You may recall that the UK funding council that pays for particle physics and astronomy projects - STFC - recently had a funding crisis despite the government claiming that all was well and funding had increased. Back in March a list was released (PDF) giving STFC's view of the relative ranking of every UK funded astronomy, particle and nuclear physics experiment. It should be noted that all of them were considered excellent, but with limited funding available, something had to be cut. Nobody at STFC seemed to think that asking government for more money would work.
After a community outcry, there was a consultation period and the Particle Physics, Astronomy and Nuclear (PPAN) science committee then had the thankless task of going through all the feedback and producing a new ranking. Yesterday saw the publication of that PPAN list (PDF) and the report of the Ground-Based Astronomy STFC Consultation Ad-hoc Advisory Panel Report to PPAN (PDF) which received 268 individual responses. It should be noted that neither of these are the final outcome of the Programmatic Review. That gets left to the STFC big-wigs to decide.
I have produced the list below, highlighting all astronomy/space science/astro-particle experiments in red. For reference I have included the reported "current PPAN band" (four point scale with 1 being high priority), the Ground-based Astronomy Advisory Panel's revised band (four point scale with 1 being high priority), the PPAN rank from their response to the consultation panels (five point scale with alpha 5 being high priority) and the old March ranking.
|Project||Current PPAN Band1|
|Panel's revised band1|
|Advanced LIGO||alpha 5||High|
|GEO 600||alpha 5||High|
|Herschel PLS||alpha 5||Medium-high|
|Jefferson Lab||alpha 5||High|
|JWST MIRI||alpha 5||Medium-high|
|Neutron EDM||alpha 5||High|
|Planck PLS||alpha 5||Medium-high|
|Dark Energy Survey||2||2||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|ELT R&D||2||3||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|HPC Band 1||alpha 4||Lower|
|LHC upgrades||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|LISA & LISA Pathfinder||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|SKA R&D||2||3||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|Solar Orbiter||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|T2K accelerator||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|T2K ECAL||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|Venus Express||alpha 4||High|
|Zeplin III||alpha 4||Medium-high|
|ALMA Regional Centre||3||4||alpha 3||Medium-lower|
|CDF including Rolling Grants||alpha 3||Medium-lower|
|Detector R&D for Future Colliders||alpha 3|
|D0 including Rolling Grants||alpha 3||Medium-lower|
|Electron EDM||alpha 3||Medium-lower|
|HPC Band 2||alpha 3||Lower|
|Issac Newton Group of Telescopes||3||2||alpha 3||Medium-lower|
|Inverse Square Law||alpha 3*||Medium-high|
|Liverpool Telescope||2||3||alpha 3||Medium-high|
|Roadmap to XEUS||alpha 3||Medium-high|
|XMM Newton||alpha 3||Medium-lower|
|BISON Operations||alpha 1||Lower|
|CASU/WFAU (excluding ESO committed)||alpha 1||Lower|
|EISCAT Support||alpha 1||Lower|
|HPC Band 3||alpha 1||Lower|
2 This ranking comes from the Response to Consultation Panels and Final Recommendations of PPAN (PDF) with 5 being high and 1 being low.
* Note that the Inverse Square Law experiment is listed as level 3 in the table but described as level 4 in the main text. Also, a few experiments no longer appear on the new ranking and I'm not sure why.
Are you confused? I am. Let's consider the PPAN rankings first. In the PPAN document they use five levels with level alpha 1 being low priority and level alpha 5 being high priority. This seems slightly at odds with the reported PPAN ranking in Appendix 3 of the Ad Hoc committe report even if we invert the numbers; the reported Liverpool Telescope rankings don't match. In the PPAN report there are some big movers. For a start Hindoe has jumped up the listing from Lower (lowest level of old ranking) to Level alpha 4 (Level alpha 5 being the highest priority) and this is due to more information on publication numbers and calibration status. High Performance Computing was previously Lower but has been split into three bands which are made Level alpha 1, alpha 3 and alpha 4 in the new ranking. That saves some of those experiments. The particle physics experiment ALICE has jumped from Lower to Level alpha 3. The Swift and Venus Express space missions have dropped slightly but not significantly. The ground based observing facilities of e-MERLIN, HESS, Gemini and UKIRT have all been lifted from the Lower level up to Level alpha 2.
The Ground-based Astronomy Advisory Panel don't fully agree with PPAN on the rankings. They say ING, e-MERLIN, Gemini and UKIRT are all more important. They warn:
"However, having reviewed all the material in depth webelieve that the ranking outcomeof the PR [Programatic Review] has got this balance wrong. The proposed closing down of world-class highly productive facilities on a very rapid timescale, in addition to the loss of science to the UK community, would seriously damage the UK's high-standing in international astronomy. In terms of metrics such as publications and citations this would jeopardise our hard won position as second only to the USA in general (and ahead in some areas), and number one in Europe."
The PPAN and Ground-based Astronomy Advisory Panels had extremely difficult jobs. They were told to produce a zero-sum solution which means that to save anything requires other things to be cut. The trouble is that three of the projects that were being considered to be cut (e-MERLIN, Gemini and UKIRT) cost around £23 million whereas there is only a "flexibility" of around £6 million pounds given that many higher ranking projects had already spent the majority of their costs. I don't envy either group for their tasks and it just shows how difficult it is to decide which excellent research projects are cut. Amongst the final comments of the Advisory Panel are:
"Finally, if it transpires that a major long term reduction in the UK's astronomy base is unavoidable, with all the negative consequences that this implies i.e. one cannot easily resurrect a community built around a subject area once it has been dispersed, then the panel strongly believes it is essential this is managed as part of an open and fully considered process. Our panel's efforts in just over 7 weeks may contribute to this process, but it cannot be considered as entirely adequate in determining the fate of whole areas of astronomy.
I hope we aren't doomed and I seriously hope people are very busy working on the next Comprehensive Spending Review submissions to government to improve the situation for next time.