A constellation of reasons why science cuts don’t add up

With astronomy next in line to feel the impact of Government spending cuts, Sarah Freeman reports on why we all need to look to the stars.

This week Country Life, the bible of all things rural, published a checklist of skills vital to the modern youth.

Apparently, if you don’t know how to dance an eightsome reel, cook three different dinner party menus and sustain a 10-shot rally at tennis by the time you’re in your mid-20s, you’ll almost certainly be doomed to a life of drudgery. Some of the 39 Steps were frankly baffling, from being able to tie a bow tie in the Bloody Butcher style to riding a horse to jackaroo standard, but there were a few concessions to those who don’t have access to stables. A well-rounded human being should, it said, be able to change a plug, pitch a tent and be able to identify five constellations as well as the North Star.

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The latter at least sounds like an obtainable ambition. For the last couple of years Professor Brian Cox has been doing his best to turn particle physics and astronomical goings-on into ratings-winning television and, aside for the odd spat with the BBC over volume levels, it seemed he was doing a pretty decent job. However, for the man who famously played on hit record Things Can Only Get Better, things look set to get a whole lot worse for astronomy.

Funding for astronomy is due to be cut by 21 per cent over the next four years, reducing its current annual budget of £100m to £79m in 2014/15. The money spent on particle physics will be slightly increased, but it masks a massive cut in capital expenditure on facilities and equipment of 56 per cent.

Cox, who when not filling the TV schedules is chair in particle physics at the University of Manchester, has already thrown down the gauntlet by arguing the bailout of the banking system had cost “more money than the UK has spent on science since Jesus,” before adding: “We already do more with less than anybody else. Almost half our economy rests on investment in universities and science.

“Any PPE [philosophy, politics and economics] graduate out of Oxford should understand it, but there are a lot of them in the Treasury and they don’t seem to.”

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Overall spending on astronomy and particle physics by 2015 will be half what it was six years ago. With the NHS facing the biggest overhaul in its history and local authorities currently weighing up which vital services to sacrifice in order to balance their own books, arguing in favour of cash for star gazing is not easy, even if you have a poster boy as popular as Cox.

However, today, the Government’s own Science and Technology Committee will lend further weight to calls to safeguard funding when it publishes a report which says the current proposals are not only short-sighted, but could risk undermining Britain’s leading role in science.

“The idea that subjects like astronomy and particle physics do not provide immediate economic returns and therefore can be sacrificed at the altar of cutbacks is a nonsense,” says Andrew Miller, Labour MP for Ellesmere Port and Leston, who chairs the committee. “Other countries are getting it right: invest in science and innovation now and reap the longer term rewards of economic growth. If the UK is seen to send out a message that these scientific fields deserve to be regulated to lower divisions, what hope is there for inspiring the next generation of scientists?”

The report contains strong criticism of Britain’s planned withdrawal from all northern hemisphere observatories and the National Schools Observatory Liverpool telescope, claiming a “silo mentality” continues to pervade Government thinking. In the March Budget, Chancellor George Osborne did announce a cash boost of £100m for science, confirming the money would go towards developing new research facilities throughout the UK. However, many fear that may not be enough

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“Astronomers often believe that the significance of their work is self-evident,” says Dr Sten Odenwald, who runs the website Astronomy Café. “But in harsh times, even the most obvious benefits of an activity come under scrutiny. If you are poor and struggling to get by, there is virtually no activity that is justifiable unless it results in direct monetary gain.

“Astronomy is important to some people’s lives because it lets us experience a larger reality beyond the nine-to-five workday, or the limited horizon provided by living on this one small planet in an incomprehensibly vaster universe. Many of us find great beauty in exploring this arena, and the tantalising glimpses it gives us to how our planet, solar system and universe have evolved over billions of years.”

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