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  • Astronomy Cuts Dismay RAS
Dec 2007
LONDON, Dec. 18, 2007 -- The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has expressed its "deep disappointment" at the level of cuts to UK astronomy research announced last week by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). In an effort to prioritize funding efforts, STFC said it will withdraw UK participation in two observatories, all UK research in ground-based solar-terrestrial physics and high-energy gamma-ray astronomy, and slash the budget at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, Scotland.

The cuts include ending UK participation in the Gemini South Observatory in Chile and the astronomical observatory on La Palma, Canary Islands; slashing the Astronomy Technology Centre budget nearly in half and ending STFC investment in the proposed International Linear Collider.

These cuts amount to at least £80 million (about $161 million) over three years, with an additional £40 million (about $80.5 million) likely to be cut to free up funds for UK involvement in new projects, said the RAS, a professional organization for astronomy and astrophysics, geophysics, solar and solar-terrestrial physics, and planetary sciences, in a statement.

Other astronomy projects are likely to be cut in part, and are subject to the current program review being carried out by STFC. They will all have to compete against new project proposals for a contingency fund set aside by STFC, RAS said. They include:
  • The UK InfraRed Telescope (UKIRT)
  • Research in ground-based gravitational wave astronomy
  • UK involvement in the Dark Energy Survey
  • The Zepplin3 underground search for dark matter
  • The robotic Liverpool Telescope
  • The Merlin radio telescope operated by Jodrell Bank Observatory at the University of Manchester
  • The AstroGrid project, which was to form the UK contribution to a global virtual observatory.
STFC said it was prioritizing its allocations in light of a number of major new facilities coming online, such as the Diamond Light Source, a synchrotron light source on the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire; the Large Hadron Collider at CERN in France; and neutron source ISIS Target Station 2 at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. The STFC said it also needs to prioritize the the UK's large facility requirements and the creation of Science and Innovation campuses.

Ground-based astronomy funding priorities, the STFC said, include continuing membership in the ESO (the European organization for astronomical research in the southern hemisphere), and investing in future instruments such as the Extremely Large Telescope, which is expected to be 10 to 100 times more sensitive than present instruments; and the Square Kilometre Array, a next-generation radio telescope anticipated to be 50 times more sensitive than current radio telescopes.

"We plan to continue to invest in the JCMT (James Clerk Maxwell Telescope) to exploit SCUBA 2, a revolutionary millimeter-wave camera being developed in the UK. We will finalize plans for the rundown of our investment in the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes in the Canary Islands. We will cease all support for ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities," STFC said in its report.

The RAS said it welcomed a concession by STFC that it will seek to negotiate continued access to the Gemini North Observatory on Hawaii, which the society requested two weeks ago because, "Without Gemini North, UK astronomers will have no access to giant telescopes in the northern hemisphere and will find it increasingly difficult to compete with their peers overseas."

The society said it also supports a recent announcement by John Denham, the secretary of state at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, that he will begin an independent review into the state of physics funding in the UK.

RAS President Michael Rowan-Robinson said, "I welcome John Denham's decision to review physics funding and the RAS will be keen to be involved, but this needs to be set against the immediate impact of these cuts on UK physics departments. The government needs to recognize that astrophysics, space science and solar system science make a direct contribution to the UK economy through spinoff and knowledge transfer on time-scales which can be surprisingly short.

"The students and postgraduates that we train are highly skilled and sought after by industry and the financial sector. Astrophysics and particle physics are major attractors of students, including international students, into university physics courses. For example, my physics department at Imperial College receives 40 percent of its research funding from astrophysics, space science and particle physics and 90 percent of our students said that these fields were the reason they chose to study physics. Astronomy and space also play an important role in attracting school-children towards science," Rowan-Robinson said.

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