British Astronomy - The Professional Astronomy Community
In Britain there are almost 1000 professional astronomers, plus 500 associated technical staff (these figures from the most recent demographic survey carried out by the RAS in 2003). There are also 440 students of astronomy studying for a PhD (the degree of Doctor of Philosophy, normally regarded as the entry point for a career in astronomy research or university teaching). It is nominally a three year programme (on average a few months longer; PPARC has just begun to fund 4-year courses where this better fits the programme of research). The PhD programme starts in September for each annual intake when all the PPARC-funded students are gathered together for a week in an introductory residential school to introduce them to astronomy – some have been mathematics or physics students and this is their first comprehensive exposure to astronomy, others may know some or all of the scientific material but review it, are brought up to date and learn from the socio-economic components to the lecture programme. The experience is that the students form relationships during this week that persist during their later careers in the British astronomical community.
During the PhD course, and according to the programme decided by the student’s university, the student attends lectures and courses, attends meetings (including the National Astronomy Meeting) and, most significantly, completes a significant piece of scientific research under supervision by an established academic, for example by making calculations, taking and reducing data and writing it all up, both as individual scientific papers and as a thesis. At the end of the course, the successful student is awarded the degree of PhD. As for science students in universities everywhere, astronomy students become masters of information technology, sitting at their computer terminals, searching the astronomical literature through NASA’s bibliography, the Astrophysics Data System, planning observing runs, reducing data, organising large data files, calculating numerical models and writing presentations, posters and their theses.
About half the PhD students go on to post-doctoral appointments in astronomy and about 20% of the PhD students remain in astronomy after a decade, in long-term jobs—most of them eventually transfer their skills, particularly in information technology, to industry and the UK economy. Satisfied by their achievement at the highest intellectual level, some move with enthusiasm to the better-paid non-academic opportunities; others accept such jobs with disillusion after failing to find the academic job which they were seeking.
By contrast with many continental European countries, professional astronomy has become dispersed into the universities, and is not concentrated into special institutes. There are presently 126 universities in the UK, of whom 19 belong to the so-called Russell Group of research-intensive universities. About 50 universities teach astronomy at an undergraduate level, usually as part of a department of physics and astronomy and with challenging physics and maths components. About 40 of the 50 universities have significant astronomy research groups, receive grants from PPARC for research and have PhD research students funded by PPARC (data from the 2004/5 PPARC report). The largest group of astronomers (staff and research students) is at Cambridge University, in fact spread into three subgroups, one for radio astronomy, one for mathematical astronomy and one for astrophysics. The next largest groups are at Oxford, University College, Imperial College, Durham, Manchester and Birmingham. A surprising 33 universities have an observatory on-campus or nearby, usually for undergraduate use.
The interest in astronomy among science students is the reason for this broad provision of learning opportunities, because finance for undergraduate teaching follows student numbers. The number of universities in Britain has shown a steep upward trend since the 1960’s, in response to an ambitious Government aim now targeted at a figure of 50% for the proportion of young people who have some experience of higher education and currently approaching 40%. Many of the new universities have been created from groups of specialist institutes of higher education amalgamated and expanded to form something with the comprehensiveness of a ‘university’. The number of universities teaching and researching in astronomy has in particular shown a steady increase. In part this is practical – astronomy is a high profile field of scientific research that requires the university to make no large capital investment – the ‘laboratories’ are telescopes centrally provided. In part it is to motivate students to take the more fundamental courses in basic sciences that the university offers, and it exploits the desire by students to learn about astronomy.
As a result, over the past two decades roughly one new astronomy department or teaching group has been added to British universities per year, although this trend must plateau soon. A recent example is the foundation of the Institute of Cosmology and Gravitation at Portsmouth University. The University was created from a polytechnic college in 1992. A member of the maths department had an interest in relativistic cosmology and in 1994 was joined by another likeminded mathematician. With a PhD student and a postdoctoral fellow, the group applied for and won its first PPARC grant in 1998. Supported by the University, the group recruited productive researchers, including high profile observers, and achieved its present recognition by 2001.
The history of the Astrophysics Research Institute of Liverpool John Moores University is similar, created in February 1992 and having grown under a dynamic director to its present size of over 40 individuals. It has significant PPARC grants, what was a Starlink node and the Liverpool Telescope Project, funded in part by an EU grant for the development for the Merseyside region. The Liverpool Telescope is used by ARI for observational programmes in the its area of interest, especially exploiting the telescope’s suitability for ‘time-domain astrophysics’ including randomly occurring rapid phenomena like novae and gamma ray bursters. The telescope was the first of a series built by what was then a subsidiary company of LJMU, Telescope Technologies Ltd, created and developed by LJMU from the closure of RGO. ARI’s core function is education and, as well as undergraduate and graduate teaching, it has an extensive distance learning programme, it runs the National Schools Observatory and it founded Spaceport, an astronomical Visitor’s Centre based in an old ferry terminal on the banks of the Mersey River. For all this it was awarded one of the 2005 biennial Queen's Anniversary Prizes for Further and Higher Education, intended to recognise contributions by a UK university to the intellectual, economic, cultural and social life of the nation.
In 2003 there were in the universities some 330 astronomers with permanent jobs, 460 post-doctoral researchers with fixed-term positions and 200 technical support staff, as well as the 440 PhD students. About 180 people were employed as research staff and 320 as technical support staff in Government institutes. The proportion of females in the astronomical community varies from 6 % among astronomers of professorial rank to 30 % or more among the PhD students. The trend is due to two reasons. In the first place there has been an increase from year to year in the proportion of females at a given status, with young women both becoming more interested in astronomy (even though it is a physical science to which they have been stereotypically resistant) and gaining access to it (even if there have been gender barriers). However, there also remains a progressive drop-out of females as they progress through astronomy, as there is in many academic careers.