Astronomy and Particle Physics - Science and Technology Committee Contents


Written evidence submitted by Professor John Peacock (APP 37)

1.    I am writing to give my personal views on some issues relevant to your inquiry into astronomy and particle physics in the UK. I am Head of the Institute for Astronomy at the University of Edinburgh, and a Fellow of the Royal Society. The IfA is in receipt of approximately £1.5 million pa in STFC research funding, and is co-located with the STFC's UK Astronomy Technology Centre.

2.    Your first question concerns the impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability. I think it is necessary to broaden this to consider the general funding situation and its history, since our current position is the outcome of a crisis in the funding of astronomy that has unfolded progressively since CSR07 and the creation of STFC, and complicated by the 2010 creation of the UK Space Agency. Nevertheless, it is possible to look back at the areas of UK astronomy and particle physics that were once supported by PPARC (the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council) and which are still within the remit of STFC, and to ask how things have changed—and why.

3.    For convenience of access to relevant figures, I take a baseline year of 2005-06. I assume total inflation of 10% to convert to present-day figures. In 2005-06, I estimate that real spend on what would now be termed development, operations, or exploitation was roughly £72 million (astronomy, including solar system) and £55 million (particle physics, including particle astrophysics). The current figures are respectively £50.4 million and £44.6 million, or an average cut of 25%. But this severely underestimates the problem, since research grants have moved to "full economic costing", which approximately doubles the grant overheads paid to universities. This shift was intended to be cost neutral for the UK, transferring funds to research councils that were previously paid direct to universities. FEC grants had barely begun in 2005; in order to maintain the 2005 level of science, the real funding needed is approximately now £84 million (A) and £64 million (P). The actual figure is only 64% of this, with astronomy being hit harder. This imbalance is set to increase: by 2014, the UK will have withdrawn from the Gemini observatory, and STFC's planned astronomy total declines to £42.2 million—a 50% real cut from 2005.

4.    The magnitude of these cuts is apparent in the most recent STFC grants round, where 56 new positions for Postdoctoral Research Assistants in astronomy were approved; the 2005 figure was over 100. This hugely reduced funding reduces the capability for existing active researchers to push projects forward and also removes a good part of the career ladder for our most promising young researchers. This is bound to threaten the position of UK astronomy and particle physics on the world stage, where we are currently considered second only to the USA.

5.    In broad terms, something like £50 million pa has been removed from funding of research: where did it go? The main place to think of looking would be the large international subscriptions. CERN (£81.8M) is actually slightly smaller in real terms than in 2005. ESO (£11.6 million) is very much smaller than in 2005 (£19.1 million). But this difference was planned and expected at the time of joining ESO (2002), since the UK had to make additional payments above its subscription as a "joining fee". From this point of view, the statement you heard in previous evidence from Keith Mason that "we recognised that in joining ESO we would be over-investing in astronomy for a period of a decade" is correct. But this statement seems intended to imply that joining ESO rendered the UK's other telescopes redundant, and I would contest this. Joining ESO was seen as a way of preventing European astronomers from eroding our world-leading position, and the community was unanimous that our existing telescopes retained a strong scientific role. This conclusion was reiterated as recently as 2009 in the Ground-Based Review sponsored by STFC.

6.    The only large change in international subscription that was unanticipated in 2005 is the European Space Agency. The real-terms subscription in 2005 was £61 million, and this was expected in 2005 to stay roughly constant. In fact, the total rose to £91 million, at which point responsibility for paying the ESA subscription was transferred to the UK Space Agency. This large increase arose from a ministerial-level decision, and does benefit the UK in terms of juste retour of ESA-related work to UK space industry. But it seems that this benefit has been gained at the expense of investment in scientific research within UK academia.

7.    If the rise in the ESA subscription can account for roughly half the decline in funding for astronomy and particle physics research, the remainder seems attributable to the problems arising from the formation of STFC: these started immediately after CSR07, when it was announced that STFC faced a shortfall of £80 million over the following three years. Nevertheless, the ex-PPARC community was assured from various directions that STFC's budget was set to rise 13% over the CSR period relative to the sum of the PPARC and CCLRC budgets prior to the merger. No-one could understand how it could be that we immediately needed to make deep and painful cuts to our programmes if funding was rising. I eventually concluded that this was largely down to the way Treasury accounting rules were applied to research councils: capital allocations were in effect only a loan, since the value of capital assets had to be shown as depreciating. The portion of the declared budget that covered this depreciation (termed "non-cash") could not be spent. The impact of this rule on PPARC was very small, since it owned few capital assets: in 2005, non-cash amounted to about 3% of the total PPARC budget. But for STFC, non-cash amounted to about 15% of its budget—and this unspendable fictitious money rose, so that it accounted for the entire claimed increase in spending. The need for this large non-cash "repayment" was dominated by the construction costs for the Diamond light source at RAL. Under STFC, the science programme at Diamond has undoubtedly suffered heavily as a result of this strange application of Treasury accounting process, which is regrettable; but equally it is clear that ex-PPARC science has taken a share of this burden. If STFC had not been formed, the bill would have been confined within the CCLRC budget.

8.    The best that can be said of this unfortunate saga is that the main problems are unlikely to recur: the ESA subscription is now the responsibility of the UK Space Agency, and I understand that the concept of a non-cash allocation has been disposed of in the recent CSR. But this stability has been achieved at the bottom of the market; even though STFC received as good a settlement as could be envisaged in the current financial climate (constant cash), this simply consolidates the factor 2 drop in funding that is analysed above, and continues with a further slow decline. There is no hint of any attempt to reverse the decline—even though it is hard to imagine that such a savage cut could be an act of deliberate policy. In complaining about loss of funding, scientists risk radiating a sense of entitlement to public money, and this is an impression we must avoid. But what we can legitimately demand is stability: society needs to decide what it wishes to spend on relatively abstract activities like astronomy and particle physics, and then stick to its bargain. Young scientists of great talent will plan accordingly, and some will choose to dedicate their lives and careers to a given subject, and to pursuing it in the UK. But no-one can plan sensibly in the fact of a 50% cut; unless we start to reverse it, the damage will be felt for decades.

9.    In this financial situation, UK scientists are desperate to achieve the very most with their remaining funding and facilities. There is a tension between the large and expensive international facilities provided by ESO, and smaller facilities under our own control. As a treaty organization, we have no control over the ESO subscription; having paid the admission fee for this club, there is then a persuasive argument that we should invest in that direction to gain value from our membership (the "no point joining a golf club if you can't afford a set of clubs" argument). Certainly, the UK has not been able to invest as much as it wished in building instrumentation for the ESO telescopes. But in the end ESO is a shared resource for all European astronomers, and so it is not easy for the UK to gain a competitive advantage. This is why it has been seen as essential to retain also our own telescopes, which we can turn into specialized facilities delivering data that can be combined with ESO results in a way that is not available to our European colleague-competitors. Thus the long-term strategy has been very much to continue a presence in the telescopes in Hawaii and La Palma—but accepting that they should be operated much more cheaply. This has been achieved with great success, and the policy should continue. Current funding plans for these observatories currently do not reach beyond 2012, but there is ample scientific reason to persist with them, assuming a very modest level of funding can be found. Withdrawal from Gemini could be tolerated in this picture because it was not a UK-owned facility, and the overlap with what ESO provided was larger.

10.  From this point of view, some reduction in capital funding can be tolerated in the short term. If taken too far, it can however cause difficulty in simply keeping existing systems functioning: there is some concern that the levels of capital available to STFC will limit even the provision of basic requirements like new computer hardware. Probably we will muddle through; but in due course, capital provision will need to rise. The need for unique UK facilities of modest scope will remain, and there are many new opportunities where the investment of even a few £million can position the UK so that it follows a new trend that complements our existing facilities and enhances their value. An example of a past investment of this sort is our membership of the US-led Dark Energy Survey. If we cannot continue to maintain a portfolio of such new activities, then the future is inevitably one of decline. We will be seen as living off our past reputation, and ripe to be overtaken.

11.  All the problems documented above have exposed a number of problems with STFC. It is no secret that the community has been extremely unhappy with the STFC Executive over the past three years. The main charges would be a failure to explain how and why the reductions in funding arose; a failure to sympathise sufficiently with complaints from the areas being cut; an apparent desire to repeat the government message about funding having risen when it was obvious that this was an illusion; and a perceived general reluctance to complain and criticize the government policies that had let to such a situation. An almost total breakdown in trust has occurred, so that statements such as the one on the future of non-ESO telescopes heard by previous sessions of this Committee are presumed to reflect an ulterior motive that is against the interests of the research community. These views are arguably paranoid, but they would not have arisen with better leadership.

12.  More seriously, it seems clear that there are serious structural issues with the current dispensation. STFC faces an impossible conflict of interest, in that it is both a commissioner and a supplier of research. When funds are tight, STFC has to decide between cutting research grants to universities, or failing to support its own in-house research facilities. It is inevitable that any organization will tend to favour those things that are directly under its own control, especially as research grants to universities have greater practical flexibility as a tap that can be turned on and off. There is a widespread perception that STFC has become inward-looking, with its attention heavily focused on RAL in particular, and with academia treated as a secondary tier of its business. Again, this could be seen as a kind of paranoia, which started as soon as the STFC name was seen to contain "facility", but not "research". Nevertheless, the perception is widespread, and is not helped by the governance arrangements: the number of active research scientists on STFC Council has declined in favour of members with expertise in industry. There seems to be an argument that those in receipt of research grants cannot be disinterested; but this is not the case with other research councils, and I feel that STFC urgently needs to start rebalancing its high-level decision-making in favour of researchers. No single step would do more to start to win back the trust of the research community.

13.  Finally, you ask about the impact of all this on outreach and inspiring the next generation of young scientists. Despite the saying that there is no such thing as bad publicity, the impact has clearly been hugely negative. Even non-scientists are frequently aware that UK science is in trouble, so you may be sure that young people of a scientific leaning are getting a clear message. I think they are still inspired by science, so it is more a question of whether they see their future in the UK or abroad—and also of whether they feel a confidence that the UK is giving them the best foundation. When I was a student, I gained a clear feeling that there was no better place in the world for learning and doing science. Perhaps that was over-confidence, but such pride is no bad thing. It's interesting to contrast the way the public is encouraged to celebrate UK sporting prowess in the run-up to the Olympics (and to think what these have cost). In science, we have the impact agenda, and all publicly funded scientists are very happy with the idea of making a contribution back to society through their work - but there is a danger if this laudable aim starts to be seen as the prime purpose. The Olympics, of course, are valued by government for their economic impact: but the public message is one of celebrating sporting achievement and being the best in the world as of prime importance in its own right. I don't see the same sense of pride being taken in our brilliant young scientists, and a more positive and idealistic message would be good both for the country and for stimulating this next generation into keeping the UK at the forefront of the world of scientific ideas.

Professor John Peacock FRS
Head of Institute for Astronomy
University of Edinburgh

17 February 2011


 
previous page contents next page


© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 13 May 2011