Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Professor Mike Bode, Director of the Astrophysics Research Institute, Liverpool John Moores University (APP 36)

Preamble and Declaration of Interests

1. The Astrophysics Research Institute (ARI) of Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) has a staff of 23 research astronomers, 16 PhD students and 12 technical and support staff. In an innovative collaborative arrangement it provides all the Astrophysics undergraduate degree teaching in a joint degree programme with Liverpool University. It also owns and operates the 2.0 metre Liverpool Telescope (LT) on La Palma, which is a unique robotic facility for time domain astrophysics for all UK astronomers. Funding for the operation of the LT is in part supplied by STFC. Use of the LT also naturally forms the principal focus of many of the astronomers within the ARI, together with many other users in the UK and outside. Another unique feature of the ARI is its very strong outreach and education programme, where access to the LT is made available to schools across the UK via the National Schools Observatory (NSO) and also to students on specific modules of ARI’s large Distance Learning programme. In 2005, the University was awarded the Queens’ Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education for the work of the ARI, particularly in the development of the LT and the provision of access to schools.

2. I led the formulation of the ASTRONET Roadmap for European astronomy, published in 2008. ASTRONET [1] was created by Europe’s major astronomy funding bodies and research organisations, including STFC, to enable the formulation of coherent planning across national boundaries, particularly in an era of increasingly ambitious projects, within limited resource envelopes. ASTRONET first produced a Science Vision for European astronomy for the next 10-20 years. It then formulated the Roadmap, for which STFC was the lead partner, which details those facilities and associated infrastructures that will be required to deliver the Vision. Both the Roadmap and Science Vision entailed extremely wide community consultation. I am currently a member of STFC’s Science Board and was recently appointed to STFC’s Advisory Panel for Science in Society.

3. I obviously have a direct interest in the continued funding of telescopes on La Palma, in particular the Liverpool Telescope, and also the continued success of the National Schools’ Observatory in delivering outreach (fuller details of both projects are given in the separate response of the LJMU Astrophysics Research Institute). The evidence presented here will nevertheless concentrate particularly on items 2 and 4 of the Inquiry.

The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

4. The ASTRONET Roadmap presented a prioritised list of facilities required to deliver the Science Vision. These were sub-divided into space-based and ground-based facilities, and within these categories, further sub-divided into 3 bands relating to the likely project cost. In the ground-based, large project category for example, the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT - optical/infrared) and the Square Kilometre Array (SKA - radio) were ranked with equal highest priority. The UK has had a major role in developing both of these multi-national projects in the expectation that high value outputs in science and technology will flow into the UK when they are realised. The fear is that capital expenditure cuts may result in the loss of our ability to take such leading roles in these, and other, flagship projects, and so we lose return, including potentially lucrative future industrial contracts as a result.

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

5. There is no doubt that the UK is a leading nation in astronomy and astrophysics research. This has been built to a large extent from its broad technical range giving UK astronomers access to many ways to make investigations in a particular field of our science. In the jargon of astronomy, the UK has access to multi-wavelength facilities, both ground and space-based, and access to both hemispheres. Indeed, such all-sky access is vital in an era of increasing synergy between space missions and ground-based telescopes. One of many areas where this is abundantly apparent is in that of Gamma Ray Bursts (GRBs) where spacecraft detections of these explosions, which occur unpredictably anywhere on the sky, are now followed up within minutes by telescopes on the ground. This synergy has proved essential in determining the nature of GRBs, which turn out to be celestial laboratories for the exploration of extreme physics.

6. Of particular personal concern is the UK’s withdrawal from the La Palma site. For the UK, this hosts the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes (including the William Herschel Telescope), SuperWASP (Wide Angle Search for Planets, owned and operated by Queens University Belfast) and the Liverpool Telescope (LT, owned and operated by LJMU), all with significant STFC involvement.. The scientific and technical synergy between the La Palma telescope facilities, operating at a world-class site, provides a range of unique opportunities for UK and international scientists built up with UK leadership over several decades. There is also the potential to further our collaboration with other front-rank facilities on the site, including the 10m GranTeCan telescope which is just coming on-stream. In the specific case of the Liverpool Telescope, this instrument represents the world's largest and most capable fully-robotic telescope providing the UK and the international community with unparalleled opportunities for exploration of the increasingly important time domain of astrophysical enquiry, as emphasised in the latest US Decadal Survey [2] .

7. Within the ASTRONET Roadmap, as well as a requirement for new facilities, the need was also recognised for some restructuring of the organisation of Northern Hemisphere 2-4m class facilities across the whole of Europe It therefore commissioned a detailed review by the "European Telescope Strategic Review Committee" comprising 10 leading astronomers, chaired by Professor Janet Drew (Univ. Hertfordshire), with considerable community involvement. The report is available for download at and it is commended strongly to the committee as the most thorough and comprehensive independent review of the question of the future of the northern hemisphere 2-4m class telescopes.

8. To quote from the very first paragraphs of the report:

"The panel wishes to note at the outset the general point that it became ever more vivid as it carried out its task that astronomy, as an observation-driven discipline, confronting phenomena ranging from the very bright (naked eye exo-planet hosts and astroseismological targets) to the faintest quasars at the edge of the accessible universe, continues to need access to telescopes in all size classes … In this respect, our subject is not at all like some other frontier disciplines such as particle physics where it is clear that advances demand a policy of complete facility replacement on decadal time scales. The 2-4m class telescopes support a wide range of research topics and it can indeed be argued that they can offer cutting edge science … It is also worth noting that there is a rising profile of interest in time domain astronomy, which may involve having the flexibility to respond quickly at [optical/infrared] wavelengths to triggers … Retaining a broad suite of efficient 2-4m telescopes accessible to Europe’s astronomers is, without any trace of doubt, crucial for Europe’s presence at the astronomical frontier."

9. Any decision by STFC to withdraw from La Palma, close down its northern hemisphere involvement and reduce its access to moderate-sized telescopes would therefore represent a retreat from our ability to explore major sections of the astronomical frontier.

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

10. From its inception, and through the first of the Council’s Programmatic Reviews in 2007/08, as the Committee will be aware, there was wide-spread dissatisfaction in the research community with the level of information flow and engagement from the Council. This was felt equally by the STFC’s panels and committees of researchers who consequently found their task of interaction with the wider community doubly difficult. My personal view is that, although by the nature of things there will always be areas to address, this situation has greatly improved over the last two years thanks to the efforts of STFC and the community.

11. In my opinion therefore, as long as the current efforts continue to be put into engaging with the community, this is yesterday’s problem, and we are faced with more crucial issues.

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

12. Astronomical outreach and education has a very important role, not just in inspiring the next generation of astronomers, but much more widely in helping to fill the gap in future provision of experts in all areas of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). This was highlighted in the extensive study Pupils’ and Parents’ Views of the School Science Curriculum by Osbourne and Collins [3] in 2000 who concluded that "The one topic (amongst the sciences) that generated universal enthusiasm was any study of astronomy" – indeed they found this across age, gender and ethnic boundaries. A central role of astronomical outreach, therefore, is to take that ongoing enthusiasm and turn it into a wider enthusiasm for all STEM areas.

13. This is an area where the UK currently has a world-leading reputation. Projects such as the National Schools’ Observatory (NSO) and the Faulkes Telescope project, the success of International Year of Astronomy (IYA2009), the leading role in the creation of "Dark Skies Parks" and many more all show the success that the UK has in exploiting the draw of astronomy.

14. However, to retain our position (and ensure the benefits to all STEM subjects are not lost) then it is necessary to both continually innovate and develop new projects and ensure the support for the best existing ones. The situation of the NSO is a good example of the opportunities and problems currently facing both of these.

15. The NSO, which is run by the ARI, is designed to exploit access to the Liverpool Telescope in a unique synergy to showcase both the scientific nature of astronomy, and the exciting technology that underpins it. To do this, an essential aspect of the design and operation of the project is to explicitly work alongside professional astronomers, using similar systems to obtain and analyse observations and facing similar challenges. The main role of the NSO, therefore, is to create and support tools that allow this for a wide range of age groups (KS2 to post-16), abilities (special needs through to the highest ability) and subject areas (not just science, but also mathematics, ICT, Design and Technology etc).

16. In all this, the linkage to front-rank research is clearly essential – it is very important not just that the telescope is very large and highly sophisticated, but that it is the same telescope that is being used by UK astronomers to make headline-grabbing discoveries. That connection is what will inspire pupils to believe that they too could make such discoveries for themselves in the future.

17. The NSO currently has over 2000 schools registered. The majority of these are state-funded secondary schools with a national geographic spread. More than 24,000 observing requests have been successfully carried out for schools since the start of operations in late 2004, and the rate of requests is increasing rapidly (there were 7,000 requests successfully delivered to schools in 2010, and more than 1,400 in January 2011 alone). In addition to use by registered schools, the NSO website receives between 1 million and 2 million "visits" per year, the majority from within the UK. Drops in traffic during half-terms show that this is use by schools. Projects undertaken by pupils range from simple observations of planets or the Moon, through to genuine research projects such as the study of asteroids, monitoring of distant supernovae and searching for extra-solar planets.

18. As well as direct benefits, the NSO provides a focus for other education and outreach. For example, as part of IYA2009, NSO astronomers gave inspirational presentations to about 15,000 KS4 pupils across the country. Teacher training is also an important component of our work, with hundreds of teachers each year being provided with CPD by NSO staff. In recent years this has often supported the provision of GCSE Astronomy in schools – one of the fastest growing qualifications in the UK and often taught in out-of-school clubs, which is another indication of the inspirational power of astronomy.

19. On any measure therefore, the NSO is a very successful and inspirational resource, but like many others, it has continually faced the challenge of long-term funding. Currently, it is funded by LJMU, who also provide the telescope time from its reserved fraction, thus ensuring ‘free’ access to schools, although of course the University itself faces a very tough financial climate overall.

20. Direct funding at any significant level from central educational bodies (the Ministry, LEAs etc) has not been forthcoming, as these bodies see such exploitation of research facilities as falling within the remit of the research councils. In contrast STFC (and previously PPARC), within limited funds for outreach activities, have perhaps inevitably given low priority to supporting ongoing projects – they are interested in developing new initiatives. Therefore the NSO, like many other outreach and educational projects, falls between two stools and currently alternative avenues of funding are being actively explored (including commercial exploitation or extensive new developments into Europe). The likelihood would however be that such alternative funding sources would remove the ‘free at the point of delivery’ nature of NSO, thereby having the most detrimental impact on the schools who might most benefit from exposure to the project.

21. In addition to its primary research function, the Liverpool Telescope is obviously central to the operation of the NSO by providing UK schools with access to time on this front-rank research facility which in turn allows access to research-quality data for experimentation in the classroom. An alternative model, should the LT not be available, would be to run the NSO via access to other telescopes. However, the NSO is designed to exploit the fully robotic nature of the LT, with its extensive instrumentation suite and location on an international observatory site. Moreover, if a suitable telescope could indeed be found, which currently would be outside STFC’s and ESO’s remit, such telescope time would need to be purchased which would clearly be far more expensive than "piggy-backing" on the UK research effort. Since the current, and unique, dual use of the LT by UK astronomers and schools also has significant inspirational and educational advantages, this is very much the preferred approach.

22. To summarise, the LT and the NSO represent a unique synergy that a retreat from the La Palma site would threaten to destroy. The specific case of the NSO also highlights a significant problem in the current astronomy education and outreach effort. The UK has a world-leading role in developing exciting new links between research and education that are essential if we are to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers. However, once those links have been developed and are shown to be effective, there are no clear routes to support their continuation and they may die. While such issues fall between the Research Councils and DfE, and neither are willing and/or able to take ownership, this unfortunate situation will continue.

Professor Mike Bode

Director of the Astrophysics Research Institute

Liverpool John Moores University

16 February 2011

[1] See