Research intelligence - Reach for the sky

Royal Astronomical Society's new chief calls for farsighted and bold research funding. Paul Jump reports

September 2, 2010

The presidency of the Royal Astronomical Society is clearly a prestigious role.

But few will envy Roger Davies what he sees as his main task of advocating for government spending on expensive blue-sky research at a time when countless billions of pounds look like being sucked into the black hole of deficit reduction.

Nevertheless, Professor Davies, who began his two-year term as RAS president in May, is relishing the role. For one thing, it will allow him more time for his own research as his five-year term as chair of the University of Oxford physics department comes to an end.

"Being president of the RAS is a responsibility and something you want to do a good job of, but it's not like running a £35 million department," he told Times Higher Education.

Notwithstanding the Royal Academy of Engineering's "very unfortunate" recent submission to the government spending review - which argued that the need to rebalance the UK economy required public spending to be concentrated on applied science - Professor Davies is confident he can make a good case for spending on astrophysics to be protected.

Research with market potential can already access funding from venture capitalists, he argued, while cautioning the government against attempting to predict the economic impact of different subjects.

"Do (people at the) RAEng really know where big winners are going to be?" Professor Davies asked. "If so, why are they fiddling about?"

He suggested public money was best used to fund research that would have a "bubbling-up effect" of new, economically exploitable ideas. "My personal view is that is much more likely to be blue-sky research than engineering," he said.

Professor Davies said it was ironic that the RAEng had particularly picked on particle physics, because the Large Hadron Collider at Cern is exactly the kind of pure science project that drives innovation in engineering.

Another important economic benefit of both particle and astrophysics, according to the RAS president, is their role in attracting young people into science.

"They then get equally fascinated by other things and end up working in other important areas such as meteorology, transport systems and alternative or nuclear energy," he said.

He also thinks astronomy's case for continued investment is bolstered by its ability to warn of risks from "near-Earth objects", which he sees as the modern equivalent of its "big economic contribution" in the 18th century: the measurement of time and longitude at sea.

But surely foreign astronomers could inspire students and do all the sky-scanning?

"That is true at some level, but the UK is second only to the US in space science and you have to ask yourself in how many other areas we can say that," Professor Davies replied.

He pointed out that UK astronomy is already in a uniquely precarious position because of the well-publicised financial problems of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. The rising cost of running facilities has resulted in a 35 per cent fall in the grant funding available to astronomy, with postdoctoral numbers set to fall to half their 2007 levels by 2012.

"People on short-term contracts are most vulnerable to the cuts, but they are also the future of the subject. We have to do as much as we can to protect things like fellowships and studentships," Professor Davies said.

But he added that UK investment in future international facilities was also crucial in the wake of the country's recent withdrawal from several existing ones.

"In my own field of optical infrared astronomy, British astronomers will have no access to telescopes in the northern hemisphere from 2012: that is pretty dramatic," he said.

"We expect further cuts but if they're at the top end of the figures we've been hearing about, the subject would be devastated."

Professor Davies said he was encouraged by measures announced earlier this year by the previous Labour science minister, Lord Drayson, to protect the STFC from currency fluctuations and to ask other research councils to contribute towards the cost when researchers they fund use its facilities.

But Professor Davies said its primary focus on facilities also made the STFC loath to speak up for the subjects it funds, which also include particle and nuclear physics.

"The Medical Research Council doesn't have any qualms about saying: 'Invest in our subjects because they're good things,'" he said. "But the STFC doesn't do that. It's very disappointing and it only makes my job harder."

paul.jump@tsleducation.com.

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