International Review of Physics and Astronomy
The Royal Astronomical Society, together with EPSRC, PPARC and the Institute of Physics, commissioned a review of physics and astronomy by an international panel of experts to provide a benchmark of the quality of physics and astronomy research in the UK.
The Review, which was released at the end of January 2006, has been welcomed by the RAS. In commending it to Lord Sainsbury, the Society has drawn attention to the following points:
The value of science to society. The Report notes that “The case for the UK, as a leading economy to continue to support physics and astronomy research on a broad basis remains overwhelming. Furthermore, as society becomes increasingly technological, understanding basic physical concepts has become an increasingly important and integral part of our culture". We stress that research in astrophysics and solar system physics is integral to this theme. It includes work to advance both our understanding of universal physical phenomena and our knowledge of how phenomena beyond the Earth affect the habitability of our planet and the operation of many technologies on which we rely.
Core funding of science. The Report notes that UK is “poised for a productive decade” in astrophysics and solar system physics, but also highlights the importance of adequate funding. The Report states that “it is important to take care that the funding agencies have sufficient means to maintain a healthy balance between the large investments in international facilities and funds spent nationally to exploit these opportunities through experiment development and data analysis programmes”. The maintenance of this balance is a long-standing problem whose intensity has varied over the years. The indications are that we entering a period where the budget for astrophysics and solar system physics will be under intense pressure. The Society is ready to engage with other players to promote debate on how best to sustain the balance.
The importance of interdisciplinary science. The Report stresses the importance of physics involvement in interdisciplinary research and encouraged “the research councils to implement mechanisms to stimulate more interdisciplinary research”. The Society notes that this would facilitate research in important areas where astronomy interacts with other sciences. A prime example is planetary science, where the newly approved Aurora Programme is building on inter-disciplinary strengths in the UK and our European partners. Other examples include the deep interest in understanding the astronomical phenomena that influence the climate and the way better scientific understanding of the space environment can aid the design and operation of spacecraft. The Society asks that both Government and Research Councils take action to address the Report’s criticisms on the low amount and limited quality of interdisciplinary research in the UK. There is a need to raise UK standards in both respects.
Human potential. The Report stressed “that physics has a unique place in a knowledge-based society, as a discipline that underpins the other core sciences and engineering”. The Report highlighted structural problems that must be addressed now if the UK is to maintain adequate human potential in physics and astronomy in the coming decades:
· This human potential is directly threatened by the loss of distinct physics departments in many UK universities (since 1992 over 30% of university physics departments have been closed or merged). The Report recognises that these closures and mergers are driven by limited student demand, but notes that this “is not a good basis for planning strategic planning of the science base”. In essence, the present short-term “market” response to student demand is incapable of addressing long-term strategic needs.
· The short duration of UK PhD training is undermining the ability of UK PhD graduates in physics and astronomy to compete scientifically with their peers from other countries. The Panel recommended that the UK instigate an “in-depth review of graduate level education”, including “comparisons with its leading scientific competitors”. The Society considers that this review is also needed to address the UK’s obligations under the Bologna agreement on the European Higher Education Area. We note that the principal target of that obligation is the UK PhD student community.
· The lack of progress, since the previous review in 2000, in providing a proper career development environment for post-doctoral scientists. This is increasingly recognised as a major deficiency of the UK scientific environment when compared to our scientific competitors. Its resolution will contribute to efforts to attract talented young people into science and to ensuring that women can contribute fully at higher levels in the scientific community. As an illustration of this last point, the Report challenges the UK to have two female academic members of staff in each university physics and astronomy department by the end of the decade.
In conclusion, the RAS welcomes the Report’s strong statements on human potential and believes that concerted action is needed now to avoid a long-term attrition of the UK skills base in physics and astronomy. If actions are not taken, that skills base will gradually decline as the present generation of scientists retires.
The RAS, together with its partners, will be pressing the Government to take forward the Review's recommendations to secure the UK skills base in physics and astronomy.
The Review can be read here 2005 International Review.pdf (367.85 KB 27.04.2006 16:57)