Page last updated at 17:43 GMT, Thursday, 19 June 2008 18:43 UK

Jodrell Bank future looks better

Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank (Getty)
Jodrell Bank in Cheshire is home to the Lovell Telescope

The future of eMerlin, a crucial upgrade to the world-famous Jodrell Bank observatory, in Cheshire, is starting to look brighter.

Its ranking has been raised in a review of science priorities for the body overseeing UK astronomy and physics.

The project is seen by many as vital to the future of Jodrell Bank and to radio astronomy in the country overall.

But the UK's "space weather" programmes face a bleak future at this point in the review process.

The scientific worth of projects in the UK's portfolio is being assessed as the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) attempts to find £80m of savings through to 2011.

Even if the rankings haven't changed there's now very little in the bottom tier, because of the way they have split it
Prof Paul Crowther, University of Sheffield

The physics and astronomy funding body says its settlement from government left it no choice in the matter.

But the budget hole has plunged these disciplines into crisis, putting at risk a number of current science projects and the recent growth in research grants.

The new rankings are contained in the responses of two major STFC committees to a consultation exercise with the scientific community.

When the STFC committees prioritised their projects earlier this year, scientists protested about the lack of consultation they had received.

The committees invited 10 ad hoc expert panels to re-prioritise projects on scientific merit, taking in recommendations from the wider community.

Rise and fall

The STFC's Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear Physics Science Committee (PPAN) and the Physical and Life Sciences Committee (PALS) have now issued their responses.

But the decisions are not final, and the STFC makes its final decision on 8 July.

In terms of particle physics, extensive lobbying from scientists in the wider community is credited with raising the priority of the LHCb project, one of the experiments that form the Large Hadron Collider (LHC) facility at Cern in Switzerland.

It moved up from an original "medium-lower" categorisation to its new status of Alpha 4 - the second highest ranking possible.

But according to Paul Crowther, professor of astrophysics at the University of Sheffield, the PPAN committee appears to have largely rejected the advice of its ad hoc panels on the UK's astronomy programmes.

Professor Andrew Fabian, the new president of the Royal Astronomical Society, told BBC News: "It's not much different to what was there before, but there are a few notable changes which we welcome.

"But overall, the ranking is rather similar. And it's notable for the number of things they have not taken up from the ad hoc panels rather than the things they have."

Changed categories

eMerlin and several other projects have benefitted from a re-arrangement of the categories used to prioritise projects.

The lowest category of projects has been slashed in two, lifting some programmes - including eMerlin and the Gemini observatory - out of the "relegation zone" and increasing the total number of categories from four to five.

What we don't want to happen is that, in a year's time, more projects are dropped strictly according to this prioritisation
Prof Andrew Fabian, University of Cambridge

"Even if the rankings haven't changed there's now very little in the bottom tier, because of the way they have split it," Professor Crowther told BBC News.

But the field of science dedicated to understanding "space weather" looks set to be wiped out in the UK.

However, in practice, one of those "solar-terrestrial physics" programmes, Eiscat, will continue until at least 2011, because the UK cannot renege on its commitments to international partners.

"There is some concern about how this prioritisation list will be used henceforth," said Professor Fabian, from the University of Cambridge.

"I hope that if there is a need for more prioritisation, then [STFC] will set up advisory structures for consultation first and when these have reported, produce a priority list. What we don't want to happen is that, in a year's time, more projects are dropped strictly according to this prioritisation."

Planetary missions

Planetary scientists received some good news, with the Stereo and Hinode missions to the Sun both receiving an elevation in priority.

An instrument for the European Bepi-Colombo Mercury mission, scheduled to leave Earth in 2013, retained its low priority tag.

But one scientist close to the mission told BBC News that funding this instrument was unlikely to be dropped because it was protected by a memorandum of understanding with the European Space Agency (Esa).

In January, Esa also signed a 350m-euro (£260m) deal with EADS Astrium that will lead to the production of the spacecraft's main structure in the UK.

"I think it's too far downstream to do anything with those, but I think if the UK were to pull out of Bepi altogether on the science side, it could make those industrial activities look rather exposed," the source told the BBC.

The Gemini telescopes have been raised to the same category as eMerlin. But both the ad hoc panel and PPAN said that 50% of the UK's observing time on the telescopes should be sold to other countries in order to retain access to the Gemini North observatory.

Gemini North is the only facility allowing UK astronomers to observe the northern sky with the largest class of telescope.



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