In a complete change of direction, this one goes out to a rant.
The financial situation for Astronomy in the UK has been dire for a couple of years. The whole story is complicated, and probably only fully understood by a small number of people (I can’t help thinking this is partly where the problem lies). The outcome is, however, rather clear.
The funding to Astronomy research, both to specific projects and grants that fund studentships and fellowships, has been slashed beyond the point of no return. Last week STFC announced the results of a prioritisation exercise and revealed 25-35% cuts in grants, plus the scrappage of many a good important and relevant projects. The result is a handicapped academic industry, which will now see their best either turning someplace else, or abandoning Astronomy altogether. Today, SFTC announced the cancellation of the 2010 round of Postdoctoral Fellowships – the most important fellowship scheme for young Astronomers in the UK – and quite frankly it seems with it to have stricken the final blow.
This is not a post with intelligent and unbiased criticism. Rather, it’s the outpour of a young postdoc who is seeing their career and the science of their heart being merciless attacked by a bunch of incompetent, unfortunate and opaque decisions. I can’t image it was an easy decision to anyone involved, but I’m not here to play devil’s advocate tonight. I’m here because I’m angry.
I’ve seen the best of what Astronomy can do. I’ve met so many talented young scientists and I’ve seen them share their science with amazed and awed audiences who invariably leave the room culturally richer and more aware. I’ve seen young ones being turned on to science via Astronomy, and I’ve been thanked by old ones for making them feel like they know the world around them a little bit better. I don’t give a toss about economical benefits – I don’t have to, they’re self-evident even. The idea that in a recession money is taken away from science is so incomprehensible that I can’t quite get my head around it. But I do care, and passionately so, about the cultural enrichment that science represents. I care that fundamental research is important in its own right and that it matters to people. That I’m fortunate enough to live in a country that has thus far excelled in expanding the limits of human knowledge and encouraged the dissemination of such knowledge. I care that I have the chance to dedicate my working years to the most exciting journey of all, and to learn every single working day of my life.
It’s not just the young Astronomer who’s missing out here. It’s everyone who doesn’t want to live in a world where decisions are made only based on economic returns. Science misses out too, but above all it’s you that gets the short deal. It’s everyone who has ever learned something new about the natural world and appreciated it for what it was – the sheer excitement of learning, understanding, seeing beauty by way of explanations.
Of course, I’m missing out too. Because now being a professional Astronomer in this country is set to being a constant battle and one which I may or may not be prepared to fight. There are, after all, other ways to learn. But none quite as thrilling as being up there in the heat of the moment… nor none quite as rewarding.