Stark message in the sky: Funding dries up for British astronomers

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Even after 50 years, the view of the huge Lovell radio telescope dominating the Cheshire Plain is still one of the most futuristic sights in Britain. It speaks of many things: of the unexplored far reaches of space and time; of Big Bangs and black holes; of stars and galaxies; and of so many things far beyond us. Its founder, Sir Bernard Lovell, who at the age of 94 still works there three days a week, described the telescope as being "at the centre of immensities".

Yet recently, Jodrell Bank has become a focus for more down-to-earth concerns. Last year's merger of two of the quangos that managed British science, forming the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), was seen as a good thing until it emerged that there was an £80m shortfall in support for astronomy and particle physics. Overall, the budget for science was up, but it wasn't up for everyone.

The consequence has been the biggest crisis in British research for decades resulting in a new discovery for scientists: public anger. Some projects were cancelled, many cut back and many letters asking for redundancies have been sent out. Some post-doctoral researchers – the life-blood of the subject – have had a three-year grant cut to six months. Whole areas of research, such as the relationship between the Sun and the Earth, were to be eliminated. International partnerships were dissolved almost overnight.

The chief executive of the STFC, Professor Keith Mason, has taken most of the flak; "secretive and uncommunicative" was one accusation. Recently, he was singled out for harsh words by the select committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills, which said it had "serious questions about the role and performance of the chief executive". The chairman, Phil Willis, said: "We've been branded by international competitors and collaborators as an unreliable partner."

The current Astronomer Royal, Lord Rees, has said the situation is a result of poor management and poor planning, adding that British science has been "damaged by this ineptitude". Sir Bernard Lovell commented: "It would be a disaster to sacrifice even a part of Jodrell Bank."

The younger generation of astronomers, who are the future of the subject and the hardest hit in the cutbacks, have reacted in their own way. Support groups have appeared on Facebook, a website has been set up called "Fight UK Underinvestment in Solar Terrestrial Facilities and Capabilities" – FUK U STFC, for short. The Jodrell Bank telescope was for a while even offered for sale on eBay. Bidding reached a handsome £7.32.

One should have some sympathy for Professor Mason and the STFC. As he pointed out to a hostile meeting in a lecture hall in Belfast recently, change is difficult. If we want the best science we must make hard decisions and cannot do everything we once did; the old must make way for the new and that sometimes hurts. He added that the astronomers must make their own case for funding.

And that set some of them wondering, how exactly do we make our case?

Professor Paul Crowther of Sheffield University runs a website that monitors the current funding crisis. "How do we do it?" he asks. "We put our case to the STFC, and they put it to the Government and the answer has been the betrayal of pure science."

Without a doubt, astronomy is one of our nation's intellectual gems, a science in which our heritage is unrivalled. It has blossomed since the days of the first astronomer royal, John Flamsteed, although he was given the practical task by Charles II not to explore the heavens, but to solve the more immediate problem of determining longitude.

Today, Britain has 550 university astronomers and 350 postgraduate students in training, plus many who work in associated tasks. The relatively small community shows how UK astronomy definitely punches above its weight on the international front. In terms of research output, British astronomers are second only to the United States, despite having only half the number of astronomers per head of population.

Once it was enough to be an astronomer: the exploration of the cosmos was its own justification. But in recent years, there has been a new theme emerging in the astronomical and particle physics community. Now, if you ask an astronomer or particle physicist why they need to carry out research into their subject, they frequently reply that the main purpose is to inspire the young and to draw them in to science.

The logic goes that students are drawn towards big telescopes, satellites, missions to the planets, particle accelerators and the fundamental questions they raise. After training, not all of them will be able, or want to, stay in pure science, so they will take their skills elsewhere, into industry, healthcare, the environment and teaching.

It's an argument that has some merit. When the United States sent astronauts to the Moon, it spent tens of billions of dollars in hundreds of thousands of industrial companies.

But the real benefit, many argue, was the impetus it gave to science and technology. Precise figures are hard to come by, but George Bush Sr was near the mark when he said that for the American taxpayer, Project Apollo was the best return on an investment since Leonardo da Vinci bought a sketchpad.

For the UK, however, things are not so simple. Despite a minor, and it is hoped, not isolated, blip, the desire among the young to do science degrees, especially physics, has been waning for years. Many university physics departments have closed or are under threat. It seems that even though young people might find astronomy and particle physics fascinating, it is not an attractive career option. So, if astronomers think that one of their main roles is to develop more scientists, then it must be said that they aren't doing a particularly effective job.

The recent row about funding and withdrawal from big science projects is unlikely to go unnoticed among the young. "We are trying to attract young people into science and these high-profile projects do make a difference. It's a real own goal when people get the perception that to do world-class science you have to go to another country," says Lord Rees.

The current situation with astronomy and particle physics in the UK has reached an impasse. The STFC has said it will mend its ways and has set up more consultations. "What we really need is more money. Without it we are just rearranging the deckchairs," says Mark Lancaster of Leicester University.

Although Jodrell Bank looks safe, there are many projects that are not. As one researcher told me, the problem is that the solution is a long way off, but salaries have to be paid today.

Many are pinning their hopes on the Wakeham inquiry into the funding of UK physics, which is due to report in the autumn. The select committee report urged that no precipitate action should be taken until then. Many researchers, however, don't have that long. Some are already looking overseas for work.

The writer, an author and astronomer, has a doctorate from Jodrell Bank