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Tuesday, 12 February, 2002, 13:21 GMT
UK astronomy funding squeeze
Astronomy is popular but can we afford it?
By BBC News Online science editor Dr David Whitehouse

British astronomers are facing a cash squeeze with many of them being unable to carry out front-line research.

This is the warning from the recently established Astronomy Grant Panel (AGP), the body that awards money for research projects on behalf of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc).


Everyone wants a share of the nation's astronomy research money and there is not enough to go around

UK astronomer
Just over half of research proposals that were rated as world-class received money, something that the AGP says is a matter for "grave concern".

Some astronomers are pressing PParc to find more money in the future. Others are saying that perhaps Britain has too many astronomers, and that some of them should raise money from non-governmental sources.

In the recent round of research grant allocations 94 projects were considered worthy of being supported, but the money available meant that only about half were funded.

"With deep regret and disappointment, we were unable to fund many scientific projects," said the AGP.

Life-blood

In recent years there has been a decline in the number of astronomy projects that PParc has been able to support.

Professor Mike Bode of Liverpool John Moores University, who is chairman of the AGP, told BBC News Online: "We really need a large injection of cash into the grant line. Basically PParc needs an uplift."

According to Professor Bode, there are two reasons why British astronomers find themselves short of cash.

Even though the amount of research money has kept pace with inflation, there has been a big increase in demand for research money, and the cost of each project has increased as well.

Scientists are concerned because they see such research grants as the "life-blood" of academic research.

However, some observers of Britain's scientific scene say that the cash problem is a self-inflicted one.

"Behind this problem is the fact that fewer students want to do physics at university," said one insider.

"This has resulted in universities using the popular appeal of astronomy to entice students on to courses."

Swelling ranks

The result of this approach has been a 40% increase in the number of full-time astronomers in the UK over the past seven years. No other area of science has seen such an increase in numbers.

Professor Bode said: "A lot of these new astronomers are as a result of the big research groups, such as London, Cambridge and Oxford, expanding.

Astronomers say that some of them are from the smaller universities.

One astronomer was privately worried about this trend: "Some of the courses offered by these universities are in my view underhand.

"They have little academic value. We'll be having degree courses in astronomy and gastronomy next!

"But it does mean that everyone wants a share of the nation's astronomy research money and, frankly, there is not enough to go around," he added.

What happens next for British astronomers is uncertain but expecting a big increase in research money may be a forlorn hope.

Some have suggested that a sea-change is occurring in the way astronomy is funded.

"If astronomy is so popular that it attracts students then why should it not attract private funding or funding from other areas of academia?" said one astronomer.

"It's curious that after years of keeping themselves to themselves astronomers have suddenly discovered schools and education and the money in that."

See also:

04 Feb 02 | Sci/Tech
UK scientists face cutbacks
12 Apr 01 | Sci/Tech
British astronomy faces shake-up
23 Nov 00 | Sci/Tech
Observatory coup for UK astronomers
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