Scientist says bias cut space allocation

December 20, 2002

One of the UK's leading scientists has told MPs that research council bias may be depriving the space-science community of government funding.

Fred Taylor, head of atmospheric, oceanic and planetary physics at Oxford University, claimed that ground-based astronomy and particle and field research were being disproportionately well supported by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

In a memorandum published in a House of Commons science and technology select committee report, he called on MPs to look into whether Pparc and its peer-review system had allowed and encouraged "the operation of cartels among those who draw upon its resources, with the result that funding has been unduly biased towards certain fields".

"The outstanding example of a modern field which is being starved in the UK relative to other European countries is that of planetary science."

Professor Taylor denied his letter attacked Pparc but insisted that "relatively minor policy changes at the highest level could make an enormous difference".

Jim Sadlier, Pparc's director of strategic planning and communications, rejected the suggestion of cartels and argued that the peer review system and advisory structure were robust and transparent.

Ian Halliday, chief executive of Pparc, said funds had been sought in the spending review specifically to strengthen planetary science.

Professor Taylor told The THES that he was more optimistic after last week's science budget gave £9 million for gravity and space science over the next three years.

But he said the sum involved was limited. "There will still have to be a readjustment of the existing budget if we are going to play our full role in planetary science."

MPs welcomed the new funds, but some scientists were unimpressed. Dick Taylor, spokesman for the British Interplanetary Society, said: "We want to row across the Atlantic and they're giving us a row boat with a single oar."

Colin Pillinger, professor of planetary sciences at the Open University, said the UK's spend on space science was still tiny.

He was nevertheless hopeful that politicians would provide more funds as public interest in space continued to grow.

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