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U.K. Parliament Panel Slams Physics, Astronomy Cuts

12 May 2011 7:01 pm
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British parliamentarians have expressed concerns about the impact last year’s government funding cuts will have on the future of astronomy and particle physics in the country. When combined with some earlier cuts, a report released today by the lawmakers says the two fields will have 50% less funding in 2014-15 than they did in 2005. “The idea that subjects like astronomy and particle physics do not provide immediate economic returns and therefore can be sacrificed at the altar of cutbacks is nonsense," says Andrew Miller, chair of the House of Commons’ Science and Technology Committee, which produced the report. "Other countries are getting it right: invest in science and innovation now and reap the longer term rewards of economic growth.”

Science in the United Kingdom was, in general, relatively well protected from severe government spending cuts announced last year. But how the overall science budget was distributed among the United Kingdom’s seven research councils and the fields they serve has left certain disciplines feeling the pinch more than others. According to today’s report, the total budget for astronomy (grants and capital spending) will fall by 21% between 2010-11 and 2014-15. The parliamentarians were particularly critical of the decision by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which funds astronomy and particle physics, among other things, to withdraw U.K. support from all Northern Hemisphere ground-based optical and infrared telescopes. “We are concerned about the impact withdrawal from astronomical facilities will have on U.K. astronomy,” the report says. “It is crucial that, if the U.K. is to continue to attract, train and retain the very best scientists, and reap the future economic and social rewards, the STFC must ensure it invests in the full range of astronomical facilities.”

Roger Davies of the University of Oxford in the United Kingdom and president of the Royal Astronomical Society says that an expert panel appointed by STFC had recommended cuts to the Northern Hemisphere program but insisted astronomers needed to retain a stake in the Isaac Newton Group (ING) of telescopes on La Palma in the Canary Islands, run jointly with the Netherlands and Spain, plus access to 8-meter telescopes elsewhere for at least 40 nights per year. “It’s imperative that, as [financial conditions] do improve, we have an opportunity to reinvest in things,” he says. Withdrawing completely from ING “closes a door which is very hard to reopen.” Instead, STFC chose to end all U.K. involvement in Northern Hemisphere telescopes by 2014. After that, the only ground-based optical and infrared telescopes U.K. astronomers will have access to are those of the European Southern Observatory in Chile. Although Davies says that relations between astronomers and STFC have improved since the first closures were announced 2 years ago, “there remains a sense that STFC is not listening.”

Particle physics has fared less badly with a modest increase of 5% over the same 4-year period, but an increase in grants masks a dramatic drop in capital funding.

The committee highlighted the fact that unilaterally withdrawing from international collaborative projects can damage Britain’s reputation abroad: “There appears to us to be a danger that the U.K.’s track-record may hinder its ability to join, and be seen as a leader in, future collaborations.” It also expressed concern over the important role that astronomy and particle physics has in inspiring young people to follow careers in science. The panel lamented, for example, the withdrawal of funding to the Liverpool Telescope, a robotic facility on La Palma. Part of the telescope’s observing time is given to the National Schools' Observatory, a project that allows schoolchildren to make observations on a full-sized professional instrument. With the future of the Liverpool Telescope as a research tool in doubt, “the educational aspect is no longer viable,” Davies says. “It will be a serious blow if the U.K. loses such a vital educational tool, and we urge the research councils to do everything they can to find a solution,” Miller adds.

Cuts in the research councils’ available funds for capital projects are being felt elsewhere as the government announces four planned projects that are to be scrapped. Senior researchers have warned that research facilities in universities may become overstretched as more and more researchers have to share them.

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