RAS Council responds to Wakeham review

The Royal Astronomical Society broadly welcomes the findings of the report on the Research Councils UK (RCUK) review of the health of physics, chaired by Professor Bill Wakeham, vice-chancellor of the University of Southampton. Members of the review panel included RAS fellows Professors Martin Barstow and Carlos Frenk.

The Society is very pleased to see that the quality of research in astronomy and space science is recognised, as highlighted in the 2005 RAS / IoP International Review of Physics and Astronomy. We also strongly agree that the whole of physics including astronomy and geophysics face an educational challenge, with a continuing decline in the number of students taking the subject at school level, closure of many university physics departments and a reduction in the proportion of female students and those from ethnic minorities.

The Council of the RAS has issued the following responses (in italics); concentrating on those recommendations (highlighted in bold) which most closely relate to the interests of our Fellows:

The Panel recommends that the UK Government should continue to fund research in both basic and applied physics across a broad spectrum of sub-disciplines, at the level required to retain international competitiveness.

The RAS strongly agrees with this recommendation. We particularly welcome the call for support for basic physics, including sub-disciplines like astronomy and space science. Government should acknowledge this and continue to fund this work at the level it needs.

The Panel proposes
(a) to [the Department for Children, Schools and Families] DCSF that physics should be taught by those trained in the subject, and the same successful ideas that were applied to raising mathematics take-up in schools by improving mathematics teaching be extended to physics; and
(b) that research is undertaking by RCUK and DCSF to identify factors influencing non-take up of physics in post compulsory schooling amongst those from wider social and ethnic backgrounds and from women.

We very much agree that the shortage of trained physics teachers should be addressed urgently. Government should pay special attention to the recruitment of teachers with physics degrees rather than considering science graduates as a whole.

We also support the proposed research study. DCSF and RCUK should note the success of ‘astronomy’ courses in recruiting women compared with physics as a whole. There is evidence at undergraduate level that astronomy courses have a significantly higher proportion of women students (around 30%) compared with around 20% across the whole range of physics degree pathways. This pattern is repeated at postgraduate level.

The Panel proposes that [the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills] DIUS works closely with the Institute of Physics and Universities UK to ensure the compatibility of current physics qualifications with the Bologna Process.

The RAS supports this recommendation.

The Panel recommends that:

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) be required at each Comprehensive Spending Review (CSR) to bid for and allocate specific funds to former Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) facilities and grant funding together. This would avoid the undesired tensioning of these grants and facilities support against national facilities and the project for the development of science and innovation campuses.

The existing structure should be allowed time to develop, given it was founded on the basis of extensive positive consultation. However, at an appropriate point following the review of STFC management currently being conducted by Dr David Grant, DIUS should commission a review to examine STFC operations.

The RAS welcomes the recognition of the need to separate astronomy and particle physics funding within STFC from the rest of its mission. Although there have been real difficulties with relations with STFC in its first year of operation, we acknowledge that efforts are now being made to improve matters and support the idea of a review on the timescale suggested.

The Panel recommends to DIUS that the membership of STFC’s Council be broadened to include more of the stakeholders in the science activity at the highest level, and to redress the balance between executive presence and non-executive oversight.

The Society strongly supports this recommendation. We believe that the difficulties around the STFC funding allocation and draft science programme might have been avoided had such a structure been in place at that time.

The Panel recommends that the Director General of Science and Research (DGSR) would benefit from advice from a small, but well informed advisory group from outside DIUS during the CSR allocation process to ensure there are no unintended consequences of allocations and to ensure appropriate accountability to the science community. This does not need to be a large bureaucratic body.

The Society strongly supports this recommendation and sees it as a positive step forward. If implemented, it will assist senior policymakers to make decisions on the next CSR allocations with a better awareness of their consequences than may have been the case in 2007. If this group had existed then, the shortfall in STFC funding might have been avoided.

The Panel recommends that Physics departments through their own endeavours and those of the Institute of Physics continue their valuable work to publicise all activities of physicists after graduation so as to enhance intake. Companies that employ physicists need to promote the value of a physics training, and this should be reflected in schools careers advice.

The RAS strongly supports and is happy to assist with this work. Our Fellows, who work in universities, research laboratories and many different industries, have many examples of career routes which follow and relate to astronomy, space science and geophysics. We also suggest this work feeds into the ‘Careers from Science’ project currently being developed by the Science Council.

The Panel recommends that responsibility be transferred to the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) for those parts of solar terrestrial physics research which are most relevant to the NERC mission. That transfer should be accompanied by sufficient funds to enable NERC to administer and support the current level of research.

The RAS welcomes the acknowledgement of solar-terrestrial physics (STP) as an important cross-disciplinary area and cautiously agrees that responsibility for some of this area should move from STFC to NERC. We hope that representatives of the scientists involved, and the RAS, can advise on which STP areas should move to NERC and which remain within the STFC remit.

The panel recommends that Universities, Funding Councils and Research Councils work together to develop the research concordat so that realistic career advice is given to junior scholars and that mechanisms to ensure early career opportunities are maximised in strategic areas of the research base.

We very much agree that postdoctoral researchers should be given effective advice and guidance, so that they can achieve their full potential within and outside of academia. Given the large numbers of postdocs, the physics community needs to acknowledge the large contribution they make to UK research.

The Panel recommends that RCUK should promote the use of High Performance Computing (HPC) in physics by continuing a programme of sustained investment in HPC facilities.

The RAS strongly supports this aim. HPC is of particular importance to all the sciences represented by the Society, with specific examples in computational astrophysics and geophysics.