NERC deal could rescue ground-based solar physics

February 4, 2008

A deal to save the UK’s solar terrestrial physics, the branch of science that studies “space weather”, could be on the cards, according to one of Parliament’s leading science campaigners.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council announced late last year that it was to axe the ground-based component of the subject as part of swingeing cuts to physics and astronomy.

But Times Higher Education has learnt that Phil Willis MP, the Liberal Democrat chair of the Innovation, Universities and Skills Select Committee, has floated the possibility of the Natural Environment Research Council taking over funding of the research.

Mr Willis said he had approached Alan Thorpe, chief executive of the NERC, to see if the research council would “in principle” be prepared to take on the community within its remit on environmental earth observation. “He indicated that he would – in principle – and certainly Keith Mason [chief executive of the STFC] has also indicated in principle that he would be happy for this to happen,” Mr Willis said.

He added that the STFC would need to transfer the remaining funding for the subject to the NERC and that any programmes would need to be peer reviewed by the takeover council, but he did not see why this was not possible. “It really is a matter of negotiation,” said Mr Willis, emphasising his desire to find a solution.

But Professor Thorpe said there were no plans afoot. “There is no deal being negotiated with the NERC on this,” his spokeswoman said.

Michael Rowan Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, said: “It would be perfectly appropriate for some of this work to be funded by the NERC.”

Jim Wild, a solar terrestrial physicist based at Lancaster University, said: “Given the circumstances, our community would welcome any moves that would secure a future for our world-class science.”

The STFC’s relationship with scientists has come close to breaking point in recent weeks. Late last month, solar terrestrial physicists passed a vote of no confidence in the leadership and decision-making of the council.

“We request a change of the structures, and individuals in the STFC council, responsible for the current failure,” said the Magnetosphere Ionosphere and Solar-Terrestrial Community Group.

Astronomers also learnt last month that they would lose access to the Gemini telescope in the northern hemisphere. Attempts by the STFC to cut a deal to retain access but withdraw from the sister telescope in the southern hemisphere was rejected by international partners. The STFC is now preparing to formally withdraw from both, leaving it with a penalty payment of £7 million but a subscription saving of £24 million.

Mr Willis said he was particularly concerned about the impact of the cuts on the UK’s international standing. He described a recent evidences session in which Professor Mason gave evidence to his committee as “hugely unsatisfactory”.

“The whole session left a lot of questions unanswered,” he said, adding that there were contradictory messages from the community and the STFC on the level of consultation. A further session with Ian Pearson, the Minister for Science and Innovation, is due to take place on 20 February.

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