Page last updated at 17:25 GMT, Friday, 4 April 2008 18:25 UK

Astronomers 'must make own case'

By Paul Rincon
Science reporter, BBC News, Belfast

Keith Mason (Image: BBC)
Professor Keith Mason defended the STFC's funding process

Astronomers must make the best case for their subject to government if they are to stave off further funding woes.

That was one of the messages from Keith Mason, head of the funding body for UK astronomy, when he addressed a scientific meeting in Belfast.

Administrators have cut projects and research grants as they attempt to plug an 80m hole in their finances.

But there may be some good news for one project called eMerlin, a network of seven giant astronomy dishes.

The eMerlin project was previously graded as being of "low priority" by the Science & Technology Facilities Council (STFC), of which Professor Mason is chief executive.

The president of the Royal Astronomical Society (RAS), Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, told the audience in Belfast he understood the project was now no longer threatened.

This would come as a boost to Jodrell Bank in Cheshire, home to the Lovell Telescope, which is one of the sites in the eMerlin network.

Lovell radio telescope (Getty Images)
The eMerlin project, which uses the Lovell telescope, has a brighter future

Its scientists have been working on eMerlin since 2002, at a cost of more than 2m-a-year, and closure of the project would have hit the centre badly.

The STFC has faced vociferous, sustained and organised opposition to many of its recent decisions from parts of its community.

Astronomers are angry not just at the cuts, but at the process used to assess which programmes stay and which go.

The process is ongoing and the council has now set up several advisory boards to the main panel of scientists carrying out the review, as many had been calling on them to do. The final outcome should be known by June or July.

Scientists and salesmen

When news of likely cuts to certain programmes was announced earlier this year, the STFC process was branded as short-sighted and unsustainable by some.

This is because there is a perception that high-profile projects have been saved, while lower profile areas of basic research, which feed into and support these very same applied programmes, have been axed.

I think we are actually suffering a shrinkage in our resources for which I see no intellectual justification
Professor Carlos Frenk,
University of Durham

But in an interview with the BBC News website, Professor Mason refuted these suggestions: "Everything we do has a very high blue-skies content - it's in the nature of the research we do.

"That is not the issue at all; the issue is to put the research base on a sustainable basis. We need to do more pure research, more fundamental research."

The STFC chief executive added: "We do not want to convert scientists into salesmen. Quite the contrary. We want to leave them doing the thing they do best, which is the research.

"But we have to put in mechanisms to capture those new ideas to benefit the economy. And if we can benefit the economy, we can afford to invest more in research, so everybody wins."

Sending signals

Dr Paul Crowther, an astronomer from the University of Sheffield, said he agreed with the government's strategy of making science in universities "more directly beneficial to the economy in the short-term".

But he told BBC News: "It is subjects like astronomy and particle physics that really motivate students towards studying science at university. The signals being sent out now are negative ones towards blue skies and fundamental research.

"If you want to have a knowledge-based economy and a scientifically-literate country, you have to invest - at a relatively moderate level compared to other areas of science - in fundamental science."

Addressing astronomers at the National Astronomy Meeting (Nam) in Belfast, Professor Mason said: "I get really fed up with people saying the astronomy programme is on its last legs and everything's doom-and-gloom and terrible."

Delegates at the annual National Astronomy Meeting, Belfast (Image: BBC)
A number of scientists said astronomy was not being rewarded properly

And he warned them: "There's a real danger that that sort of talk becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.

"Certainly in government circles, things that attract money are successful things, not failing things."

He later added: "Let's not paint a big target on our chests."

John Womersley, STFC's director of science strategy, reiterated this point: "I think it's been good that the community has been able to... explain how the loss of science is a bad thing."

But he added: "You should ask yourselves when you are critical of STFC's management whether that is actually a route to getting more money given to STFC.

"If you say there is incompetence and corruption in our processes, is that something that government is going to reward with more money? I suspect not."

Professor Andy Fabian, from the University of Cambridge, branded the comments by Dr Womersley "patronising".

Reaping benefits

Carlos Frenk, professor of astronomy at the University of Durham, said: "We all know the economy has grown in real terms quite considerably over the last decade - well above inflation.

"So why are we assuming that we should not, as a cutting edge scientific activity, participate of the increase in the wealth of the nation?

"I think we are actually suffering a shrinkage in our resources for which I see no intellectual justification," Professor Frenk added.

"It runs against all the rhetoric from the government, so I believe something has gone wrong. I don't for one minute accept the argument that we should be pleased with the level of funding we had 10 years ago."

The STFC's problems emerged from the government's last spending round which left the council short of 80m in the three-year budget plan to 2011.

In order to manage its way out of the crisis, the STFC announced its intention to close certain programmes and cut research grants.

Science societies and union officials warned the damage to UK physics and astronomy would be incalculable and would lead to hundreds of job losses.

The STFC was formed as a new research council in April 2007 through a merger of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PParc).

In Belfast, Professor Womersley refuted suggestions from the community that many of the current problems stemmed from bungling of the merger between STFC and CCLRC.

"I was on the science committee for PParc, and the spreadsheet looking into the future was not doing fine at all.

"A flat-cash PParc would have been one that would not have been able to afford the International Linear Collider."

The Royal Astronomical Society National Astronomy Meeting ran from 31 March to 4 April at Queen's University Belfast.

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