2012: The apocalypse for UK optical astronomy

Well, the STFC announced their delightful set of reprioritisations today. The outlook? Not good. Especially not for those of us who’re still early in our scientific careers.

I haven’t had a chance to look over it properly myself yet (a prioritisation document is here, in case anyone else wants to), however, I’m reliably informed that, essentially, assuming there are no changes made, by 2012 UK astronomers are going to be without access to any large optical telescopes in the entire Northern Hemisphere. I’m fairly sure I’m not the only person who finds this utterly ridiculous.

Access to Gemini will remain until the end of 2012, when its contract will not be renewed. The William Herschel Telescope, too, will be ditched in 2012. The armageddon isn’t confined to the optical wavelength range in 2012, either, with the James Clark Maxwell submillimetre telescope, and the LIGO gravitational wave project are due to expire then too. Most concerningly is UKIRT, which is “pending discussion”. In other words, someone somewhere wants to shut it down as quickly as possible. Given that UKIRT is possibly one of the most successful investments into astronomy the UK has ever made, this makes me rather sad. This essentially means that the UKIDSS survey may never finish, and the proposed UKIRT Planet Finder mission will probably never even begin.

There’s more info here and here.

This whole thing has the biggest impact on people like myself, at the beginning of our research careers.

A fellow blogger at In The Dark, elaborates that the new budget includes:

…another 10% cut in research grants to universities (on top of the 25% we already had) to reduce the amount of “exploitation”, plus 25% cuts in the number of PhD students and fellowships “mirroring the overall reduction in the programme”. I read that as meaning that STFC wants, in the long term, about 25% of the astronomers in the UK to go somewhere else and, preferably, never come back.

I have to agree with him too, that the STFC’s tagline of “Investing in the Future” is starting to look incredibly ironic.

Mercifully for people like myself, being interdisciplinary has its benefits. My own funding comes from the EPSRC and not the STFC, and I suppose I toe the line sufficiently, that I could find a job in chemistry if need be… But should I really have to alter my life plans? Interestingly, Lord Drayson, the UK’s minister for science and innovation is on record as saying that the overall budget “…has grown by 13.6% in the three years ending 2010/11.” Interesting, because one has to wonder where precisely it all went.

I still can’t help but feel that this whole thing would never have happened if PPARC were still holding the purse strings. Perhaps now is a good time to consider going into radio astronomy…

About Invader Xan

Molecular astrophysicist, usually found writing frenziedly, staring at the sky, or drinking mojitos.
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