Astronomy and Particle Physics - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Supplementary written evidence submitted by Professor John Peacock (APP 37a)

Thank you for the opportunity of appearing before your committee to present some of the concerns of the academic community of researchers in astronomy. We now write in response to the remarks made to your committee last week by the STFC Chief Executive, Professor Mason, in support of his assertion that there has been an "overinvestment" in astronomy and that a strategic plan leading to withdrawal from the northern hemisphere observatories was developed at the time of our accession to the European Southern Observatory. Professor Mason quoted a fragment from a PPARC Council paper of December 2001; we note that this paper makes no mention of any plan to withdraw from the Gemini Observatory, a major step that is now a fait accompli. In addition, the position advocated by Professor Mason is not incorporated in subsequent strategy documents (for example, the 2005-2008 delivery plan). We do not believe that the comments you heard fairly represent the strategy that was in place at the time of ESO accession.

Examining the record of consultations with the community that took place around the time of the decision to join ESO, one sees a very different picture from the one painted by Professor Mason. An extraordinary meeting took place at the Royal Astronomical Society on 22 June 2000, reported in Observatory, 120, 375. The principal speakers were Eric Priest as Chairman of the PPARC Astronomy Committee, and Ian Corbett as PPARC Director of Research. Both spoke of the need to find savings of £5 million p.a. from current programme, by withdrawing from the AAT and seeking leaner operation elsewhere. Priest: "This could be, for example, not by closing ING but by simplifying the operations ... by withdrawing funding from the AAT ... by simplifying operations at UKIRT and JCMT". Corbett: "A possible scenario to release £5 million per year is by withdrawing PPARC support in whole or in part from the ING, the AAT and MERLIN, and reducing the operational level of JCMT and UKIRT".

Following this outline presentation to the community, a detailed consultation process culminated in the strategy review held by the PPARC Science Committee on Nov 27/28 2001. The Science Committee was the final stage of preparing scientific advice to PPARC, and its decisions can be taken to represent the distilled will of the community. That meeting considered a "strategic plan for astronomy" from the PPARC Executive, which in part grew out of the "Ward Panel" report on "Restructuring the ground-based astronomy programme" (which was presented to Science Committee on 9 April 2001). In the minutes of the Nov 2001 meeting, the main recommendations were given in so many words as: Withdraw from AAT, INT, JKT; JCMT & UKIRT to move to survey mode; reduce UK share of WHT to 40% (minute 6.10). Minute 6.15 further states that the committee agreed to "endorse the proposed restructuring" and to "recommend that Council endorse UK membership of ESO". This was clearly the critical date at which the community identified the reductions in capability needed to make ESO membership feasible. Science Committee endorsed a strategy that is in essence exactly the one that we have followed—leaving aside the critical point of UK withdrawal from Gemini, which was not even contemplated in 2001. With the loss of Gemini, and the corresponding serious damage to our observational capabilities in the Northern hemisphere, the UK astronomical community has made more than double the savings identified as needed in order to join ESO.

The December 2001 PPARC Council meeting referred to by Professor Mason seems to have heard and accepted this proposal. Minute 24 of that meeting states "The community had endorsed this package by accepting re-structuring of its existing ground based facilities and savings in the order of £5 million to free funds in its support". The "loss of current facilities" in minute 28 is a clear reference to the partial closures listed above. The statement that the "long-term strategy will see PPARC withdraw from the AAT, JCMT, UKIRT and the ING by the end of the decade" is found only in a paper on ESO prepared by the PPARC Director Programmes (Professor Wade). This paper is not specifically endorsed in the Council minutes of that meeting, and we cannot understand this statement given that it did not appear in any of the community strategic discussions discussed above. Moreover, it is not to be found in subsequent strategy documents (for example, the 2005-08 delivery plan http://www.stfc.ac.uk/resources/pdf/delplan0508.pdf).

In summary, it seems to us that the statement of the STFC Chief Executive does not correctly reflect the clear strategic position developed with regard to the non-ESO telescopes at the time of ESO accession. We note that Professor Mason was present at the Nov 2001 Science Committee meeting and thus endorsed this very strategy. The idea that this process might be overturned by a single sentence in a paper developed by the PPARC Executive is hardly credible, unless one favours the sort of decoupled decision-making that has been strongly criticised as an undesirable trait of the early days of STFC.

Professor Mike Bode

Professor Roger Davies

Professor Rob Kennicutt

Professor John Peacock

Professor Steve Rawlings

21 March 2011



 
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Prepared 13 May 2011