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British Astronomy - Money and Power

The university astronomical groups are financed by flows (some say trickles) of money from the Government in the ‘dual support system’, namely money is fed into university astronomy groups or departments through two routes.  One route feeds money to Higher Education according to certain criteria of vigour and achievement (e.g. student numbers, publication record, quality and impact of research, as reckoned in a repeated, periodic Research Assessment Exercise, RAE); this money, together with other money as decided by the university, is used to support permanent staff.  The other route feeds in money in response to competitive applications for grants to support specific projects, and is awarded by the Research Councils. This ‘soft’ money is used typically to build and purchase equipment, to employ post-doctoral workers on fixed term contracts, and to support PhD students. 

Some positions and activities are financed by other organisations such as the Royal Society and, increasingly, by European sources.  40% of astronomical staff in British universities obtained their PhD from outside the UK.  The UK participates strongly in European collaborations such as, not only ESA and ESO, but also OPTICON (the Optical Infra-red Coordination Network for astronomy), which is focussing on a number of issues of European interest but particularly an extremely large telescope, and RADIONET (the Infrastructure and Cooperation Network in Radio Astronomy), which is likewise focussed particularly on an extremely large array radio telescope of collecting area a square kilometre (SKA).  Strong links remain, however, between the British astronomers and those of the USA, as a result of past collaborations, of current ones (like Gemini) and of emigration, permanent or temporary, as well as other cultural affinities.  British astronomy is increasingly focussed on Europe because of financial and political realities, the excellence of recent European scientific assets and the natural formation of collaborations as a result of European funding to encourage mobility from one European country to another, but British astronomers benefit from vigorous stimulation by American science, for similar trans-Atlantic reasons.

The avowed intention of the British Government is to spread money for research less widely and less thinly than before and this has led to a competitive atmosphere as universities draw into their departments the best researchers (as identified by the performance indicators specified by the Government).   Two recent high-profile examples have been the development of infrared astronomy at Cardiff and of planetary science at the Open University when the competition caused whole groups to transfer from universities that failed to or chose not to hang on to them.  The tempo of head hunting is said to have a peak every few years as the deadline in the next Research Assessment Exercise (RAE; the next and sixth is RAE 2008) comes near, by which the publications and reputation of an astronomer can be transferred with him or her to count for the new department.   

PPARC grants are, however, available to any university research group through an application that gains the approval of peer review, and is affordable.  The governance of PPARC is described in its website.  In deciding the spread of the budget it receives from the Government and in awarding individual grants PPARC is advised by university astronomers selected to be diverse in geographical location and scientific interest; some higher level panels of advisers, e.g. the top level Council of PPARC, contain representatives of non-scientific interests, e.g. industry.  PPARC, like all the research councils, is led on the same model as a public company, with a full-time Chief Executive Officer (a scientist, since its foundation alternately an astronomer and a particle physicist) and a board of directors (the Council) under a part-time Chairman (selected as a matter of public interest and often an industrialist). 

The second funding route of focussed grants is the one by which a group with a good idea may progress its astronomical research.  It consists of two kinds of grants.  It sustains large groups with ‘rolling grants’ i.e. annual funding guaranteed at a certain level for a period of time.  The university institutes are funded in this way – the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, Jodrell Bank/MERLIN, various institutes of astronomy at Cambridge, Edinburgh, …    It also gives a succession of finite grants to smaller groups for distinct projects.  This route augments the funding of smaller groups, who are principally sustained by teaching. 

Applications for access to the telescopes operated or funded by PPARC (and, with some limitations, to satellites operated by ESA) can be thought to lie in the same category, since time is awarded through peer review to the best proposals, and finance to use the telescopes follows the award of time.  Again, this produces a highly competitive atmosphere. 

There is also, it is true, a certain amount of resistance by the scientists to the bureaucracy associated with these funding routes.  For example, the RAE is an extensive, time consuming process.  Grant applications have to forecast what will be found and an application will not succeed that says only ‘my group and I are good people with a track record: back us and we will deliver’, although it is perhaps the most true to science that could be made.  Judgement on such a case is regarded as appropriate for a university making a decision to offer an astronomer a job, whether as a student, a fellow or a professor; the effect of the RAE is another judgement of this kind.   However, British astronomers have a reputation for being lean, hungry and well-prepared, and for pouncing quickly and successfully when funding opportunities are offered by Government.  For example, the VISTA telescope and the participation in SALT were funded in this way, under a special, central Government initiative to make up for the previous governments’ neglect of university science by providing new laboratory facilities, and this article has already referred to two projects funded under e-science initiatives.   A related development presently just under way, about whose precise effects no one seems sure, except that they will be dramatic, is the implementation starting late in 2005 of the principle that grants to universities will be paid with Full Economic Costing (FEC).    This is to avoid the future issue of the under-funding of research infrastructure.  Research grants will be paid with account taken for all the costs associated with them.  The FEC of a research project includes charges for the building, depreciation, renovation of infrastructure, the university's central library, and university administration, not to mention the cost of terminating the project (e.g. redundancy pay, if staff cannot be redeployed).  This is intended to provide universities with a source of infrastructure funding which is directly linked to their research activity and to give grants that fully reward the research-active universities, rather than create a structural problem for them.
Public interest in astronomy as a high-profile, flagship science remains strong and increasing and there is virtually daily coverage of astronomy in the UK’s newspapers and broadcast media, encouraged by press releases from individual astronomy groups, PPARC and the RAS. The RAS scans papers to be printed in MNRAS and contributions offered to its annual National Astronomy Meeting for suitable press releases.  PPARC releases information on and results from the facilities and groups that it finances, and provides a range of grants for public outreach activities.  There is a considerable number of print and electronic media published in the UK, which is a centre for astronomical publishing as well as for broadcasting, e.g. the independent Pioneer Productions, which has made a number of successful astronomical programmes.   Astronomy is well represented in British TV, including the long-running (50 years) BBC-TV programme Sky at Night with Sir Patrick Moore, which attracts an audience of half a million monthly and has an associated magazine.  Since London is a communications centre this flow of astronomical information propagates globally.   The number of astronomical knighthoods signifies continuing public, establishment and royal support for astronomy. 

However, the core Government funding for astronomy has been static for a long time.  There had been small but steady reduction in Government-provided purchasing power for astronomy for 15 yr until recently, and a dramatic fall in the number of astronomers employed by the Government institutes.  PPARC is responsible for administering the UK’s membership of the Science Programme of ESA and of ESO, as well as the international particle physics laboratory, CERN, from the same budget as used to finance telescopes, to award grants to university astronomers, and to fund postdoctoral researchers and PhD students in astronomy.  The growth in the so-called international subscriptions has put pressure on the rest of the PPARC astronomy programme.  However, the Labour Government (1997-  ) is doubling its spending on science and, although the increase in core astronomy spending has not been so dramatic, there has been growth.  There have been non-astronomical and non-governmental funding opportunities which the astronomers have seized.   Thus British astronomy is in a constant state of flux, some would say turmoil, in which the old is repeatedly replaced by the new.  

Astronomy started in Britain as elsewhere with individuals, and then, beginning 400 years ago, as in many European countries, with the establishment of scientific institutes.  In the last fifty years this structure of astronomy has seen a progressive shift of power dispersed away from institutes, particularly from Government ones towards smaller groups at universities.  This has left British astronomy without a clear astronomical focus.  There is PPARC, a bureaucracy with the influence of major resources and the authority of Government backing in dealing with overseas organisations, but headed half the time by a non-astronomer, obliged to consult a sometimes (often?) fragmented community and to seek the compromise of consensus and, although independent to make its detailed decisions, must, of course, take account of the Government’s strategy for science.  There are the Astronomers Royal, very influential, independent, thoughtful, respected people, but with few or no resources at their disposal.  Something similar could be said of the Royal Astronomical Society, its mandate to speak out for the community under-used until recently.   The university institutes are kept from growth by the pull to the average of the recommendations of peer review in assessing their rolling grants and there are no clear equivalents of the big Max Planck Institutes or the CNRS institutes, let alone something like the Space Telescope Science Institute.  These institutes are characteristically led by an active scientist with a long term commitment to his institute, a certain amount of freedom, and resources – people, equipment and money – to deploy quickly to lay the ground work for, to influence or to exploit the timely scientific direction.  British astronomy looks weak because of this lack of institutional big hitters on the world scene, but correspondingly strong on individual players.

In spite of this lack of central foci, or, some would say, because of it, British astronomy thrives.  Astronomers at British institutes produce about 10% of the world’s output of astronomy, counted by number of refereed papers (about a quarter that of the USA, to whom the UK lies in second place, and about the same as France and Germany, but at considerably less cost, we are told by the British Government).   Astronomy in Britain is international, dynamic, motivated and flexible and, at the present time, in spite of all the difficulties, remarkably successful in continuing Britain’s 5000 yr old attempt to understand the universe.