Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Royal Astronomical Society

  The Royal Astronomical Society covers both Astronomy and Geophysics and represents two linked communities. The Society's interests span a range including the solid earth, the solar system, stars, galaxies and cosmology. The RAS also publishes two leading journals, Monthly Notices and Geophysical Journal International, as well as Astronomy & Geophysics. The two grant awarding research councils with which the RAS is connected are PPARC and NERC.

  Most of our interests are in basic (as opposed to strategic) research, without immediate applications to wealth creation. We regard it as extremely important that such research should be adequately supported, so that the UK can maintain its internationally competitive position in astronomy and geophysics. We were therefore extremely pleased by the enhanced funding announced in the recent Science Budget. We hope that this will allow research councils to protect their grant lines against inroads made by large projects. Maintaining a balance between small and large projects, and between experiments and theory, requires a carefully structured committee system.

  We draw the Committee's attention to the recent review International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy which provides an external assessment of UK research in astronomy. This report lists many of the sub-fields of astrophysics and solar physics in which UK scientists are active and successful. The panel also made a careful assessment of the future decisions that must be made by the community of astrophysicists and solar physicists. These concerned, in particular, the need for international collaboration on the major new ground-based and space facilities that will be required to progress in these areas. The Royal Astronomical Society gave strong support to PPARC's bid for funding to allow the UK to join the European Southern Observatory and we welcomed the decision by OST to provide the additional funding that is needed. We are also pleased to see the emphasis on computation, through the GRID development, with plans for a "Virtual Observatory", as well as through provision of high-performance computing facilities.

  The RAS, in collaboration with PPARC, has made a study of Demographic Trends in Astronomy and Geophysics. The number of astronomers in university posts has risen, owing to the creating of departments of physics and astronomy. We are, however, concerned to maintain the number and quality of university staff in these subjects. Academic careers are becoming less attractive in comparison with opportunities in financial services and computing, owing to low salaries and increases in external bureaucratic pressures. There is already a serious drop in the number of UK students starting on research in physical sciences. It is to be hoped that the recently announced increases in their stipends (which we welcome) will be in time to reverse this trend.

  A major concern of the Society is the publication of its journals. At the moment they are very successful but it is clear that, as a result of electronic publishing, scientific journals will undergo major changes over the coming decade. Although the nature of these changes cannot yet be predicted, we are confident that there will still be a need to publish properly refereed papers in archival journals. It is to be hoped that the research councils will be prepared, if necessary, to assist learned societies in coping with the changes that lie ahead.

  The Society is also active in promoting the public understanding of science and we strongly support efforts by OST and the research councils in this direction. The aim should be not only to improve public awareness of scientific issues, but also to promote the achievements of British scientists in the eyes of the world. Since the research councils are at the forefront of all big science in the UK, they are well placed to carry out this programme.

12 January 2001

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