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RAS PN 07/49: UK Astronomy set for savage cuts, warns RAS president

Last Updated on Wednesday, 07 April 2010 13:42
Published on Tuesday, 11 December 2007 00:00
President of the Royal Astronomical Society, Prof Michael Rowan-Robinson, has warned that UK university physics departments face savage cutbacks in the next three years.

ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY PRESS INFORMATION NOTE: ASTRONOMY RESEARCH SET FOR SAVAGE CUTS, WARNS RAS PRESIDENT

Date: 10 December 2007
EMBARGOED UNTIL 0001 GMT ON 11 DECEMBER 2007
Ref.: PN 07/49 (EMBARGOED)
 
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RAS PN 07/49 (EMBARGOED): UK ASTRONOMY RESEARCH SET FOR SAVAGE CUTS, WARNS RAS PRESIDENT

UK astronomy faces its worst financial settlement for decades and many research programmes are likely to simply be axed, according to Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) President Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson.

The RAS has learnt that Physics departments in the UK face savage cuts in funding following an unfavourable settlement to the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the research council formed earlier this year.

STFC has been grappling with a Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) settlement for 2008-11 which, while slightly above the rate of inflation, amounts to a 7% cut of their budget when Full Economic Costs and the running costs of new facilities like the Diamond Light Source are taken into account. This has left the STFC some £80m short of the funding it needs to maintain research at its current level.

This shortfall has already had a direct impact on UK astronomy. Two weeks ago the STFC announced that the UK would be withdrawing from the Gemini Observatory, a major international facility where £35m has already been spent. Scientists are expecting even worse news when a further announcement is made later today.

Prof Rowan-Robinson expressed his frustration that areas of research where the UK is a world leader look set to be badly damaged:

'I have it from a very reliable source that we are looking at a 25% cut in grants over the next three years, plus programme cuts that could even result in some existing research grants being cancelled. Both of these are truly awful for universities.

Back in January I briefed Sir Keith O'Nions, Director General of the Research Councils, about the need for astronomy and particle physics funding to share in the planned expansion of science funding.  I pointed out to him that of the 41 UK Physics departments in universities, 34 have some astronomy funding, and for 11 more than 40% of their research funding comes from astronomy. 

Several of the more vulnerable university departments are in this situation and a number of others will also be severely hit by these cuts. Of the 20 UK university Physics departments receiving more than 10 million pounds in research funding, 7 receive more than 40% of their funding from astronomy or particle physics.  I urged O'Nions to ensure a fair settlement for the new STFC Research Council. When Ian Pearson was appointed Minister for Science in the summer, I wrote to him making the same point.

I believe O'Nions and Pearson have made a serious error of judgement in not safeguarding Physics departments at a time when Physics in schools and universities is known to be in a critical state. Astronomy has been recognised by the Government as a means of attracting young people to science and engineering – cuts of this type send out the wrong message to prospective students.

STFC have not handled this process well, with no briefing or consultation of the community during the decision making process.  The current structure, in which a handful of scientists sit on internal STFC committees, but are not allowed to consult the wider scientific community, is just not acceptable.

The Secretary of State at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), John Denham, should reconsider this whole allocation.  It is completely inappropriate that the costs of facilities designed for the wider science community from materials science to medical research should fall on the astronomy and particle physics grants lines.'

NOTES FOR EDITORS

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), founded in 1820, encourages and promotes the study of astronomy, solar-system science, geophysics and closely related branches of science. The RAS organizes scientific meetings, publishes international research and review journals, recognizes outstanding achievements by the award of medals and prizes, maintains an extensive library, supports education through grants and outreach activities and represents UK astronomy nationally and internationally. Its more than 3000 members (Fellows), a third based overseas, include scientific researchers in universities, observatories and laboratories as well as historians of astronomy and others.