Professor Roger Davies, President of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), today backed a report published by MPs on the Science and Technology Select Committee that set out the risks to UK astronomy posed by ongoing and future budget cuts.
In its submission to the Committee earlier this year, the Society expressed great concern at the unprecedented scale of the cuts in both capital and resource budgets. The RAS is particularly concerned by the decision to drastically reduce the size of the astronomy research community through a 50% cut in postdoctoral researchers and the likely pullout from all optical observatories in the northern hemisphere. Together, these pose a great threat to the UK's global leadership in astronomy, which currently sees it ranked second only to the United States.
The Society has also long emphasised the 'STEM attractor' role of astronomy, whereby school students are drawn into careers in science and engineering after first being excited by the science of the wider Universe. The RAS believes that cutting the astronomy budget sends these young people the wrong message.
In its submission to the Committee earlier this year, the Society expressed great concern at the unprecedented scale of the cuts in both capital and resource budgets.
In their report, MPs make a series of recommendations for the Government and for the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). They urge STFC to re-examine its decision to pull out of northern hemisphere facilities and suggest that public outreach work should be protected and developed by collaborations between research councils, learned societies like the RAS, universities and industry. The Committee also recommends that STFC ensures that 50% of the members of its governing Council are practicing academics, with at least one individual from each of the core scientific fields it is responsible for, in the hope that this will help to improve relations with the research community.
However, astronomers in the UK face a retrenchment in funding that is a direct threat to an area of science where Britain excels. It will be much harder to promote our science to young people in such a difficult environment.
Professor Davies welcomed the findings of the Committee: "As a lifelong advocate of public outreach work, I have seen how astronomy inspires people of all ages and backgrounds to study and work in science and engineering. I want to see the RAS expand its work in this area and am certainly happy to see us collaborate more closely with the wider scientific and industrial communities to make this happen. To support this, we recently created the Patrick Moore Medal to recognise the best teachers of astronomy in the UK.
'However, astronomers in the UK face a retrenchment in funding that is a direct threat to an area of science where Britain excels. It will be much harder to promote our science to young people in such a difficult environment.
'I can only agree with MPs that the cuts are also doing tremendous damage to our international reputation as a world class centre for scientific research. There is now a real risk that our most talented early career scientists will simply leave the UK altogether resulting in potentially permanent damage to our research base.
'I urge STFC and the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) to look hard at ways to support our science before it is too late. Continuing the essential access to telescopes in the northern hemisphere and mitigating the savage cuts in research grants would help as would timely approval for continued UK involvement in the European Extremely Large Telescope (E-ELT) and Square Kilometre Array (SKA), forefront global projects that will lead to great opportunities for British industry.
'I have no doubt that scientists want to work with STFC to get the best possible outcomes for UK astronomy and space science. The proposal to bring in more academics to its governing Council is very welcome and could help STFC to deliver this and to secure the confidence of the research community in the years ahead."