COMMONS

MPs warn astronomy and particle physics budget cuts will hit UK science hard

13 May 2011

The Science and Technology Committee warns that the UK's prominence in astronomy and particle physics, and its ability to attract and inspire the next generation of scientists in these areas, could be at risk if reduced budgets hit the UK’s growth prospects, reputation and expertise.

Funding

Although science did relatively well in the recent Spending Review, funding for astronomy sees a total reduction of 21% over the next four years compared with 2010-11.

More starkly, comparing 2014/15 with 2005, spending in astronomy and particle physics will be around 50% lower than its level six years ago. This is a worrying situation, warns the committee, particularly when set against the planned increased investment in science and innovation by the UK's international peers as part of long-term strategies to ensure economic growth.

In its report on astronomy and particle physics, the committee says the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) – the research council which funds research and facility development in astronomy, particle physics and nuclear physics – is risking the UK's ability to stay at the forefront of future developments by focusing its astronomy and particle physics programmes into fewer areas.

Access to telescopes

A case in point is the UK's planned withdrawal from all Northern Hemisphere optical and ground based astronomical facilities, which the committee warns could see UK leadership and competitive advantage being handed over to international peers. It urges the STFC to re-examine the case for retaining access to these telescopes, which require only a relatively small amount of money to allow continuity.

The committee is also highly critical of past STFC strategies, saying its failure to incorporate into policy documents details of the planned withdrawals was 'inexplicable', 'chronic', 'typical', and the reason why client communities have such a low opinion of it. Transparency and trust with the research community must be improved.

National Schools Observatory

A silo mentality continues to pervade government, says the committee, and the experience of the National Schools Observatory (NSO), where funding has been withdrawn for its Liverpool telescope which is used by schools, epitomises shortcomings inherent in the system. The committee was alarmed by the 'passing the buck' attitude of civil servants who failed to provide satisfactory answers on the NSO's future.

Mechanisms must be put in place to stop issues like the NSO falling between ministerial, departmental, and research council responsibility. Andrew Miller MP, Chair of the Committee, said,

"The importance of projects like the National Schools Observatory must not be underestimated. We heard first hand from students the value of the Liverpool telescope for their studies. It will be a serious blow if the UK loses such a vital educational tool and we urge the research councils to do everything they can to find a solution."

Outreach

Outreach is essential to inspire the next generation of scientists and the committee's report identifies scope for a more dedicated and defined outreach role for researchers and institutions funded by the STFC. Existing networks of strategic partners should be exploited to develop an outreach programme for schools and opportunities to employ researchers with a dedicated outreach remit should be investigated.

Andrew Miller concluded,

"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 a nonsense. Other countries are getting it right: invest in science and innovation now and reap the longer term rewards of economic growth. If the UK is seen to send out a message that these scientific fields deserve to be relegated to lower divisions, what hope is there for inspiring the next generation of scientists?"

Further information 

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