PPARC's Science Programme
2006 March 13
PPARC’s future plans for astronomy
RAS Council was extremely concerned last week to read PPARC’s March 6th Press Release News from Council. The consequences of the 2004 Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) appear more drastic than we expected. Our concern now is firstly to help inform RAS members of the implications of the plans and secondly to see how we can bring pressure to bear on the Government for an improved settlement at the latest at the next CSR.
The session at the National Astronomy Meeting (NAM) in Leicester, which you have kindly agreed to address, will, as the press release mentions, be a useful step. Our Council, however, noted that the plans impact considerably on solar and solar-terrestrial physics and these communities will not be attending NAM – some of them will be at the European Geosciences Union (EGU) meeting in Vienna that week but many will be attending the Spring MIST/UKSP meeting in Aberystwyth from 11-13 April. We know how busy you must be and two meetings are twice as difficult to fit in than one, but we think it important, given the impact of the plans on the Magnetospheric, Ionospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics (MIST) and UK Solar Physics (UKSP) communities, that you participate in their meeting too.
It would be very helpful at this stage if you could give us some further detail on PPARC’s plans. We would plan to make what you tell us available before the NAM, EGU and MIST/UKSP meetings. This will inform the debate at NAM and MIST/UKSP and it will ensure that the UK community members attending the EGU are well-briefed to discuss with international colleagues what is happening.
The specific points on which we would like elucidation are:
(1) The press release says that PPARC will ‘maintain the planned reduced level of investment in its current suite of ground-based facilities’. Can you spell out what this implied cutback means for the present ground based telescopes
(presumably, given other items in the press release, apart from ESO and Gemini)?
(2) Does PPARC have to provide funding for Aurora from the core programme as well as the additional resource mentioned? Does this have future implications for the core programme, in other words is this an expanding wedge that might have to be met from a cash-limited budget? – as we said in our policy statement supporting Aurora we do not think it should be implemented at the expense of other areas.
(3) The press release says that PPARC will ‘reduce, below the desired requirement, the resources available for ... Cluster, e-MERLIN, GAIA data centre, Bepi-Colombo and Dark Energy’. Is it possible to indicate how much the projects need, and by how much the resources will be reduced?
(4) We have difficulty in reconciling the statement that PPARC will ‘maintain a capacity in ground-based solar-terrestrial physics’ with the plans essentially to terminate ground-based solar-terrestrial facilities, except, presumably, for EISCAT. Is it in fact the intention, essentially, to terminate ground-based solar-terrestrial physics?
(5) Can you clarify what the statement that PPARC will ‘make no further provision for investment in the UK Dark Matter experiment’ means?
(6) It is ironic that the plans appear within weeks of the report of the International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics, which warned 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.’ In our view, it is essential that the volume of grants awarded is in a good relation with the facilities and programmes that are centrally provided. Is full protection for inflation and the implementation of payment under Full Economic Conditions (FEC) being afforded to the Grants line? to the Fellowship and other human resource programmes?
(7) How does PPARC view the financial prospects for starting new initiatives in the next few years, before the next CSR? Will the new PPARC Roadmap give some prediction of timeline and the wedge of uncommitted money available in longer term plans? How will future initiatives from the community be handled?
It is inevitable that UK astronomers and geophysicists will respond with some anguish to the cutting of their favourite projects. However, we are keen to try to coordinate a community response that will take the positive form of demonstrating what excellent work the community does, not only in research but also in public outreach, education and knowledge transfer. We feel this will be essential if there is to be any prospect of a better settlement in the next CSR.
For the immediate future, however, it seems clear that the matters outlined in the PPARC press release will be the areas on which the spotlight will fall most brightly in the NAM session. This will be an important opportunity for the community both to learn more about and to express views on the proposed strategy. We want to work with you at an early stage to plan this session properly, making it informative, ensuring that the discussion is balanced and informed, and allowing enough time for our community to express its views.
The session is scheduled at 1630 on Thursday 6 April for 1 hr 30 mins. We now have in mind a format in which you give an address for 20-30 mins, followed by a few minutes’ comments by a panel of, say, four or so people from the community. Currently we have Profs Steve Miller and, provisionally, Roger Davies lined up. We intend to try to arrange for a solar or solar-terrestrial physicist to participate, so as to ensure that these areas of astronomy are not forgotten during the NAM debate. Following the presentation we will open up the remaining time to the floor.
Looking to the more long-term future, you might also have suggestions on other people for the panel whom you think could bring out useful points that bear on the case that you are undoubtedly making to Government to alleviate the situation. We want in the long term to bring out all the arguments that will help you in your representations.
Kathy Whaler Michael Rowan Robinson
President RAS President-designate RAS