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Digging deep, aiming high; supporting UK geophysics and astronomy

26 Oct 2015

Robert Massey, Deputy Executive Director and Press Officer at the Royal Astronomical Society, on the choice facing the Government in the Spending Reviewt’s (almost) always about the money

The cycle of spending reviews has become very familiar. A budget sets out headlines, rumours of deep cuts follow, before we see outcomes a little better than expected, and the science community breathes a deep sigh of relief.

Perhaps though, things are different now, and astronomy and geophysics (the two fields represented by the RAS) are unlikely to be exceptions. The upfront announcement that departments should prepare plans for cuts of between 25 and 40% – and reports that Sajid Javid is more than happy to deliver them – would be on a much bigger scale than the flat cash that the scientific community has become used to.

Science – even astronomy – did do relatively well in the last Parliament. David Willetts, the Science Minister who didn’t tweet but did champion his portfolio, convinced George Osborne that keeping both applied and blue skies research in good health were essential for the wider economy. The Chancellor’s announcement of ‘eight great technologies’ and capital support for (in our fields) the Square Kilometre Array and the new Polar Research Ship at least gave the impression that the Coalition understood the importance of a broad research base.

Friends of mine in areas like local government look at any protected budget with some envy. For councils that have seen 30% and more taken from their budgets and that are working through large scale redundancy programmes, it must seem hard to accept our argument that science matters so much more. To be fair, there are few if any scientists arguing that – we just make our own case – but equally few would deny that R&D fared better than other sectors.

Astronomers in particular though have seen the trimming and challenges of flat cash for a long time. Even before the financial crisis, the 2007 creation of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, the body that now funds most astronomy research in the UK, resulted in an ungainly hybrid. Inherent tensions between international subscriptions, the costs of facilities and the grants for researchers led to an £80 million deficit at its inception. A ‘save astronomy’ campaign, and noisy responses from famous astronomers and particle physicists led to direct ministerial intervention and some stability. Despite that the eight years since have seen a 50% cut in postdoctoral posts (to put this in context a typical lecturer will now only employ a postdoc once a decade), and a withdrawal from a major international facility (the Gemini Observatory) that the UK co-founded.

In a sense astronomy and space science have both the hardest and one of the easiest tasks. Our challenge is to persuade decision makers of its relevance, but it enjoys huge public recognition and support – few other sciences have ‘amateur’ groups that do meaningful research – as well as regular media coverage. Geophysics, the other part of our portfolio, in comparison has excellent connections with industry, but a low profile elsewhere and nowhere near the political clout it deserves.

The UK has some remarkable people doing remarkable things. We joined the European Southern Observatory – recognised as one of the best facilities in the world – in 2002 and lead many science and exploration missions run by the European Space Agency, from the Herschel infrared observatory to the Rosetta probe and its Philae lander. On measures like citation indices, UK astronomers rank second or third in the world, an achievement all the more remarkable for our relatively low spend.

Together these things have made the UK an attractive place for astronomers and geophysicists from across the globe. In parallel, the numbers on physics degree programmes have grown strongly from their nadir in 2004, with many citing an interest in astronomy as the spark for their STEM career. Students who specialise further, studying astronomy to PhD level, may have limited options in academia, but take their skills into the wider economy, enriching areas from finance to security systems development and even painting conservation.

On 15 December, two and a half weeks after the spending review, Tim Peake, the UK’s first official ESA astronaut, will fly into space for a six month stint on the International Space Station. Tim has been an enthusiastic ambassador for science and technology, working tirelessly with the UK Space Agency to take his message to UK schools and the public at large. But if the Government really does slash the science budget, how will this be received?

The rhetoric – a drive to rebalance the economy and create a vibrant STEM sector – will sit alongside eviscerated universities, an emasculated research programme and the end of longstanding and productive international partnerships. If we also withdraw from the European Union we could be in for a perfect storm, where a set of short term ideological decisions sets us back for decades.

Imagine instead an alternative vision: a UK that takes a political choice to embrace science and technology, where the public are inspired by extraordinary achievements and where we reap the full benefits of curiosity-driven and applied research alike. On 25 November we will find out which path the Government has chosen.

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