RAS 'dismay' at deep cuts to astronomy funding

The RAS does however welcome the announcement by the Secretary of State at the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, John Denham, that he is setting up an independent review into the health of physics. The Society will participate fully in the review, where it will express its belief that the vitality of physics in the UK depends on a vibrant programme of ‘blue skies’ research in areas such as astrophysics.

Cuts announced include UK participation in the Gemini South observatory in Chile, all UK involvement in ground-based solar-terrestrial physics facilities, UK high-energy gamma-ray astronomy research, UK involvement in the astronomical observatory on La Palma, and large cuts (~50%) at the Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh.

Projects, some of which will be cut subject to the current Programmatic
Review being carried out by STFC, include: 25% of grants, the UK InfraRed Telescope, ground-based gravitational wave astronomy, involvement in the Dark Energy Survey, the Zepplin3 underground search for dark matter, the Liverpool Telescope, the Merlin radio telescope, Astrogrid. These will all have to compete against new project proposals for a contingency fund set aside by STFC.

The RAS welcomes the concession by STFC that they will seek to negotiate continuing access to the Gemini North observatory on Hawaii, as requested by the Society two weeks ago. 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.

Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, President of the RAS commented:

'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 recognise that astrophysics, space science and solar system science make a direct contribution to the UK economy through spin-off 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% of its research funding from astrophysics, space science and particle physics and 90% 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.’

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