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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19 Responses to 2012: The apocalypse for UK optical astronomy

  1. Anonymous says:

    Radio Astronomy
    Actually, radio astronomy didn’t do too well either. Funding for UK LOFAR was axed (and not even mentioned in the document). Funding for the UK’s involvement in JIVE was chopped. They stated that e-MERLIN would continue to be funded as per previous agreements but that means that STFC are reducing their funding to zero over the next 2-3 years. SKA development has been slowed down so that spending can be pushed into the future. The future looks bleak.
    Stuart

  2. invaderxan says:

    Gladly. Added. :)

  3. sandalfon says:

    My friend Atomicat posted about you. I added you to my friend’s list and wish you would do the same. Thanks.

  4. invaderxan says:

    Re: PS
    Pah. No kidding!

  5. invaderxan says:

    Science and Technology Foreclosing Council… Thanks. That gave me a wry smile. :)
    The stupidest thing about them ditching UKIRT is that they’re contractually bound to remove the entire observatory and return the area to a pristine condition (Mauna Kea is a sacred site in Hawaii). Somehow, I don’t think that’s going to be cheap or trivial to accomplish!
    I was rather pinning my hopes on the WHT as being the only reasonably large telescope we’d still have access to up North after all of this. But seemingly, that isn’t to be…

  6. invaderxan says:

    That alone speaks volumes…

  7. invaderxan says:

    As far as I can see, it’s pretty much only physics that’s bearing the brunt of all of this…

  8. invaderxan says:

    I know, right?

  9. invaderxan says:

    Re: PS
    I was thinking precisely that, actually. Nearby supernovae… hyperhovae… quark stars… terrestrial planets… unique variables…. evidence of extraterrestrial life… There are all manner of things which could be discovered at any time. For every single researcher in our country to not be able to see them because of governmental politics seems like incredible short-sightedness to me. Not least for a country who used to be one of the world’s leaders in astronomy.
    I wish you the best of luck in the coming months, my friend. Don’t worry. I’m sure you’ll land on your feet, wherever it may be that you do so.

  10. invaderxan says:

    Re: Saw this…
    Yeah, it’s really rather disconcerting. I had expected better of the government really, given the outcry that’s been going on for the past couple of years now. It’s almost as if they aren’t listening…

  11. Anonymous says:

    Here because of a conversation about what red quarks taste like. It’s nice to know the universe tastes like a warm summer party and not bitter or sour, that would be so depressing. As a photographer and science/astronomy geek I found the portraits very interesting. Gods, that sunrise at Stonehenge is the sort of shot I dream of getting! Absolutely stunning, I’d love to have a big print of that on my wall.
    Your blog is a great look inside the world of astronomy, well written and informative. You’ve far too few readers, I’ll have to do something about that. :D

  12. davidnm says:

    I have to resist the temptation to write something sarcastic about STFC, although given the number they’ve done on UK astronomy they may as well be the Science and Technology Foreclosing Council.
    So … if they’re going to ditch UKIRT, will it have to be renamed, I wonder? The Non-UKIRT, perhaps.
    And as for ditching the WHT … that seems halfwitted, quite frankly.

  13. I don’t have sufficient expletives.

  14. From what I can tell, the UK seems to be shafting physics in general. Not sure how other sciences are fairing!

  15. Anonymous says:

    Re: PS
    A lot of astronomy can be done just in one hemisphere, especially cosmological stuff, i.e., looking at the “big picture”. On the other hand those looking to understand our own Galaxy might be a little upset by this, and all hell will be let loose if a supernova or unique astronomical event occurs in the north that UK astronomers won’t be able to study.
    And to give up a world-beating IR survey years before it’s complete? Moronic to say the least. We’ve also just handed over the next big thing in astronomy to our competitors, discovering earth-like planets around other stars. This is something the UK could have led.
    On another matter, this is a disaster for students and postdocs trying to make a career in astrophysics. One thing that I haven’t seen mentioned so far is that it’s also a disaster for those approaching middle-age who have made a career working at STFC funded facilities that will close. Job opportunities are going to be limited for both groups.
    Tom

  16. beepbeep says:

    PS
    Are they just sort of gambling that the northern part of the universe won’t hold anything important? Not like it’s a really large place, or anything like that.

  17. beepbeep says:

    Saw this…
    http://www.canspice.org/2009/12/16/the-death-of-ukirt/
    Looks terrible.
    I wrote about it on my econ blog last night. I’m so sorry for all the people who are being victimized by a stubborn refusal to find what is a small amount of money compared with your government’s overall budget.
    I hope you will be ok. Glad you are not talking about the need to go into banking…

  18. pax_athena says:

    I don’t know a lot about the UK science politics, but that’s really scary – from here it always looks like you are actually better off than we are and I know a number of really good people who went over for their PhD or PostDocs … Sorry to hear that! And uhm, I’m pretty much scared now, because the guys here tend to use things alike to justify cuts in our budgets. Argh …

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