Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by Professor Patrick Roche, Head of Astrophysics, Oxford University (APP 38)

Please find attached a submission on behalf of Oxford Astrophysics, a sub-department of Physics at Oxford University. I concentrate on issues relating to ground-based optical infrared astronomy.

Statement of Interests

My interests are in astronomical research and instrumentation. I am currently a UK delegate to ESO Council, a member of the ALMA Board and Chairman of the UKIRT Board.

The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

1. The current high UK reputation in Astronomy and Space Science reflects investments made in the period from the 1970s to the present. Over this time, the UK built up a portfolio of facilities that allowed astronomers to conduct many breakthrough programmes. These include the Anglo-Australian Telescope, the UK Infrared Telescope, the William Herschel Telescope and the James Clerk Maxwell millimeter wave telescope. The UK has a world-leading record in telescope operation which, with a carefully-crafted instrumentation development programme, has maintained each of these facilities at the forefront of astronomy. Independent assessments have ranked them as the most productive in the world in their research areas and ahead of almost every other similar facility. [1] The scientific programmes enabled by these telescopes is a major factor in the renaissance of UK astronomy over the last 40 years.

2. To remain competitive, UK astronomers needed access to larger and more expensive facilities and in the early 1990s we joined together with the USA and Canada to form the Gemini project and then in 2002 we joined ESO. Accession to ESO resulted in substantially increased access to telescopes in the southern hemisphere, and enabled the construction of the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA). The buy-in to the ESO infrastructure consisted of in-kind and cash contributions spread over almost a decade. The additional contributions to ESO will finish in 2012, and the UK subscription levels will fall thereafter.

3. In order to reduce expenditure on ground-based telescopes, cost savings were made in the telescope operations. The UK withdrew from the Anglo-Australian Observatory in 2010, ramping down our contributions over several years in a managed withdrawal agreed with our Australian partners. The ramp-down followed the supplementary agreement to the Anglo-Australian Telescope Act signed in 2006, and has left the new Australian Astronomical Observatory as a strong and viable organization.

4. In response to the STFC funding crisis, the operational costs of all UK facilities have again been examined. The UK IR Telescope in Hawaii has adopted a new operational model (the so-called minimalist mode), wherein the telescope is operated remotely from sea-level. Astronomers in Korea have purchased observing nights on the telescope (50 nights in 2011) further reducing the cost of operations to the UK, down to a level that is 1/3rd that of a few years ago, though at a cost of a reduction in observing time available to UK astronomers. Similar economies have been made in La Palma.

5. These savings enable the facilities to continue operating, but do not provide a long-term future, as they will only be competitive if new investments in instrumentation are made. In the current funding regime, this is unlikely and proposals for new instruments, e.g. for the proposed UKIRT Planet Finder, an instrument to detect earth-mass planets around nearby cool stars, have not succeeded. The provision of instrumentation for existing telescopes as well as the construction of proposed new, high priority, facilities such as the European-Extremely Large Telescope and the Square Kilometre Array could be very badly impacted by reductions in capital funding.

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. Our partners and competitors in other European countries have maintained independent telescopes in addition to those provided by ESO. For example, France is a partner in the Canada-France-Hawaii telescope in Hawaii in addition to operating domestic facilities, while German institutions are partners in the Large Binocular Telescope in Arizona as well as the Calar Alto Observatory in Spain. Spain has major observatories in La Palma and Tenerife, including the 11-m Gran Telescopio Canarias. If the UK withdraws from the northern hemisphere sites in Hawaii and La Palma, we will have no such independent facilities, relying solely on access to the ESO telescopes, and further weakening our competitive position. This will also make the development of innovative UK-led instrumentation projects much more difficult; we will lose our direct access to smaller telescopes and the smaller scale instrumentation developments associated with them. Such projects can often be undertaken by individual research groups, where opportunities for innovative design and hands-on experience for students and postdocs are much greater than in large consortia.

7. The ESO telescopes are very well placed to probe the southern sky stretching to the southerly parts of the north, but cannot access the northernmost quarter of the sky at all. Whilst some projects do not require observations in particular regions, loss of access to northern hemisphere telescopes could seriously hamper other branches of astronomy. Space telescopes usually operate all over the sky, and we would be unable to make further measurements of some of their discoveries. For example, the UK has made a substantial commitment to ESA's €500M GAIA satellite which will survey the whole sky to map the detailed structure of our own Galaxy. Together with other partners, UK astronomers have proposed a new instrument for the William Herschel Telescope as recommended by the EU-ASTRONET European Telescopes Strategy Review Committee report. We are working with STFC to help develop a new operational model for the UK telescopes on La Palma within the wider European context called for by the ETSRC report. The UK has built substantial programmes around the northern telescopes, and is continuing to do so. For example, the new LOFAR station at Chilbolton, Hampshire, which opened in 2010, feeds into the Low Frequency Radio Array in the Netherlands, which will stimulate further observational follow-up in the north. The Goonhilly ground station developments will link into the MERLIN telescope based at Jodrell Bank, again relying on observations in the north to fully characterize objects detected. The UKIRT telescope in Hawaii has conducted the first deep sky surveys over significant areas of the sky at infrared wavelengths and has recently discovered the nearest, coolest brown dwarf and the furthest quasar. Rare objects with extreme properties are of particular significance as they allow us to test theories at their limits and they can occur anywhere in the sky.

8. Following the budget crisis of 2007, the STFC indicated that it may have to withdraw from the Gemini observatory. This announcement was made with little notice and apparently little engagement with our partners. In my view, it badly damaged the UK’s reputation as a reliable and responsible international partner. Whether it is entirely accurate can be disputed, but the Wikipedia entry on the Gemini Observatory [2] states "This decision significantly disrupted observatory budgets, and resulted in the cancellation of at least one instrument in development at that time (the Precision Radial Velocity Spectrograph)." The reputational damage is clear. Since 2008, the STFC has greatly improved the communication and interaction with the community and their partners.

9. I do not accept the argument that the large reductions in Astronomy funding were part of a long-term plan. The STFC was underfunded at the outset, largely because liabilities were carried over from other (non-PPARC) parts of the science programme absorbed by STFC at its formation. The cuts announced in 2007 and 2008 were a direct reaction to this, and have led to reductions in the numbers of postdoctoral researchers in astronomy supported by STFC to below the levels supported a decade ago. This clearly has a large impact on the prospects of young scientists continuing research careers in their field in the UK.

10. Telescope facilities can easily take a decade to design and build, followed by 1-5 years of commissioning and ramp-up and 10-30 years of exploitation. Once projects are committed, they can take 20 years or more to return the investment. Sharp changes in funding levels endanger exploitation of the facilities and in the worst cases mean that the returns on the investments are not made. The measures taken to provide stability in facilities funding should help significantly, but long-term funding is required to conclude projects successfully.

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

11. Current investments will bear on the UK reputation in the 2nd half of this decade and beyond. Whilst the ESO programme provides forefront science facilities beyond those that can be provided by individual member states, it does not aim to provide all of the facilities for national astronomy programmes; indeed that is beyond its stated remit. Astronomy is a broad subject, and advances come from both large, expensive facilities and smaller scale projects. Preservation of the latter is vital to the health of the subject, and especially to the training and development of students and postdocs. There is real danger that the hard-won UK reputation in astronomy may be undermined by the reductions in funding at a time when many of our competitors are maintaining or even increasing their funding in recognition of the role that astronomy plays in attracting people to science and the importance of training.

12. We have a strong and vibrant astronomy and physics outreach programme at Oxford. We both attract schools to the Physics department and undertake visits to schools. These programmes rely on the enthusiasm and goodwill of everyone, including students, postdocs and staff. Oxford is the home of the Galaxyzoo [3] programme which has engaged hundreds of thousands of people in citizen science activities through its innovative approaches to outreach and the promotion of science, coupled with the contributions of the volunteers. These programmes will continue and expand, but rely on motivated and enthusiastic researchers to carry them forward. Maintenance of the morale of our young scientists is absolutely key to these activities, and that is achieved by maintaining their prospects for a career in the subjects they love. The last few years have been very damaging in this respect.

Professor Patrick Roche

Head of Astrophysics

Oxford University

16 February 2011

[1] e.g. Trimble, V & Ceja , J , 2008 . Astron Nachr 329 , 632. Trimble, V & Ceja , J , 2010, Astron Nachr 329 , 338