Astronomical figures

October 27, 1994

It costs the United Kingdom about Pounds 90 million a year to belong to the European Space Agency and to Cern, the European particle physics laboratory. The exact cost is uncertain because it depends on changes in inflation and foreign currency rates. For the UK, both influences tend to push the fees upwards. Since the creation of the new research councils the payer of these fees has been the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

It has been argued that international subscriptions should be shifted out of the science budget and into that of the Foreign Office. But the Government dismissed this in its White Paper on science, saying that the subscriptions must be seen as part of our scientific endeavour.

The PPARC now says it is reaching crisis point. It pays so much to Cern that it cannot afford to exploit the results coming out of it. It pays so much to ESA that it cannot afford to build instruments to put on ESA missions -- although it is the instruments that yield the new science, and the applications and prestige that accompany it .

In the White Paper, the Government suggested another way out of this problem: to handle international subscriptions within the science budget as a whole, so that "the council does not have to cope entirely within its own grant-in-aid with short-term variations in international subscriptions which arise for reasons beyond its control". Instead, the opposite happened: PPARC was set up to free the rest of the science budget from being pole-axed by Cern and ESA, as had happened when they were paid for by the former Science and Engineering Research Council.

PPARC is attempting to bring subscriptions to the ESA down in the long term by calling for the abolition of "juste retour". This is the principle by which each European country reaps a percentage of commercial benefit that equals the percentage of their subscription. This principle is preventing the ESA from choosing the cheapest bid, says PPARC.

But this campaign must not cloud the more urgent issue: PPARC needs stability. It must be helped, along the lines proposed in the White Paper, before the plans of British physicists and astronomers are destroyed.

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