark matter searches, gamma-ray astronomy and SNO+. The focus is now undeniably too narrow, sending worrying messages about the scope in the UK to carry out innovative science, particularly to young researchers who may feel other countries offer much greater opportunities.

3. 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;

3.1) The academic communities involved with STFC science continue to lack confidence in the Chief Executive of STFC (as evinced by a recent petition signed by a substantial fraction of STFC’s researchers and referred to recently by Professor George Efstathiou ). In its response to this petition and other evidence of unease about the Chief Executive’s performance in a wide variety of areas, STFC Council drew up a blueprint for the next STFC Chief Executive (see ).

However, there are no recent signs of any progress on this front and minutes of STFC Council have stopped being made publicly available since March 2010 (ie from the last 7 or so meetings). This raises concerns of a reversion to the culture of secrecy so robustly criticised in 2008 by the Innovation Universities Science and Skills Select Committee (see the Fourth Report: ). By way of contrast, we note for example that the Council of the Natural Environment Research Council publishes the agenda and papers (with the exception of a few ‘management in confidence’ papers) for all its meetings on its web site (see ).

3.2) Although many STFC senior staff have a scientific background, too many of its public pronouncements seem to deliberately aim to obfuscate rather than illuminate and are couched in the worst sort of unintelligible management jargon. Perhaps even more damaging is the evident lack of leadership – there is no clearly articulated vision, and it is not clear where responsibility lies within STFC for defining and communicating such a vision. Their slogan ("Excellence with impact") contains no scientific ambition, and is hardly designed to attract the best young graduates into their science areas. On a much more positive note, during the immediate preparations for the CSR and in aspects of the implementation planning, some senior staff have made significant and highly appreciated efforts to engage with the scientific communities affected.

3.3) In comparison to EPSRC, MRC and NERC, STFC Council has anomalously low representation of senior academic researchers (see ). No convincing reason has ever been given for this and it gives undue influence to members of Council who are on record as being unsympathetic to the basic aims of STFC research (see ).

3.4) The posts of Director of the Rutherford Appleton and Daresbury Laboratories were also abolished in 2007 resulting in a vacuum of leadership in the UK’s national laboratories. This situation is also highly anomalous and in stark contrast with best practice around the world.

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

4.1) Removal of funding from awarded research grants that started October 2010, and the issue of just one year grants prior to that, created havoc for particle physics groups across the UK and has led to a situation where talented young people see the UK as offering no immediate job prospects and poor future employment. This exacerbates the problems caused by the initial underfunding of STFC. A generation of students graduating with UK PhDs are leaving the country to continue working in the field they love, and many will not return.

4.2) The high visibility of Professor Brian Cox, and the hard work on outreach by many colleagues in particle physics, have resulted in the subject having a higher than ever profile with the public and the media. In the two weeks previous to writing this submission, substantial articles were published on particle physics in the Independent and Times newspapers and extended interviews broadcast with senior particle physicists on BBC TV, BBC Radio 3 and 4 etc. This supports the very widespread engagement with schools, with most high energy physics research groups also offering the extremely successful  Particle Physics Masterclasses (see ) and going into schools to enthuse students with modern science and technology. For example, an Oxford graduate student was supported to develop a new show for younger school students "Accelerate!". This has been an enormous success, and since the originator and several of the presenting team are female, it provides badly needed female role models to help increase the interest of girls in taking up physics, where they are grossly under represented. However, this excellent outreach is undermined by cutbacks to the very projects they find exciting. It is difficult to reassure a student inspired by outreach to contemplate a career in physics and astronomy if newspapers are full of stories of cutbacks and members of STFC Council denigrate the very research they are paid to advance.

4.3) Another notable success is the way the Large Hadron Collider has entered popular culture, where it features regularly in comments in programmes as diverse as Start the Week, the Today programme and numerous panel games on television. Many members of the public have heard of CERN, the LHC and the Higgs particle (although perhaps not realising that this is named after a UK physicist), and are keen to meet with particle physicists to learn more. STFC have played a very significant part in promoting the LHC and in publicising the start of high energy collisions on 30th March 2010. The Large and Small Awards Scheme in outreach is also extremely valuable, supporting, for example, the development of the "Accelerate!" lecture referred to above. However, some time ago, STFC discontinued production of a wide range of publicity material that had been extremely useful for particle physicists engaged with either schools or the general public. When this was queried in an email by a senior member of the particle physics community to the STFC CEO, he received no reply.

This submission is presented by the following senior figures within the UK experimental particle physics, theoretical particle physics and astro-particle physics communities.

Professor P.P. Allport FInstP (Department of Physics, University of Liverpool)

Professor R.D. Ball FInstP (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Edinburgh)

Professor R. Barlow FInstP (School of Applied Science, University of Huddersfield)

Professor P.N. Burrows FInstP (Department of Physics, University of Oxford)

Professor D.G. Charlton FInstP (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham)

Professor E. Copeland MInstP (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Nottingham)

Professor J.B. Dainton FInstP, FRS (Department of Physics, University of Liverpool)

Professor A.T. Doyle FInstP, FRSE (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Glasgow)

Professor B. Foster FInstP. FRS (Department of Physics, University of Oxford)

Professor E.W.N. Glover FInstP (Institute for Particle Physics Phenomenology, University of Durham)

Professor P. Harris MInstP (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sussex)

Professor P.F. Harrison FInstP (Department of Physics, University of Warwick)

Professor M.B. Hindmarsh (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sussex)

Professor P.R. Hobson MInstP (Department of Electronic and Computer Engineering, Brunel University)

Professor M. Lancaster FInstP (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University College, London)

Professor F. Muheim FInstP (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Edinburgh)

Professor M.A. Parker (Department of Physics, University of Cambridge)

Professor K. Peach FInstP , FRSE (Pa rticle Therapy Cancer Research I nstitute, University of Oxford)

Professor P. Ratoff FInstP (Department of Physics, Lancaster University)

Professor W.J. Spence (School of Physics, Queen Mary, University of London)

Professor N. Spooner (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield)

Professor D.R. Tovey MInstP (Department of Physics and Astronomy, University of Sheffield)

Professor P.M. Watkins MInstP (School of Physics and Astronomy, University of Birmingham)

13 February 2011