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STFC Science Prioritisation Exercise: Response from the Royal Astronomical Society

Last Updated on Monday, 22 March 2010 20:56
Published on Monday, 22 March 2010 20:56
The Royal Astronomical Society has responded to the announcement by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) of its Science Prioritisation Programme and Investment Strategy for 2010-15.
STFC Science Prioritisation Exercise: Response from the Royal Astronomical Society
Ref: RAS PN 09/66
Date: 16th December 2009
For immediate release

Issued by
Dr Robert Massey
Press and Policy Officer
Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)20 7734 3307
Mob: +44 (0)794 124 8035
E-mail: This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.

STFC Science Prioritisation Exercise: Response from the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS PN 09/66)

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), the body responsible for funding UK astronomy, today reported the results of its Prioritisation Exercise, announcing projects chosen for continued funding and those where support will be withdrawn.

The Royal Astronomical Society welcomes the long-term commitment to projects like the European Southern Observatory (ESO). UK involvement in this project, based in Chile, gives British scientists continued access to some of the best astronomical facilities in the world. The Society also strongly endorses the continued investment in many European Space Agency (ESA) programmes.

Looking to the future, the RAS recognises and welcomes the support for the forthcoming European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and the Square Kilometer Array (SKA) radio observatory as well as last week’s decision to establish a free standing agency to lead UK involvement in space.

However, the announcement from STFC contains a swathe of cuts to astronomy that the RAS believes will have a severe impact on the capacity of the UK to deliver a world-class research programme. For example, by 2012 facilities including the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT), the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes on La Palma, the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) and the Gemini observatory will have lost all UK support.

The result of this is the loss of all UK funding for ground-based optical observatories in the northern hemisphere, which will leave British scientists without direct access to a large part of the sky.

In space science, UK funding for post-launch support for highly successful and continuing missions like Cassini, Cluster, Venus Express and XMM-Newton will go.

Alongside this loss of facilities is a decline of around 10% in the grants available to research groups and a 25% cut in postgraduate studentships and in the positions available to newly-qualified PhD scientists. The best of these are now much more likely to seek employment in the US and Europe, where governments have chosen to increase investment in science.

Professor Andy Fabian, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, believes that the cuts will have a grave impact on astronomy research in the UK. He commented, “With these cuts UK based researchers will struggle to retain their leading position in astronomy and space science.

‘Astronomers in the UK are highly productive and deliver this excellence for a relatively low investment compared with their counterparts elsewhere. Research in astronomy is not an area where large ‘efficiency savings’ can be made without a detrimental impact on the quality of that work.

‘Given the difficult economic times we live in, we recognise that public sector budgets are all under pressure. But these cuts are a result of the structural and financial problems that have beset STFC since its creation in 2007, rather than being a consequence of the current recession. These problems have led to an ongoing funding gap that now has to be plugged by cuts in the research base, particularly in the budgets for astronomy and particle physics.

‘The RAS acknowledges the efforts made by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) and Research Councils UK (RCUK) to provide the increased resources needed for subscriptions for international projects as a result of changing exchange rates. We also welcome today’s commitment by the Science Minister, Lord Drayson, to examine the tensioning that arises from funding international science projects, large scientific facilities and UK grants within a single research council, and the negative impact this has on the funds available for facilities and researchers.

‘Despite this, we are now seriously concerned at the effect the loss of so many smaller projects will have on the health and morale of physics groups in British universities. The Government has rightly recognised the strategic importance of science for a healthy and more diverse economy. Blue-skies research in subjects like astronomy is an essential component of that scientific base and cutting it now will make it harder for the UK to recover its international position once the economy recovers.

‘We call on the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to take the opportunity to back blue-skies research, including astronomy, in the same way that it has increased its support for the life sciences. UK scientists are world leaders in this area and in recent years have attracted the brightest talent from across the globe to share our success. We urge the Government to plan for the long term and recognise that realising our shared goals depends at least in part on a sustained investment in a diverse science portfolio.

‘The savings from cutting astronomy research are, in the scale of public expenditure, trivial. By contrast, the potential damage to one of the UK’s leading activities could be huge.”


Professor Andy Fabian
President, Royal Astronomical Society
Tel: +44 (0)1223 337509
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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.