Since I wrote to you in early March we have had the RAS National Astronomy Meeting in Belfast, including the Community Meeting with the STFC leadership.I have met with Prof Bill Wakeham to discuss the RAS input to his review of physics ( please note the deadline for information we need from you) and with Ian Pearson, the Minister for Science, to make the case for additional funding for astronomy.
The NAM in Belfast was a great success. At the inaugural reception the Lord Mayor of Belfast gave an enthusiastic speech of welcome and the fact that 650 of 'the world's experts on astronomy' had descended on Belfast was a major local story. As I waited for my flight at Heathrow Robert Massey phoned to say that the local TV station would meet me at the airport so that I could appear on their afternoon armchair show. I also had a call from Susan Watts asking if they could film our Community Meeting for Newsnight. We had over 150 media stories associated with the NAM, so congratulations to Robert and his team for this. The plenary lectures, parallel sessions and evening lectures were all of a very high standard. Our thanks to Alan Fitzsimmons and all at QUB for organising the NAM.
At the RAS Ordinary Meeting I gave a brief report on our activities over the past year
I know that those of you who are not funded by STFC, for example the geophysicists, our overseas members and our wider group of amateurs and supporters, will be pretty fed up with the STFC crisis and I thank you for your patience. You've been almost universally supportive.
While a good deal of this message concerns those fellows who depend on STFC funding I want to stress that the day to day activities of the Society - journals, meetings, outreach activities, responses to consultations on a variety of issues - have continued to cater for, and I believe, further the interests of a much wider section of the membership: overseas as well as UK based; amateur as well as professional; 'G' as well as a 'A'. Fr example I was pleased that we were able to help persuade HEFCE to include geophysics in their vulnerable subject initiative.
We've successfully moved back into our wonderfully refurbished premises at Burlington House and I do urge you to sample them when you are in London. The Fellows Room, with wifi access and comfortable chairs, is a pleasant place to work, relax or meet people. Our lecture room is an excellent space for about 100 people and smaller meetings can be held in the Council Room.
Our Education Committee passed an important milestone in December with the publication of our Kite-Marked Educational Resources Database, which helps teachers and pupils find their way through the mass of on-line material available. The RAS is the lead UK organisation for International Year of Astronomy 2009 and Ian Robson is leading an excellent team preparing for this. Our new International Committee has been formed, with Prof Mike Cruise as Chair. RAS membership has risen to 3300 but our goal is still to have all professional astronomers, space scientists, solar-system scientists and geophysicists as Fellows!
The awards ceremony was a great success. We had two PhD students reading out the citations, then the recipients were photographed and had the opportunity to say a few words. One fellow said to me afterwards that he was delighted with the ceremony and thought 'it was a joyous occasion'.
All through the CSR outcome process there have been strong criticisms of the way STFC have managed the crisis. RAS Council crystallized these criticisms into a statement issued on Feb 22nd 2008. STFC responded constructively and, for example, the RAS was invited to make proposals about how an STFC advisory structure should work. We know that the peer review process involved in the Programmatic Review is flawed by its short time-scale the lack of wider consultation, but we do now have an opportunity to try to correct this. I asked you to engage with the Programmatic Review Consultation and you have done this very impressively, with over 1200 responses received by STFC.
The Community Meeting was awaited with great anticipation. I gave a brief introduction, outlining the issues that I hoped would be addressed, then Keith Mason, John Womersley and Walter Gear gave brief talks. Keith addressed the issue of the allocation in detail and explained, fairly convincingly I thought, why a 13.6% increase translates to a level cash settlement. I think he also convinced me at least that the cuts were falling evenly on astronomy, particle physics and the labs.However he tried to imply that we should think of the academic staff FTE's being paid for by fEC as support additional to the postdocs being funded. This has not gone down well and is widely felt to be very misleading. He missed the opportunity to apologize for STFC's handling of the crisis. John Womersley talked mainly about the Programmatic Review Consultation. I was disappointed that he did not announce that the final ordered list would be done jointly between PPAN and the ad hoc panel chairs, but I still hope that something like this will happen.
Walter Gear talked about the difficult task faced by PPAN and also their dismay at allegations (in the Times) of personal bias. He warned of the danger of scientists attacking the peer review process. We then had a lengthy question session and some excellent points were made from the audience. Keith wanted to answer every question at length and he and John tended to be simultaneously combative and defensive. The final question was from a PhD student 'Why should I continue in astronomy?'. I asked all the panel to answer this and it did mean that we ended on a slightly positive note.
Many of you will have seen the Newsnight programme, which included interviews with Martin Rees, Patrick Moore, Bernard Lovell, Ian Pearson, Keith Mason, myself, and several others. Although in some respects simplistic I thought Susan Watts got the overall story across very well in a short time. For once, Ian Pearson did not try to say there were no cuts. Keith implied that the only problem was that the community did not like change, which is very unfair.
On April 15th Andy Fabian, David Elliott and I met Prof Bill Wakeham and he outlined some of the information he wants from us. He seems to accept the case that astronomy should be supported, but he kept saying how difficult it is to decide what the level of that funding should be. This will be our hardest task, to convince him that the 2007 level was about right and that the 2010 level is too low. He may well query whether departments of physics which have almost all their research funding from PPARC/STFC are being wise and he may query whether some of the smaller departments are viable.
There are some very specific questions Prof Wakeham has asked us for data on, for which we need input from you:
Please send this information very urgently to David Elliott (de @ ras.org.uk). We are asked to supply as much information as possible by May 7th.
I met the Minister for Science, Ian Pearson, on April 23rd. He was accompanied by his DIUS adviser, Paul Williams, and his Private Secretary. Prior to this I had a detailed briefing from Richard Wade on STFC's developing funding plans, so in my meeting with Ian Pearson I therefore focussed on the university grants problem. I argued that the rise in astronomy postdocs from 210 in 2002 to 329 in 2007 was justified, partly on the basis of the growth of UK GDP, which has moved the UK from the 4th largest contributor to ESO to the 2nd largest, so exploitation support should also grow, and partly by the growth in the number of astronomy academics in UK Physics departments, from 450 in 2001 to 543 in 2007. The latter growth reflects the desire of Physics Departments to retain their student numbers and try to increase them, in response to the Government's declared goals.
I said that I did not expect that pure science areas of physics like astronomy and particle physics should do any better than other areas of physics, but that I saw no evidence in public statements by ministers that they intended to enforce a severer drop in programme volume on basic science like astronomy and particle physics. I suggested that the allocation to STFC was in error by about 1%, or £20m, that an adjustment of this order would allow astronomy postdoc numbers to stabilize at 300 in 2010-11, and would give parity between PPAN science and EPSRC.
Pearson and Williams made it clear that there was no possibility of an adjustment of this kind at this point. The whole science budget has been transferred to the research councils. However at mid-financial-year (September), at which time Wakeham will also have reported, there would be the possibility of adjustments, especially if there have been underspends. Of course we would have to make a very strong case for this.
To conclude. It's been a privilege to represent you for the past two years. I thank RAS Council, the RAS Executive Secretary, David Elliott, and our Policy and Press Officer, Robert Massey, for their support.
Finally, I remained convinced that astronomy, space science, solar system science, geophysics, and the RAS itself, have a great future.