RAS Council reacts to PPAN panel report and Government response to IUSS Select Committee (2008)

The Council of the Royal Astronomical Society has issued a statement on the Government and Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) response to the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Select Committee report on funding allocations, and the reports of the ad-hoc panels set up to review STFC research priorities.

The Select Committee inquiry and STFC panels were set up in the wake of concern over funding for astronomy and space science following the announcement of the STFC budget for 2008-11 in the autumn of 2007.

The RAS has serious reservations about the Government response, which appears to reject many of the criticisms made by the Committee and members of the astronomical community, but does so without presenting new evidence. For example, the MPs' report discussed the shortfall of £80 million in the allocation to STFC, the absence of which will lead to a significant fall in research activity. The DIUS response refers to this as a scaling back of STFC aspirations without acknowledging the fall in the volume of work that will result, a fall referred to by STFC senior managers since the settlement was made public in November 2007.

The Society also remains concerned at the way in which the STFC Executive failed to consult on the priorities for its research programme before the initial priority lists were drawn up. This compounds a recent record of poor communication with the astronomical community which exacerbated the sense of crisis earlier this year.

However, we welcome the appointment of a new Director of Communications at STFC and hope for much improved relations with the research council in future. The RAS wishes to see an open dialogue and two-way communications between the wider astronomical community and the STFC Executive. To effectively engage that community, the Society also believes that STFC should restore the advisory structure that was in place in the former Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC).

The RAS also welcomes the organisational review of STFC, a review necessary to re-establish community involvement and to rebuild trust in the research council's senior management. The Society will work closely with STFC to achieve this, so that in the future decisions on the direction of UK astronomy and space science are made with the full confidence of the scientific community.