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Research Fortnight: Clouds on Astronomy's Horizon?

Last Updated on Friday, 23 November 2007 14:33
Published on Thursday, 22 November 2007 00:00
RAS President Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson has written an article in Research Fortnight criticising the STFC proposal to withdraw the UK from the Gemini Observatory...

"Astronomers were shocked last week (Nov 15th) by the announcement by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) that they planned to withdraw the UK from the Gemini Observatory.   Gemini consists of two 8-metre diameter optical telescopes, Gemini North on Hawaii, which began science operations in 2000, and Gemini South at Cerro Pachon, Chile, which began science operations in 2001.   The UK has been a significant partner, at 23%, of the Gemini project since its inception in 1992 and contributed about £35m in capital costs.

Subsequently the UK joined the European Southern Observatory in 2002 and this gives the UK a similar stake in the four 8-m telescopes of the Very Large Telescope at La Silla, Chile.  But Gemini North gives UK astronomers their only access to the northern sky with a state of the art optical and near infrared telescope.  This is vital for a wide range of astronomical research: cosmological surveys to understand dark energy, searches for extrasolar planets, studies of the most distant galaxies and quasars, and follow-up of exciting objects found in X-ray, far infrared and submillimetre surveys.

We had been aware that STFC was in some funding difficulties following the outcome of the Comprehensive Spending Review for 2008-11.  Although at first sight the settlement had seemed quite generous, with a 13.6% increase over the three years, once account is taken of the increased costs of implementing Full Economic Costs in universities, the settlement for astronomy amounts to level cash funding.  This means an inevitable cut in the volume of research because of inflation.  One feature of astronomy expenditure is the large fraction that goes to international subscriptions (The European Space Agency, the European Southern Observatory and Gemini).  These rise in line with the UK’s GDP and over time gradually put pressure on the rest of the programme.  Particle Physics has the same problem with the CERN subscription.  So STFC is a victim of two Government successes, the sustained growth in the UK economy and the very welcome introduction of Full Economic Costs in universities.

Part of the vehemence of the reaction of astronomers arose from the suddenness of the announcement, with no prior consultation or briefing of the community.  STFC have assured me that the STFC Science Board and Particle Physics Astronomy and Nuclear Committee had a full involvement in the decision, but they are going to have to find a way for these bodies to consult the community in future.  In fairness STFC have to have a budget plan in place by the start of FY2008, which is only 6 months away.

A further concern arises from the report of the Public Accounts Committee on November 13th criticizing cost overruns on facilities run by STFC like Diamond and Isis.  Astronomers would be justifiably upset if the forced merger between PPARC and CCLRC to create STFC resulted in a squeezing of the astronomy budget because of cost overruns on these facilities.  We will need assurances that this is not happening.

In the future we have to campaign for better funding settlements.  The Royal Astronomical Society has worked hard over the past two years to make the case for blue skies research.  I’ve been assured that the recent settlement for STFC was in effect no worse than that for the other funding councils supporting physics, EPSRC and NERC.  But can squeezing the funding for physics research be the right science policy for the UK ?

Returning to the Gemini issue, it would be a serious mistake for the UK to have no large optical telescope access in the northern hemisphere, damaging many front-line research programs, reducing the attractiveness of the UK as a place for bright young researchers to work, and generally diminishing the very high international standing of UK astronomy.  STFC needs to rethink this plan, perhaps negotiating a reduced involvement in Gemini.  Since two year’s notice have to be given if we withdraw from Gemini before the end of the current agreement in 2012, no saving would be made until 2010. 

Obviously STFC has to balance its budget and it is never an easy matter to decide where cuts fall.  The community needs to engage with this process, though to do so it will also need to be fully briefed.  Physics Departments need to persuade universities to pass on to them the benefit of Full Economic Costs, never easy when universities want to hold back some or most of these benefits to fund new initiatives.  And the general principle in deciding the STFC program must remain that of scientific excellence."