Astronomers go ballistic about science budget

November 6, 1998

Astronomers have reacted angrily to last week's science budget allocations, describing them as a "disaster for pure science" and questioning the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council's ability to represent the community in future funding fights.

The allocations, announced last week, saw an increase of just 0.55 per cent in real terms for PPARC's domestic budget over the next three years. This compared to increases in real terms ranging from 2.5 to 6.8 per cent for the other research councils.

Carlos Frenk, professor of astrophysics at Durham University, called the standstill allocation for PPARC "a catastrophe". "It's a disaster for pure science," he said. "Most people in astronomy and particle physics feel something has gone very, very badly wrong.

"There was an opportunity to put right the decline of the past ten years, but somehow pure science has not done as well as expected. I think it's very short-sighted to let these areas decline. There are very few things in which the UK still holds the world lead. Astronomy is one of them. What this means is in five years' time, I won't be able to say that."

Richard Ellis, professor of astronomy at Cambridge University, said he felt "betrayed". "The message we get from this is that astronomy and particle physics are the last priority for the government. It's very disheartening at a time when astronomy is making such progress. Compared to the doom and gloom we had before, level funding is better than nothing, but if you look at it like a football league table, astronomy and particle physics have been relegated."

Professor Ellis said there was real concern over PPARC's ability to fight astronomy and particle physics's case. "We feel that if PPARC can't fight our corner in the comprehensive spending review, we are very worried about their ability to represent us in the joint infrastructure fund."

He added that astronomers were also upset by the way the savings made through the closure of the Royal Greenwich Observatory were being portrayed in the allocations as extra money for PPARC. "Those savings are very modest indeed," he said. "The astronomy community has suffered very greatly by the restructuring of the observatories. It is doubly cruel that that argument is being used against us."

Following last week's announcement, PPARC issued a press release welcoming the allocation. The release has been questioned by some in the community as well as within PPARC itself.

This week John Love, director of administration at PPARC, said: "I can understand the feelings of the community. We would have clearly liked to have had a significantly larger allocation. But we are not in the decision-making process. PPARC made its arguments very effectively to government, and I think they were understood."

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