No reason to be starry eyed about space and astronomy after Brexit
It’s been a good summer for astronomy. We had the longest total eclipse of the Moon of the 21st century, the delight that is the Perseid meteor shower, and NASA’s Parker Solar Probe began its journey to the Sun. On the ground, the general assembly of the International Astronomical Union met in Vienna, bringing around 3,000 of the world’s leading astronomers together to push the boundaries of research. The assembly, a triennial conference dating back to 1922, is a visible demonstration of the international nature of science and how the biggest questions are posed and answered by collaboration across national boundaries.
Yet, at the IAU, as in so many conferences and meetings, the ‘B word’ was the elephant in the seminar room. The astronomy community in the UK was shocked by the vote to leave the EU, and at least in public many still struggle to acknowledge its consequences (grappling with questions about the formation of galaxies is psychologically easier than wondering if the EU grant you were planning to apply for will be cut off in six months’ time). It is though hard to remember a time when our sector faced so much uncertainty. To begin with even the squeeze on funding after the crash of 2008 felt like nothing we hadn’t seen before, with the hope that investment would be restored once the economy recovered.
There is undoubtedly much to celebrate about the UK’s work in exploring the wider universe. The organisation I work for, the Royal Astronomical Society, itself celebrates its bicentennial in 2020, and our membership understands how our national success is now firmly rooted in international collaboration, with strong ties to our European peers.
Membership of the European Southern Observatory, European Space Agency, the Square Kilometre Array, and EU programmes like Europlanet, Astronet and Opticon, galvanise research. My colleagues move routinely between the institutions and facilities these support, sharing resources and equipment. UK scientists are in the teams that could get images of Earth-like planets around other stars, find hints of life elsewhere in the universe, or detect the first galaxies to form after the Big Bang.
This vibrant research base helped attract talented people here from around the world. The most recent RAS demographic survey covering astronomers and geophysicists found that 28% of permanent staff, around a half of postdocs, and nearly a third of postgraduate students come from overseas. By far the largest proportion of academics from outside the UK (one third of postdocs, one sixth each of students and permanent staff) came here from other EEA countries.
The success of this internationalisation is apparent in publication and citation indices: UK astronomy and space science is in third place globally, a real achievement for a medium-sized country with a modest science spend.
Blue skies sciences like astronomy also have a wider impact on the economy and society as a whole. From Wi-Fi to hospital imaging and terahertz airport scanners, entrepreneurs utilise technology developed for our science for terrestrial applications, and PhD students take their skills into jobs from finance to teaching and even art conservation. The inspiration and ‘STEM attractor’ role of astronomy is well documented too, with schoolchildren and undergraduates alike citing an interest in space as the driver for study and careers in science.
This upbeat story though only takes us so far. In the last decade funding from the Science and Technology Facilities Council (the organisation supporting most astronomy research) declined by around a fifth in real terms. Researchers responded by securing grants from EU sources like the European Research Council, which now makes up a third of the resource funding for UK astronomy groups. A sudden switch off (if we really do see the car crash of a no deal Brexit) or cutting out participation in the €100 billion Horizon Europe programme (FP9), will hit our sciences hard.
Across society, many European nationals and their families in research also feel less welcome (I know this too well – my wife is German and talks of experiencing routine xenophobia rare before 2016). Our EU colleagues in research, a large proportion of our community, are demoralised by this hostility, and by the uncertainty over their right to stay in their adopted home.
The UK government is adamant: science, including space science and astronomy will thrive after Brexit. On the face of it, the guarantees of funding until 2020, the push to seek association to FP9, and the idea of a comprehensive agreement with the EU on science are all welcome.
But this would be more convincing without the bluster that characterises the public face of negotiations with the European Commission. The push for British exceptionalism and drive for duplication came to a head last week with the announcement that the UK will try to copy the Galileo satellite navigation system, potentially wasting both billions of existing investment in the EU project, and a similar sum in building a new network of satellites. UK participation in the €6 billion EU-funded Copernicus remote sensing system is also at risk – will the government try to replicate this too?
Perhaps instead ministers might consider how to foster a more positive relationship with our EU neighbours after March next year. At least in astronomy and space science, we are emphatic about the need to be full partners in European projects, sharing funding and physical resources. We want an immigration system that actively encourages everyone from PhD students to research leaders to come here, attracted by both welcoming messages and a government committed to investment in basic research. Anything less will jeopardise a pillar of scientific excellence for generations to come.
Dr Robert Massey is Deputy Executive Director of the Royal Astronomical Society @royalastrosoc) and on Twitter as @RobertMMassey. He writes here in a personal capacity.