Astronomy and Particle Physics

Written evidence submitted by the Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) council on behalf of the MIST science community (APP 39)

Executive Summary

MIST council represents the space-based solar-terrestrial physics and space-plasma physics communities who have been hit hard by cuts of the last two or three years. This is ironical for a variety of reasons not least that, in our increasingly technology based society, the science in question, which underpins "space weather" is becoming increasingly relevant to maintaining key functions of ordinary life. Once, such applications were primarily of military interest. Today, the ubiquity and integration of communications and navigation systems means are used by everybody.

Often lumped together with less directly practical disciplines like cosmology or astronomy which has made it look esoteric, the discipline has tended to be deprioritised in peer review on the other hand because of its less "pure" nature. There is a national strategic need for the science that the solar-terrestrial science community produces and the facilities they run. Whilst both the European Commission and the European Space Agency have started organising a more coherent European role in the applied discipline of Space Situational Awareness (SSA), the United Kingdom is rather conspicuously incoherent in its response. On the other hand, British scientists over the past thirty years have done much of the work which has given the "space weather" side of SSA the capability to provide forecasting services.

The council is deeply concerned about the strategic consequences of these effective cuts for UK research. Implications arise across the whole remit of STFC science funding (astronomy, space, particle and nuclear physics) but MIST science has been hit hard. In particular we have grave concerns over the process by which STFC prioritised its science, the lack of strategic planning and implications for future science development. Significant damage to national capability is likely with the UK reduced in stature and its ability to deliver world-class science.

1. The impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability

In recent years we have seen the UK start on the one hand a new space agency and on the other "managed withdrawal" from five space science missions in which the UK has key leadership roles (Cassini, Cluster, SOHO, Venus Express and XMM). The first three of these missions are wholly, or in the case of Cassini partially, missions whose science is central to the MIST community. In practice our European colleagues have had to step in with funds to sustain key UK roles, action which shows how important we are but which at the same time has not helped our image as partners. Each of these missions has recently (November 2010) received an extension from ESA, for which the UK correctly voted. However elsewhere, such a vote means a continued commitment to assist in operations of instruments on the spacecraft and a commitment to exploit the science. Of potentially important economic impact, the UK ability to monitor and, more importantly, characterise space weather hazards will be restricted, just at a time when there is growing European interest in this area due to our increasingly space-dependent society.

2. Has the present system of cutting through peer review led to appropriate prioritisation of key minority groups?

In the past few years following successive rounds of Research Council cuts, there has been a natural tendency to form review panels which prioritise with the aid of community input. An unfortunate aspect of the rather democratic approach is the tendency for smaller communities to lose out as there is a natural tendency to consolidate around larger groups. Without wishing to undermine normal peer review process towards judging quality, small groups working in key areas of economic or strategic interest do need protection in some form for those factors to be allowed to come into play. One does not want to argue that the community represented by MIST Council should dominate British Astronomy or space science funding. But the community is very effective, and is working at world

level in a field with practical applications associated with the nature of our society. The past work of UK scientists has already provided a lot of the intellectual impetus behind world work on the space weather aspect of Satellite Situation Awareness as well as important contributions to other aspects of how Sun and Earth interact. At the point where elsewhere in Europe, the practical use is being developed, the UK has been forced into withdrawal.

One cannot operate a stop-start arrangement. There needs be proper planning to match the scale of the community to appropriate career evolution and to national need for not only the specific skills of the community but also as part of the supply for the generic skills such a field naturally produces. Moreover, there is a straightforward need to maintain an appropriate academic workforce level for the purely research aspects of the field. If we fail to retain our world-leading capabilities within space physics, there will not be a future generation of scientists able to exploit upcoming missions, such as the Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury or future planned missions to the Outer Planets.

The prioritisation used in the recent past is not matched to national requirements and represents a failure of process, inclined against smaller communities that may well generate important skills critical for a high-technology society.

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

The effect of space weather on modern technologies that we take for granted including power grids, satellite technology and air travel gives an immediate way to link exotic phenomena in space to the everyday experience and so is a natural topic for outreach. However MIST science topics have an immediate appeal. The dynamic nature of the aurora, perhaps only seen regularly in the far north of our islands, is immediately stimulating to school or general public audiences. Similarly, the vibrant and dramatic images of our Sun that are now routinely recorded and disseminated, elicit an immediate response in an audience. Here we have exciting science which can be brought very close to home and which can draw young people into science careers.

MIST council has grave concern for early-career scientists within the UK, and in particular the loss of jobs, skills and training opportunities. These people are not only often the exemplars that inspire the next generation, but they often are the source of really new ideas and approaches.

Magnetosphere, Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial (MIST) council
on behalf of the MIST science community

17 February 2011