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December 05, 2007

The sound of silence

by Matt Burleigh

It’s the uncertainty that is so depressing. Out of the blue, on 15 November, UK astronomers found out that the Science and Technology Facilities Council intended to withdraw from the Gemini Observatory (two eight-metre optical telescopes, one in Hawaii and the other in Chile). It was a huge shock. No warning, no consultation.

The council’s website informed us that “[STFC’s governing] Council will approve its overall investment strategy at its meeting on 21 November”. Not “debate”, but “approve”.

Quickly, letters of protest to Council members were organised from the eight-metre users committee, and the Gemini time allocation committee. We waited for news from the meeting ... and waited ... and nothing. STFC will not comment.

The STFC’s Delivery Plan has been presented to the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and will be published on 11 December. Until then, the vacuum is being filled by rumour and speculation. Everyone is asking the same question: what’s next for the chop?

I am an observational astronomer. I use Gemini to study white dwarfs, stars that were once like our own Sun. I’m especially interested in finding evidence for planets around white dwarfs, and even directly imaging them, to find out about the future of our own solar system.

Directly imaging planets around other stars is tough to do, but the field is about to get a major boost with the installation of second generation instruments on Gemini, such as the Near-Infrared Coronagraphic Imager. The UK, led by Hugh Jones, professor of astronomy at the University of Hertfordshire, is also a strong partner in an instrument for Gemini called the Precision Radial Velocity Spectrograph, which will be able to detect planets of Earth’s size around nearby red dwarf stars. Our use of these exciting instruments is now in danger.

The loss of Gemini would be a grievous blow to my research. Of course, we would still have access to the European Southern Observatory’s four Very Large Telescopes, but these are all on one site in the southern hemisphere. In case the Swindon bean counters haven’t figured it out yet, the Earth is round and you can’t see the northern sky from Chile!

But I don’t just use the large eight-metre class telescopes. I also make lots of use of smaller facilities such as the four-metre William Herschel Telescope on La Palma in the Canaries and data from the UK Infrared Deep Sky Survey being carried out on the UK infrared telescope on Hawaii. This is the deepest survey of the infrared sky ever undertaken, and is giving UK astronomers a world lead in this wavelength.

My immediate thought on hearing the bad news last month was that if STFC can pull out of a leading modern facility like Gemini, will they have no second thoughts axing these smaller, older facilities?

All of the astronomers in the UK are having similar thoughts, whether they are observers, radio or X-ray specialists, theoreticians, instrument builders or space scientists. Is their favourite facility next? Most of all, the fear is for the grants line. If postdocs are axed in large numbers, what will be the impact on young careers and the prospects for PhD students?

STFC grants make up a significant part of the income of many university physics departments. How will cuts affect them? Astronomy courses help to attract undergraduates to study physics. Will the news of severe cutbacks impact on recruitment, also reducing departmental income? Is my job in danger?

The lack of consultation and the silence that has followed seem deliberately designed to stifle dissent. It leaves me with little confidence in those managing the budget for UK astronomy. This current crisis has its roots in the sudden decision last year to merge the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council into the much larger new “facilities” council. That move was also made with minimal consultation, a fait accompli.

Many of us objected, but we hoped against hope that things would pan out fine. Instead, our worst fears appear to be being realised. PPARC was our council, but we are a minor part of STFC. I simply don’t understand why astronomy has to pick up the bill for the overspend on Diamond and other facilities that have nothing to do with our science.

I hope that my worst fears are not justified and that my paranoia, fuelled by this silence from Swindon, is unnecessary. I hope STFC’s Council has presented the minister with a plan that has a minimal impact on astronomy, and retains some UK access to Gemini.

Just a final thought that helps me to put this crisis into perspective. Northern Rock has now borrowed £25 billion of taxpayers’ money. The Chancellor promises us that it will all be returned though, like many others, I am sceptical. The cost of operating the Gemini telescopes is £4 million a year. I’m going for a beer before I weep.

Matt Burleigh


Matt Burleigh is an STFC advanced fellow in the physics and astronomy department at the University of Leicester.