Memorandum submitted by the Royal Astronomical
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
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