UK Physics and Astronomy in Danger

Color composite adaptive optics image of the planetary nebula M2-9 using the ALTAIR adaptive optics system on Gemini North. Image credit: Gemini Observatory/Travis Rector, University of Alaska Anchorage

My true aim for astroengine.com is to post advanced (but interesting) space physics concepts on an informal stage. But when news like this comes along, I feel compelled to say something. In a nutshell, the UK physics and astronomy community has been hit with a series of harsh and ill thought-out budget cutbacks in recent years. Things have gotten worse since April 2007 (when the two main research councils PPARC and CCLRC merged) when all UK physics and astronomy funding started being managed by The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). It would appear the main focus is to find ways to plug the £80 million funding deficit it has inherited and not to find ways to protect research projects.

So, physics and astronomy in the UK is facing cutbacks on a scale that defies intelligence. Why is a nation, as scientifically gifted as the UK, making cutbacks to research that will shape the most exciting era of science mankind has ever seen?

Reading the STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy website makes for uncomfortable viewing. Cutbacks, job losses, project withdrawals and one hell of a lot of blame being put on the STFC and British government are order of the day. In fact the only bit of good news I can find is today’s report that the UK has been reinstated as a full partner to the Gemini Project. In case you missed it, check out my Universe Today coverage of the events that have unfolded in the past couple of months:

The Gemini Project is one of the most exciting and successful ground-based telescope systems on the planet. Run by an international collaboration of seven member countries including US, Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil and Argentina, the UK has benefited massively from the science from one of the most advanced telescope systems ever built. Based in Chile and Hawaii, these two locations provide magnificent clarity at the extremely high altitudes (Wikipedia article on Gemini). But in an effort to save £15 million, the STFC pulled the UK’s involvement out of the collaboration. This single act highlighted the strain the UK’s physics and astronomy community has been enduring and a massive campaign by scientists and the public forced a U-turn in this decision. Today, the UK has re-gained full membership in the Gemini Program, much to the relief of astronomers.

But what of the £15 million savings the STFC has lost out on? Perhaps the government could step in? I find it bizarre that Gordon Brown’s government has not decided to put an end to this struggle and inject some emergency funds. We know these “funds” exist, but not for the advancement of the UK’s scientific effort. These phantom funds suddenly appear from nowhere when certain banks lose their money (through idiotic mis-management) or when cabinet ministers family members need backhanders to support their social lives at university… so where is it when the cream of the academic community needs it the most?

The UK Labour government (who I was actually proud to vote for all those years ago) has really buggered it up for the future development of space science, physics and astronomy. Once a world leader in technical innovation, we are beginning to fall be the wayside. We have plenty of ideas, but no funding for the followthrough, often leaving investment to the international community and ignoring the needs of the scientists who strive for excellence.

I can’t sum it up better than the Save Astronomy website, so I’ll stop my rant and hand the soapbox over to them:

The Science & Technology Facilities Council is in trouble. Their budget is short by £80 million. The reasons for the cuts aren’t clear (the details we know are on Paul Crowther’s website). There are several factors at work, but the important thing is that this is not the result of astronomers wasting money, but as a result of factors beyond our control. Astronomy is now being hit. World class telescopes and facilities are facing closure. University physics departments will suffer huge cuts.

Being a British solar physicist, I am deeply saddened by the current state of affairs, and I for one have experienced the lack of research funding that is out there. Academic life is a journey of passion (the money ain’t that good at the best of times), it shouldn’t be a journey of job cuts and intellectual struggle.

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5 thoughts on “UK Physics and Astronomy in Danger”

  1. It’s a real shame academic research does not reward well – money wise. I imagine with the current UK Government increase university fees by up to 3x, research is going to be further poorly funded.

  2. It’s a real shame academic research does not reward well – money wise. I imagine with the current UK Government increase university fees by up to 3x, research is going to be further poorly funded.

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