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Decision time for UK ground-based astronomy June 3, 2009

Posted by Sarah in politics, science.
Tags: , , , ,

By the end of this year, UK astronomers are likely to know what ground-based observational facilities they will have access to in the next decade. Today, the Science and Technology Facilities Council or STFC, the body that administrates funds for UK astronomy and particle physics, has published a (long-rumoured) consultation document inviting the community to discuss priorities in ground-based astronomy in the next 10 years. The document was prepared by STFC’s recently formed Ground-based Facilities Review Panel, made up of 6 UK-based senior astronomers (incidentally all men). An electronic questionnaire will be available in the near future for astronomers to express their views, and “facility directors and interested groups” are invited to submit paper contributions.

In the past few years, the UK community has been in near-constant turmoil – grants were cut, projects cancelled, consortia pulled out of – all worsened by a variety of factors from the economic crisis, poor PR and bad weather. UK-based astro-bloggers like Andy, Peter, Andrew, have discussed this is great detail, eliciting lots of interesting comments from senior folks who know what they’re talking about. STFC has come under a lot of fire for poor decision making, bad management and insuffcient communication with the astronomy workforce. (There’s nothing like a scrap for cash to get the Noble Astronomer’s claws out!)

The bottom line is simple: there isn’t enough money to be involved in all the projects astronomers would like to be part of. That has long been the case. This paragraph sums it up nicely:

It would be unrealistic to imagine that in 2020 the UK would have a large stake in large facilities like E-ELT and SKA, and would also retain all its current ground-based facilities. It is always hard to forego a workhorse facility that has supported an active and successful science programme, in order to start construction of some future facility many years hence. But our bid for the capital costs for E-ELT and/or SKA would not be credible if we do not show that we are willing to do this. (links are mine)

That makes sense, right? But there are doubts as to whether decisions will be made based on scientific merit alone. In recent years, however, Biritsh scientists have been come under increasing pressure to demonstrate the economic relevance and impact of their work. In April, a question was added to STFC grant applications, asking the applicant to describe how their work may affect the country’s economy. For many astronomers, this is worrying. Indeed, the document reinforces that:

An important component of any bid for large new facilities, and indeed maintenance of the existing level of support for ground-based astronomy, is demonstration of knowledge transfer benefits to the UK economy. We have a question on this in our questionnaire and we urge you to think about any applications to other areas that might follow from astronomical instrumentation or software developments. We have to find ways to demonstrate that astronomy contributes to the Government’s science challenges: energy resources, climate change, security, aging population.

I’m all in favour of astronomers not living in ivory towers and being aware of the wider context of their work. The “economic impact” of much of astronomy research is however hard to pinpoint, particularly where there is no direct collaboration with industrial partners. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any. Much of astronomy research is “basic” in nature: how atoms and molecules behave in extreme environments, magnetic fields, plasma physics, studies of dynamical systems. The whole point of basic research is that we don’t know its potential application yet.  Yet it’s precisely this work that underpins subsequent discoveries, inventions, patents, that do impact a country’s the economy. Basic research is what enables applied research. In this way, astronomy research frequently drives new technology developments: radio astronomy, for instance, essentially led to the development of wifi. So basic research should get an equal, if not higher, priority for funding.

Community consultations are undoubtedly a good exercise. In the US, the National Research Council of the National Academy of Sciences undertake a Decadal Survey in Astronomy  & Astrophysics, which is currently under way. In Europe, an exercise called the Astronet roadmap identified priorities for the European astronomy research landscape for the next 20 years. But I have a feeling that the debacles of the last few years have left UK astronomers deeply sceptical about the true criteria in astronomy funding decisions and the real value of the community’s opinion. Still, I hope lots of people take the opportunity to express their opinions – if you don’t speak up, you favourite instrument or telescope might never get built*!

Info on the Ground-based Facilities Review Panel here. Read the document here.

*But even if you do speak up, it might still not happen.


1. carolune - June 3, 2009

Interesting entry! I would just like to quote from the South African White Paper on Science and Technology (1996)

“Scientific endeavour is not purely utilitarian in its objectives and has important associated cultural and social values. It is also important to maintain a basic competence in “flagship” sciences such as physics and astronomy for cultural reasons. Not to offer them would be to take a negative view of our future – the view that we are a second class nation, chained forever to the treadmill of feeding and clothing ourselves.”

I don’t know how South African economy fares at its best compared to the UK economy at its worst but one thing that is needed whether economies are doing well or not is vision.

Is the STFC looking for a vision that the review panels and other consultations can define or is this mostly an exercise to structure the apparent elimination process going on?

2. Sarah - June 3, 2009

No, as far as I understand this is not STFC looking to define a vision for ground-based astronomy. The council has a road map in place, which I think agrees in broadlines with the Astronet one.

So this is really a consultation of the community to determine what the highest-priority facilities are: which of the existing observatories need to be maintained, which future ones does the UK particularly want a stake in, what types of instruments are lacking etc.

3. Rob Ivison - June 3, 2009

No men as formal members, perhaps, but don’t underestimate the influence and esteem of Professor Monica Grady.

I’d urge readers not to be cynical – the stats from the on-line questionaire *will* influence the direction of the UK’s ground-based astronomy programme.

I have to admit that posting this on the site of a Belgian astronomer working in the Netherlands makes me feel peculiar about the UK having an astronomy programme distinct from those of other EU nations.

I don’t share your distrust of KE and EI initiatives, Sarah. We can’t expect countless billions to be thrown at astronomy unless we agree to scratch our heads once in a while and ponder whether our new technologies can be applied more widely. Astronomers benefit from KE too: radar -> radio astronomy ->little green (wo)men…

Sarah - June 4, 2009

No absolutely, I agree there. I’m strongly in favour of scientists being able to, indeed being forced to, account for the tax money that pays them by engaging with the public and/or business.

I’m probably more pro- than anti- this whole Impact exercise to be honest, particularly after reading Andy’s post on the subject and all its comments – although like you say, I’m more of an outside observer of the UK community these days. But from talking to British astronomers I get the feeling that many of them have the feeling that this process will lead to more funding cuts in astronomy in favour of more applied research.

As a side note, having had plenty of experience in working with industry during my PhD, I really hope that business too is given plenty of incentive to work with universities. In my time, that was sorely lacking.

4. Overheated Telescopes « The e-Astronomer - June 11, 2009

[…] Back in the 1990s I was on a PPARC review panel called the Ground Based Telescopes Development Panel (GBTDP).  Everybody referred to it as the  Ground Based Telescopes Destruction Panel. This time round the gloomy talk says the answer is already written : pull out of Gemini, close everything else except ESO membership, and pick ONE of ELT or SKA. Is that too pessimistic ? Is it in fact the right thing to do ? (See also Sarah’s post) […]

5. Telescope Wars « In the Dark - June 13, 2009

[…] and Sarah have already blogged about this -and they both know a lot more than me about ground-based astronomy […]

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