Written Evidence

Just a quick post this lovely Saturday morning, in order to give an update on the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee’s inquiry into the state of Astronomy and Particle Physics in the United Kingdom. In case you weren’t aware, this inquiry was launched in January 2011. The inquiry invited written submissions in response to the following:

  1. the impact of reduced capital funding on UK capability;
  2. the impact of withdrawal from international ground-based facilities (for example the Gemini Observatory and Isaac Newton Group of telescopes) on the UK’s research base and international reputation;
  3. whether the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has sufficiently engaged with its research community in these two areas on its strategic direction and impacts of budget reductions; and
  4. opportunities for, and threats to, outreach and inspiring the next generation of astronomers and particle physicists.

Well the written evidence is now all in, and it can be viewed online here (in quite a hefty PDF document).It’s all prefaced by an anodyne ramble by “the government”, which was presumably actually written by members of the STFC executive, but it makes interesting reading; some of the individual submissions don’t pull any punches, that’s for sure. I was quite surprised to see this blog get a mention too!  The disappointing thing is that many of them take a rather narrow view, but I suppose that’s a result of the rather specific nature of the questions.

The Chief Executive of STFC was himself called to give “oral evidence” to the Committee in January. You can find a  transcript of the whole session here, but I couldn’t resist the following snippet as an example of the inspirational power of Prof. Mason’s rhetoric:

Again, I am pretty comfortable that we are in a reasonable position going forward. You can never say never because unexpected things happen. Things might break which are major, but, by and large, as best we can plan it, we are in a reasonably good shape.

Now wonder rumours are circulating that he’s about to be moved sideways until he steps down next year. But who will take over? Be afraid. Be very afraid.

You can see a recording of the whole session here, but I wouldn’t recommend viewing it if you’re looking for reassurance about the future of astronomy in the UK.

Anyways, the next stage of the inquiry will be on Wednesday 9th March. Professor Roger Davies and Dame Jocelyn Bell Burnell will be going into bat for astronomy. I’ll post a report if I get time to watch their contributions.


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14 Responses to “Written Evidence”

  1. Bryn Jones Says:

    A few of the written submissions to the Science and Technology inquiry look a bit like adverts for research groups or research projects.

    What particularly disappointed me about the submissions is that there was minimal (or zero?) input from postdoctoral researchers or PhD students. Their opinions are virtually absent. The relative lack of enthusiasm of postdoctoral researchers in British astronomy and physics to lobby for their own interests is startling.

  2. telescoper Says:

    Agreed. But I’m not sure how many of them knew that submissions were being sought…

  3. Bryn, Peter

    As usual, particle physics academics went for a single unified submission, whereas there were plenty of independent submissions from astro academics – UK based and overseas – that raised many common points. A pity about the absence of submissions from junior staff, but understandable given the specific questions posed by S&T ctte, no?

    Two submissions raised the apparent secrecy regarding the omission from STFC’s website of Council minutes since early 2010. These were added late last night, although details of STFC negotiations with ESO over VISTA penalty were redacted. January 2011 minutes make interesting reading (esp. Sect 6.3 reaction to CSR through Sect 6.5 Lessons learnt). Mind you, does anyone know the identity of the “influential blogs” referred to by Terry O’Connor?

    Click to access 250111Mins.pdf

    A second evidence session to take place on Wed 16th.

    • telescoper Says:

      Modesty forbids.

    • Bryn Jones Says:

      My view is that a variety of submissions repeating the same important points is more likely to convey a basic message to the committee members, so I’m happy with what the astronomical community has done.

      Many postdocs seem wary of speaking out for fear of causing offence which might in turn adversely affect their future career prospects. There was a lot more input from postdocs into the specific inquiry into short-term contracts in science back in 2002, although I never found out what the leadership of my then research group thought of my submission …

    • i was surprised by how few departmental submissions were made – i thought there were ~30 astro groups in the UK receiving STFC funding – but i only counted about ~5-6 institutional letters.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, I was disappointed there was no Cardiff one for example….

    • The opportunity was given for Astro Forum members, and through them the wider academic community, to submit their opinions via the RAS submission, or separately to IOP via HoDs. However, I suspect most didn’t have the energy to make a fuss..

    • telescoper Says:

      I think not all Heads of Schools attend the Forum and not all that do pass the information onto their staff…

  4. Seems the head of operations at UKIRT has only just found out about this government inquiry and far too late to think about a contribution. No disrespect meant, Peter, but I’m astonished I have to learn about this from your blog.

    Tom

    • telescoper Says:

      Quite.

      I also wish I’d posted something about it sooner, then more people might have commented…

  5. I’d argue that there were enough submissions from astro community, since submissions get distilled down to key recurring points by ctte specialists before they’re passed onto MPs for background to oral evidence sessions.

    FWIW inquiry was mentioned at 26 Jan Forum, followed by email from RAS president (aka Forum Chair) to all university reps (not universally heads of school) on 27 Jan requesting input for RAS submission by 4 Feb, so those unable to attend Forum will have received requests for input. If your rep doesn’t pass on summary of meeting to academic staff, you should ask them why not. Also on 26 Jan, Taj Panesor at IOP requested input from academics across UK physics community (their Science Board *and* heads of department). Again, if your HoD didn’t pass IOP request onto you, ask them why not…

    Non academic groups can check on developments in the `usual’ place, via website or twitter feed. One shouldn’t expect STFC to solicit e.g. observatory sites for submissions.

  6. […] Professor Mike Barlow‘s contribution to the written evidence submitted to the House of Common’s inquiry into particle physics and astronomy reminded me […]

  7. […] video of the meeting of the House of Commons Science & Technology Committee I referred to in a previous post, but then, being a confirmed Luddite,  I rarely manage to get such things to work properly anyway. […]

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