MPs have warned that major cuts in research budgets and withdrawal from several major scientific facilities will endanger the UK‘s international standing in Astronomy and particle physics and its ability to inspire the next generation of scientists.
In the report of its inquiry into the funding of particle physics and Astronomy, the House of Commons science and technology committee said that while scientific research was left relatively unscathed in last year’s government spending cuts, historical cuts planned for research meant that astronomy would have 50% less money overall by 2014/15 than it did in 2005. This is set against the background of increased investment by international competitors.
Andrew Miller MP, chair of the science and technology committee, said he was concerned at the “smoke and mirrors exercise on how the funding cuts have been presented over a period of time. The cuts are very severe compared with a few years ago. That undoubtedly is going to have an impact on our standing. We’ve already heard some [international] partners saying that we can’t trust the Brits because they won’t keep up with the long-term funding of projects.”
The science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), which is responsible for research grants and membership of international facilities in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics, has had a long-term plan to cut back its subscriptions to telescope facilities around the world. These include gradual withdrawals in the coming years from the Gemini observatory and the Joint Astronomy Centre in Hawaii, the William Herschel Telescope and the Liverpool Telescope on La Palma in the Canary Islands. This would leave UK astronomers without any access to ground-based facilties in the northern hemisphere.
The withdrawal from the Liverpool Telescope in particular has impacts on the National Schools Observatory, which provides access to telescopes for school pupils.
“It stands out like a sore thumb from everything we’ve looked at, how important the astronomy is as a switch-on for kids studying science in the longer term,” said Miller. “What on Earth are we doing pulling out of optical and infrared astronomy in the northern hemisphere? There may be scientific arguments that justify that but, in terms of strategic arguments about engaging with the next generation, they don’t seem to have been considered.”
Brian Cox, a particle physicist at Cern and the University of Manchester, said that the problems identified by the MPs were nothing to do with the recent budget settlement, which he said was not bad. “The fact that we got flat cash into the research councils [in the recent comprehensive spending review] is a recognition of the fact that it’s important, even in a recession, to spend money on research because it pays dividends in the future.”
Instead he points to the formation of the STFC in 2007 as the start of the problems. This was the result of a merger between two older research councils and was given insufficient resources to carry out its job. “[It] has been a complete disaster … The UK was considered to be one of the best places in the world for research into the physics of the early universe and astronomy and particle physics. The UK was punching way above its weight and it was working very well. For some reason, some people decided to demolish that and form a new council with a difficult remit and not enough money.”
Miller said that, ever since the merger, there had been a systematic “hacking off of capital budgets over time. We need to recognise that this is serious and it needs addressing, not because of esoteric interest in the sky at night but because astronomy is fundamental to producing next-generation scientists and it is also an area where we have a massive reputation which we shouldn’t put at risk.”
A spokesperson for the Department for Business said: “Our world-class science and research base is inherently valuable, as well as critical to promoting economic growth. Despite enormous pressure on public spending, the £4.6bn per annum funding for science and research programmes has been protected in cash terms and ring-fenced against future pressures during the spending review period. The Haldane principle dictates that the government cannot intervene in individual funding decisions.”
A spokesperson for the STFC said it welcomed the report and shared the science and technology committee’s concern to “ensure that particle and nuclear physics and astronomy in the UK remain world class”. It noted in particular the Committee’s support for an expanded programme of outreach and public engagement. “Particle and nuclear physics and astronomy, with space science and the other disciplines we support, play a crucial role in inspiring younger people to become involved in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. STFC will now examine the report’s recommendations in detail and respond in due course with our sponsoring department.”
Imran Khan, director of the Campaign for science and Engineering, said: “This report makes it pretty clear that investing in science is a long-term business – we’re looking at decades, not years. It really highlights why the UK needs a long-term strategy for science and engineering that looks beyond artificial political timescales. Our future as a high-tech nation depends on it.”