The National Astronomy Meeting, UK Solar Physics Meeting and the European Week of Astronomy and Space Science came together for a big and busy meeting in Liverpool. Sue Bowler reports. A packed programme of specialist and plenary sessions, public events and a conference dinner in the spectacular setting of Liverpool Cathedral made for an exciting, if exhausting, week in early April. Joining forces with the European Astronomy Society gave a welcome European flavour, with addresses from the leaders of major European organizations as well as UK agencies. There was also a strong African theme, with sessions on international research and astronomy for development. At the UK-focused community session, Mark Thomson, newly appointed executive chair of the Science and Technology Facilities Council, began by setting out two goals. First comes the need for STFC to get more funding for research and development (R&D) in the 2018/19 budget. Second, there is the aspiration to move towards the UK putting 2.4% of gross domestic product into R&D by 2027. He noted that overall funding for R&D has been increasing, with directed government support for the Global Challenges Research Fund (GCRF) and the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund (ISCF), plus infrastructure and training investment. “The message is that the government understands the value of science and technology for the economy,” he said. However, continued flat cash allocations for core funding means that STFC is facing a ∼£12.3m resource gap, with the prospect of a £17.6m capital gap by 2020/21 unless something changes. The programme is surviving, but Thomson made it clear that continued flat cash settlements will reduce the breadth of the programme on a 5–10-year timescale – and the resources available to support new ideas will be seriously squeezed. This will mean cancellations of programmes and new projects going unfunded. The onus is on the astronomical community to get more funds through UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), now the overarching research body, including from directed research funds such as the GCRF, and to make the most of new opportunities such as the Future Leaders Fellowships. Thomson concluded with an appeal to the community to give STFC the information it needs to make the case for better funding for core science. “The Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, and UKRI, understand the pressure on the STFC core programme, but we have to argue better. Simply saying ‘we need more money for our core programme’ may be true, but it won't do. We have to make clear arguments about the impact of flat cash: the narrowing of our programme, the loss of opportunities and the fact that, if we lose out at the core, we will not be able to deliver innovation.” Chris Lee, head of space science at the UK Space Agency, was also new to his role. He introduced himself by noting that, while most people in his business grew up wanting to be an astronaut, he had wanted to be an astronomer, so he felt very much at home at the meeting. The UKSA employs 140 people, with a budget of £500m per annum; Lee manages a budget close to £100m (including ESA). His goals are to make the most of the mandatory ESA funding, showcase UK innovation built on space science and to be inspirational, especially for children, but also for adults, who pay taxes. He sees the future in terms of bilateral partnerships with countries such as India, China and Chile, and a focus on instruments and scientific research, adding value to UK research. There are opportunities in the near future; it is possible that the ESA Council of Ministers meeting in 2019 will decide to put a larger fraction of its funding into space science. View largeDownload slide View largeDownload slide Lee also hopes for more joined-up thinking for UKSA and STFC and in areas such as infrastructure investment, despite UKSA not being part of UKRI. He sees the increasing importance of directed funding from the GCRF and ISCF as potentially positive. “Internationally, space science is seen as necessary for sustainable devleopment,” said Lee, “and the UK is seen as a leader in education worldwide.” He too sought input from the community. Connie Aerts of the Institute of Astronomy, KU Leuven, then addressed the meeting to stress the value of bottom-up community advice, but made the point that the community is more than just the scientists. Teachers and especially parents are also very important, among the general public who need to be on-side for science. And working from the bottom up makes an immediate – and often very much needed – difference to the diversity of people and opinions involved. Questions for all speakers from the floor revolved around two issues: Brexit and the future of European funding for UK researchers, and funding in general. Thomson stressed his view that UKRI meant there was a strong voice to government on behalf of UK research – and on Brexit as well. He felt that the government appreciated the importance of European funding to UK science, although how that would fit into overall priorities in Brexit remains unknown. Several questioners addressed the problem of STFC making a good case for fundamental research and the links to societal and economic impact. RAS President John Zarnecki made the point that this community is driven by intellectual curiosity; Thomson responded that STFC's core programme is curiosity, and if we want more funding, we have to demonstrate an increase in the results for the economy. So, that's the challenge for the astronomical community: to provide examples, figures and facts that show that cutting-edge science drives innovation. European perspectives EWASS included presentations from the leadership of ESA, the European Southern Observatory and the Square Kilometre Array. Xavier Barcons, ESO director, began by setting the scene for this €300m-budget organization with 700-plus staff. ESO is looking forward to welcoming Ireland, who will be joining ESO as the 16th member this year. Australia has agreed a partnership with La Silla and Paranal, although Brazil's application for membership has stalled. ESO is a research powerhouse, with ESO research featuring in more than 1000 papers in 2017, 30% of which used archive data. Instrument development was continuing, including the first combination of light from the four VLT telescopes to the ESPRESSO spectrometer in February 2018, resulting in an effective 16 m mirror and the same signal-to-noise ratio in one hour's observation as achieved by HARPS in a day. On shared facilities such as ALMA, where ESO has a 37.5% share, 42% of the 1000 papers published since 2013 were led by European researchers – a very good return on investment. The Extremely Large Telescope looms appropriately large in ESO's plans. The programme is 94% funded, with full funding for the main mirror, which will be built as a disc, not a doughnut; the largest telescope will thus have the largest mirror. “The project is within budget and within schedule,” said Barcons. “We have gone past the paperwork stage.” He concluded with his vision for the next decade: “The current challenge is to deliver the ELT, the first and most powerful telescope of its class, while keeping our other observatories active and powerful. We can think about new projects, but not for the next five years.” Günther Hasinger, science director of ESA since February, gave his presentation remotely – and very successfully. He began by stressing the value of ESA's structure and support. “We've benefited greatly over the past 10–15 years from the financial stability offered by our member states. It's really our backbone.” He outlined past and current successes, noting the selection of M4 mission ARIEL, for exoplanet spectroscopy, to be followed by Athena, for high-energy astrophysics, and LISA, to explore gravitational waves. But he also stressed the need to plan ahead, noting that asteroids and the ice giants represent gaps in the ESA programme. Bringing light to LIGO was also a priority and ESA was considering exploiting the synergy between LISA and Athena, for example, to track down primordial black holes, by flying these two missions at the same time. 1 View largeDownload slide Winners of the 2018 RAS medals and awards received their prizes at the conference dinner, held this year in the spectacular Liverpool Cathedral. Pictured are the host, comedian Jon Culshaw, RAS President John Zarnecki, and the Patrick Moore medal winner, teacher Jenny Lister. (RAS/N Cole) 1 View largeDownload slide Winners of the 2018 RAS medals and awards received their prizes at the conference dinner, held this year in the spectacular Liverpool Cathedral. Pictured are the host, comedian Jon Culshaw, RAS President John Zarnecki, and the Patrick Moore medal winner, teacher Jenny Lister. (RAS/N Cole) The strategy Hasinger outlined for Cosmic Visions until 2050 was to strengthen ESA science at all levels, with concomitant outreach and educational activities. He hopes for a 20% increase to allow LISA and Athena to fly together, and plans to propose a new M mission to Uranus and Neptune, possibly in cooperation with NASA to exploit a fortuitous planetary alignment. These positive, forward-looking international views of science were complemented by the third speaker of the morning, Philip Diamond, director of the Square Kilometre Array, who aligned the SKA alongside – and complementary to – other 21st-century observatories, including Athena and the Cherenkov Telescope Array (starting work in 2024). Diamond emphasized that SKA had the broadest range of key science drivers: “SKA addresses the whole history of the universe and exploration of the unknown, and much of the science is fundamental physics.” To give an idea of the scope of the project, he noted that we now know of about 2000 pulsars; SKA will detect ∼30 000 in the Milky Way. Phase 1 of the project will support gravitational wave discoveries, phase 2 will do gravitational wave astronomy. Diamond summarized the progress of the SKA Observatory, comprising three sites, two telescopes and the headquarters, plus ∼600 scientists and engineers. This is the final year of the design phase; the HQ at Jodrell Bank is nearing completion and progress towards establishment of the treaty organization continues. The SKAO is expected to be operational by 2020. A date with diversity Sheila Kanai, RAS Diversity Officer, gives an overview of the EWASS–NAM 2018 focus on diversity in astronomy. For the first time in NAM history, diversity and equity was the focus for a whole day. The session was organized by partners across Europe, including chairs Helen Jermak from Liverpool John Moores University, and Sara Lucatello from Observatory of Padova, Italy; we acknowledge welcome sponsorship from Nature Astronomy. The day began with unconscious bias training, followed by a panel discussion on the barriers and challenges women face. The lunchtime plenary included UK MP Chi Onwurah speaking on women in STEM, including Caroline Herschel and excellent role models from black, Asian and minority ethnic backgrounds. In the afternoon, talks and discussions spanned every aspect of diversity from Asperger's syndrome to visual impairment. Robert Massey of the RAS presented the results of our demographic survey. Racial inequality in Africa was examined, as were the trials and tribulations of being a trans woman in astronomy. Topics such as sexual harassment and bullying led to an impassioned and emotional panel discussion. A particularly moving moment was the rapturous applause for Kate Furnell from Liverpool John Moores University, who spoke so candidly about her mental health during her time as a PhD student. 2 View largeDownload slide Chi Onwurah MP. 2 View largeDownload slide Chi Onwurah MP. As diversity officer at the RAS, I feel this is just the beginning for us. The demographic survey highlighted areas that the RAS needs to work on, showing us the gaps in diversity and equity that need to be filled. Hearing first hand from inspirational speakers gives us a glimpse into their world, and highlights what the RAS and the astronomy and geophysics community need to do to become more diverse and inclusive. The day concluded with a debate about harassment and bullying and what the RAS is doing to support Fellows. There are still many questions to answer, but at least a dialogue has begun. I feel that the RAS is very well placed to support Fellows and the wider communities. http://bit.ly/2KsKgCd MORE INFORMATION The joint NAM–EWASS–UKSP meeting was held on 3–6 April 2018 in Liverpool. Conference website: http://eas.unige.ch/EWASS2018 © 2018 Royal Astronomical Society
Astronomy & Geophysics – Oxford University Press
Published: Jun 1, 2018
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