HL Deb 06 March 2000 vol 610 cc891-900

8.28 p.m.

Lord Tanlaw rose to ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to allow expeditious participation in the European Southern Observatory (ESO).

The noble Lord said: My Lords, first, I must congratulate the Minister who is to reply this evening on his stamina. He has had a busy evening so far. I am also grateful to the Government for allowing me time—which will be the minimum possible—to raise the important question of British astronomers' participation in the European Southern Observatory's very large telescope situated in Chile on the high mountaintop of Cerro Paranal, which is famous for the transparency of its atmosphere.

However, one thing must be remembered about all astronomers, which is that size does matter! Throughout the history of astronomy, from Newton to Herschel, Eddington, Jeans, Airy, Lord Rosse, up to and including present-day astronomers and cosmologists such as Hoyle, Hawking and Rees, it is the quality and size of the telescope to which they have access which eventually governs the quality and scope of their work.

I am sure that the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate will recall that it was the great British astronomer William Herschel who discovered the planet Uranus in 1781 with his own telescope, which he built in his back garden. In fact, King George III was so impressed that he provided adequate funds for him to build the world's largest telescope in order that an improved lens and a larger 40-foot reflecting mirror might lead to more exciting discoveries of this nature in and around the solar system.

I am sure that the noble Lord is aware that patrons or sponsors have always been required in the field of astronomy since the days of King Charles II. I am also certain that he will agree that they are needed today more than ever, as the science and technology involved is more complex and expensive, as it is in the ESO which will be a co-ordinated array of four 8-metre optical telescopes.

Once the ESO (the European Southern Observatory) becomes operational, it will be the world's largest terrestrial telescope. Other countries, including Japan, having given up their own national efforts in this area are subscribing instead to the ESO. This is because it will be the only ground-based telescope capable of distinguishing and studying planets circling at least 100 neighbouring stars similar to our own sun. Further, when it is fully operational, there will be the exciting prospect of astronomers being able to distinguish over the next 20 years not only the type of atmosphere but even the shape of the continents and the size of the oceans on these distant worlds.

Unfortunately, none of those astronomers will be British that is, if this country fails to subscribe, with our European partners, in the setting-up costs of this incredible telescope. In effect, this will mean that astronomy will hardly be worth pursuing as a career in Britain in the new millennium. Does the Minister agree that this will be a most unsatisfactory situation, especially in view of what the Government say about the need to encourage science in our schools, coupled with their apparent keenness to participate in Europe?

I am sure that the noble Lord will agree that it is not the intention of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) to destroy the future prospects of British astronomy. But when its director reduces British astronomers' access to very large telescopes to a mere 3 per cent over the 10-year period 1995 to 2005, does the Minister accept that it will have the same effect? Perhaps the noble Lord will think about it for a moment. Is this not a rather strange decision in view of PPARC's own consultation document which showed that increased access to very large telescopes was regarded as the top priority within astronomy?

I wonder whether the Minister is aware that the United Kingdom now has less access to very large telescopes than any other major European country. Indeed, there are a number of universities in the United States that are prepared to pay for more access time to large telescopes than the meagre ration that PPARC has allocated to British astronomers out of its annual budget of £230 million.

The Astronomer Royal, Sir Martin Rees, recently made the same point when he addressed the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Astronomy and Space Environment, of which I am proud to be the founder-chairman. He reminded our group that there was a time in 1990 when British astronomers had 15 per cent of the world's time on large 4-metre telescopes, which was made possible by this country's share in the William Herschel Telescope at La Palma and in the Anglo-Australian Telescope at Parkes in New South Wales. British astronomers were able to make many important contributions to world astronomy during this period. However, now, observational opportunities to achieve this over the next 20 years will become a rarity due to the intended cut-back on access time to very large telescopes. Therefore, perhaps I may remind the Minister that size really does matter to astronomers.

How can this situation be remedied? Does the noble Lord agree that it could be remedied quite simply by paying up and joining in observation time available on the four 8-metre telescopes that comprise the European Southern Observatory in Chile? Coincidentally, the cost of this would be the same amount as was paid without a murmur to extend the shelf life of the Greenwich Dome by just another nine months.

Therefore, can the Minister say whether it would be acceptable to our European partners for this large sum of £60 million to be paid partly in kind and partly over an agreed period of time? Can the noble Lord say what efforts, if any, have been made by PPARC in this direction by offering, for example, European access to our VISTA survey telescope? Alternatively, will the noble Lord state quite clearly to our partners, who are becoming increasingly impatient with our attitude in this matter, our real intentions? Further, can he confirm that, if we do not make up our minds soon about the VLT in Chile. our partners may shut out British astronomers for good from the whole project?

Can the noble Lord also say what efforts, if any, are being made to find sponsors from the private sector for this exciting project? They might be more willing to support optical astronomical discoveries rather than invisible ones, which may one day be found in the particle physics accelerator at CERN.

Is this not a project for which the lottery might perhaps provide some backing? I believe that there is a genuine public interest in such matters, especially among young people. For instance, I asked the editor of Hello magazine—a publication more noted for its coverage of social rather than cosmic events—why she had recently devoted four colour pages to the work of the European Southern Observatory. She replied that the mostly young readership of about half a million was decidedly interested in, and excited by, present and future developments in space and in astronomy.

It was for that reason—the realisation that younger people are really excited about the future as regards what is going on in space—that it occurred to me that in the past parliamentarians have not been as excited as they should have been; nor, indeed, as well informed. Therefore, I created the All-Party Group for Astronomy and Space Environment in order to educate us and help us better to appreciate some of the things that are happening in nearby space. Because such things are happening many hundreds of thousands or millions of miles away. we should not think that they do not affect terrestrial life.

My group—I am sorry to go on talking about it—looks at the political, social and philosophical implications of what might happen if, for example, the sun were to create problems through an increase in its bombardment of the atmosphere of the earth with various and different rays. What might happen if incoming asteroids or comets either come close by or impact on the terrestrial surface?

There is also the question of global warming, which I raised in 1976 in this House, much to the amusement of noble Lords opposite and, indeed, to the incomprehension of the noble Lords who were sitting on the Government Front Bench at the time. It took years for parliamentarians to appreciate that this was a political and social factor and one that probably affects our lives very considerably, especially when one sees the effects on Mozambique, the hurricanes that hit Venezuela and the extraordinary weather patterns. Not all of these phenomena are entirely due to man-made products, as one is inclined to think. The sun has a great deal to do with it, and we need to understand it more. Therefore, I am hopeful that the noble Lord who is to reply to the debate will be able to show more enthusiasm than that which is apparent at present from PPARC about our subscription to the very large telescope in Chile.

I shall be brief because it is a little late in the evening. I suggest merely that we cast our minds back to the 18th century when William Herschel, who built his telescope in his own backyard, discovered the planet Uranus. It was a thrilling and exciting moment for this country; and, indeed, the world. John Keats wrote a poem referring to Herschel. It is one that every schoolboy must remember and one that we all had to recite. On First Looking into Chapman's Homer. It states: Then I felt like some watcher of the skies [William Herschel] When a new planet swims into his ken".

We are not talking about planets of our solar system being observed by astronomers on the earth's surface; we are talking about planets of alien solar systems. What this will mean in terms of how we consider ourselves and how we consider the chemistry of the earth is something that we need to know about as soon as possible, and which we can know about.

I want a British astronomer to have another poem written about him when he sees something through this great telescope: but unless we do something about it now, this opportunity will be denied to us through a misunderstanding or through the parsimony of the Government because they feel that it may not be important.

I look forward to the Minister's reply which I hope will be slightly more enthusiastic than was the reply of his right honourable friend in another place when this matter was raised by Mr Tam Dalyell.

8.40 p.m.

The Earl of Northesk

My Lords, I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, on securing a debate on this matter today. At the outset, and as the noble Lord has made so plain, it is worth remembering that our country has an especially honourable tradition in the field of astronomy. From Newton in the 17th century, through Herschel to Eddington, Jeans, Hoyle and Hawking in the 20th, British astronomers and cosmologists have changed the way we place ourselves in the universe.

As your Lordships will be aware, the European Southern Observatory was created in 1962 to, establish and operate an astronomical observatory in the Southern hemisphere. equipped with powerful instruments. with the aim of furthering and organising collaboration in astronomy".. It is supported by eight countries: Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Sweden and Switzerland. The UK was actively involved in the early discussions about the establishment of ESO in the 1950s but it was decided at that time not to join, partly because of our access to other astronomical facilities in Australia and South Africa.

But of course the world moves on. In the new millennium, optical astronomy is experiencing a boom and, at least in part, the UK is actively involved in that boom. The four-metre VISTA telescope is to be built—at, it has to be said, ESO's base in Chile—for a consortium of 18 British universities led by Dr Jim Emerson of Queen Mary and Westfield College. The UK Astronomy Technology Centre has been chosen as the project's managing organisation, responsible for the design, construction and commissioning of the telescope. Here I acknowledge the input of both the Joint Infrastructure Fund, which, as I understand it, is providing the necessary funding of some £22 million, and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), which will underwrite the observatory's operating costs. More generally, it is important to acknowledge that UK involvement at the 4-metre level notably at La Palma in the Canaries, Hawaii, as well as in Australia and Chile—is robust.

But the difficulty, which the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, highlights today, is that the UK has only a minor share in collaboration on the new breed of ground-based telescopes with 8-metre mirrors, where much of the cutting-edge research is being conducted. It is the case that we are involved in what Professor Roger L Davies and Dr Patrick Roche—project scientists with the UK Gemini Project—have described as, the remarkable success of the Gemini eight-metre telescopes project, which has already outperformed the Hubble Space Telescope at infra red wavelengths". But they would say that, wouldn't they? However, as they go on to say, Without Gemini, UK astronomers would now have no prospect of being able to compete internationally. Joining the ESO would bring the provision of eight-metre telescopes to the level that UK astronomers enjoyed on four-metre aperture telescopes when these were forefront instruments, and restore our competitive position". This is a view echoed by the Astronomer Royal, who has perhaps gone a little further by suggesting that PPARC, the funding body in this field, may be, seriously misjudging the balance of its scientific priorities", by having devoted less than a tenth as much of its budget to large telescopes as it had to particle accelerators. But, to be fair, PPARC, at its annual strategy meeting on 19th and 20th February, noted that, The ground based astronomy community needed to gain more access to time on eight metre telescopes; (the UK would slip from being second in the world for access to four metre telescopes to fifteenth for eight metre telescopes)". It went on to say, Council felt the advantage would be obtained from carrying these"— that is, collaborations on larger arrays— out in a European framework". As I have already implied, what is of particular significance to astronomers about ESO is the construction at their site at Cerro Paranal in Chile of a group of four 8-metre telescopes, called, unsurprisingly, the Very Large Telescope, or VLT, a precursor for the new generation of 30- to 50-metre arrays which are already scheduled to be built in the first decades of this century. Clearly there is strength in the argument that VLT has leapfrogged ESO ahead of the UK in the new era of big telescopes and that, unless we now join ESO, Britain faces relegation to the second division in astronomy.

This leads me to my first question for the Minister. Far be it from me to encourage the review culture of the current administration. I believe firmly that Ministers, on the basis of the evidence before them, should take their own decisions and thereby be accountable for them. But does the noble Lord accept that the time has come for the strategic focus of UK involvement in astronomy to be looked at? In particular, do the Government accept that our proliferation of collaborations on 4-metre arrays needs to be more appropriately balanced with new collaborations on 8-metre and larger arrays?

We should consider this matter in the context of the Government's overall philosophy. In his recent speech at the Smith Institute, the Chancellor of the Exchequer outlined the Government's absolute commitment to the "knowledge-based economy". He stated, Now that the future is knowledge-based—e-shaped. if you like—we can already see the qualities needed for success: those countries that will succeed will he those that can best unleash the potential of their people by drawing on the qualities of creativity, flexibility and adaptability, the work ethic and of course an open and outward looking approach to the world". In particular the Chancellor suggested that the Government, are discovering … new ways of harnessing our innate creativity and adaptability as a people", and that they—that is, the Government— are keen that British universities build trans-Atlantic and trans-European alliances in research and commerce". That is all good and well. Of course astronomy is by no means as fashionable as IT, the particular focus of the Chancellor's remarks. Nor does it have IT's public profile. But it is no less important for that. Certainly it does not stretch imagination or credibility to suppose that UK participation in ESO would be wholly consistent with the Government's general thrust here. Indeed, this is the crux of the matter before us today. If I can put it in a somewhat inelegant way, is the DTI prepared to put the science vote's money where the Chancellor of the Exchequer's mouth is?

Against that background, I am bound to say that I am a little surprised at the Written Answer to which the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, referred of 1st February this year on what discussions had taken place with the authorities of ESO and governments of nations participating in ESO about UK involvement in the project. The Minister of State at the Department of Trade and Industry replied, Neither my right honourable Friend the Secretary of State nor my noble Friend the Minister for Science have had any discussions with the authorities of the European Southern Observatory (ESO), or with Governments of ESO member states about UK participation in ESO'.—[Official Report. Commons, 1/212000; col. WA535.] Of course, as I have already mentioned, funding of UK participation would be by the science vote through the budget of PPARC. But I hope that the Minister can confirm that this exasperating state of affairs has been rectified. It simply is not good enough for the Government to say that, because they have not received, any specific recommendations for Ministerial consideration". from PPARC, that justifies them in doing nothing. After all, this administration prides itself on giving a lead, a lead which PPARC clearly needs. Its press release of 24th February, giving details of deliberations at the 29th Council meeting, states: Council recognised that UK membership of ESO was a potentially effective route to securing that advantage, but"— this is the key point— considered that under present conditions and without additional resources membership could not be afforded". What makes this all the more surprising—the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, alluded to this—is the decision, to which I have already referred, for VISTA to be hosted at Cerro Paranal by ESO. Self-evidently there is considerable government input to this project via the involvement of the joint infrastructure fund. I am therefore bound to ask the noble Lord whether, in arriving at this decision, any attempts were made to tie VISTA in to negotiations about possible UK participation in ESO. As I have said, VISTA is scheduled to cost some £22 million; not to use that cost as a possible mechanism to defray some of the £55 million entry costs to ESO seems, to say the least, strange. I look forward to the Minister's reply to this and to the other questions which have been posed today.

I conclude with this observation from a recent leader in The Times. It states: The money is not available in the PPARC budget, nor is the annual subscription of £11–12 million. By appealing to Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister— and, as an aside, it is a shame that the noble Lord is not here today— the astronomers are trying their luck in an atmosphere more favourable to science than for many years past. The astronomers' claims are strong and deserve support". It would seem that both The Times and the field of astronomy are putting a great deal of faith in the Science Minister's willingness and ability to deliver.


Lord McIntosh of Haringey

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, for initiating the debate and to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, for his well-informed contribution. I am sorry that I am replying; the noble Lord, Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, is on duty in Portugal under the Portuguese presidency.

It is vital that the UK's astronomy community has access to the ground-based telescopes and to the other facilities that it needs to conduct its research. This is the only way that our researchers in the field can stay at the forefront of science and stay competitive with their peers in Europe and around the world.

These facilities are a major investment. Unfortunately they take many years to come to fruition. The availability of telescope time for our astronomers today reflects funding decisions and policy decisions taken in the Science and Engineering Research Council more than 10 years ago. The decisions that this Government make now will have an impact on scientists in this field for more than 20 years.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, PPARC, has the lead responsibility for identifying both the long-term and short-term facility needs of the astronomy community and for advising the Office of Science and Technology and the Government on the priority of those needs and how best to secure access to them.

PPARC is also the route by which the UK access to such large facilities is generally funded, whether by subscription to international projects, investment in our own infrastructure or by grants to individual researchers. I should say to the noble Earl, Lord Northesk, and to the noble Lord, Lord Tanlaw, who referred to the possibility of private sponsorship or of lottery funding, that historically—at least in recent years—astronomical and astrophysical research has largely been by way of public expenditure; there has been very little contribution from private sponsorship. Whether it will be possible to persuade Parliament to change the lottery rules I am not sure. We had great difficulty when we tried before.

In the run up to the outcome of the current spending review, which is entitled SR2000, and the funding allocation process for the years 2001 to 2004, PPARC is updating its strategy for astronomical facilities. Its deliberations will be informed by the long-term science review on astronomy that reported to PPARC on 19th February, a matter to which both the noble Earl and the noble Lord have referred. This review, by the astronomy panel of PPARC, highlighted a range of capabilities that it believed were particularly important for the future of UK astronomy. As your Lordships can imagine, its ideal shopping list is quite extensive and PPARC now has to look at how best to address, and most cost effectively, its requirements and to propose a way forward. As part of its thinking, PPARC will certainly be looking again at capitalising on its many international relationships, including those with the European Southern Observatory, ESO.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, seemed to think that there was something wrong about the proliferation of international partnerships. They have always been the case in astronomy. We have always taken our opportunities where we find them; we join with people who are able to offer us a good deal, both financially and scientifically; and, when we do not have formal links with such people, we still buy time, or are even awarded time, on a competitive tendering basis, on existing facilities. That is the case with ESO's 4-metre telescopes in Chile.

As these projects are such major investments we have always worked with a variety of international partners over the years, both to share the costs and to get access to the most advanced technology. The European Southern Observatory has been, and still is, one of the main routes for the UK to investigate for joint development and access to the facilities that our astronomers need.

The UK has always had a close relationship with ESO. We participated actively in the 1950s in the establishment of ESO, but we decided not to join because we had access to other equivalent southern astronomical facilities in Australia and South Africa. More recently, in 1989, we decided to join the USA in building the Gemini 8-metre telescopes rather than joining ESO in its development of its very large telescopes as we believed at the time—this was largely the view of the astronomical community—that that was the most cost-effective way of delivering the capability to our astronomers.

I mention the 8-metre telescopes in particular because it is the high priority that UK astronomers are now giving to gaining additional access to this size of telescope that is at the heart of the current debate over membership of ESO. When the Gemini South facilities come on stream the UK will have the equivalent of 50 per cent of one 8-metre telescope. This was the level planned for when we entered the project but, as reported to PPARC in the long-term science review, the community would now like more time, at least one telescope's worth, and it sees the ESO 8-metre VLT telescopes as a possible source.

So we are not members of ESO but we do continue to have productive working relationships with it. For example, another top priority facility for UK astronomers is the Atacama Large Millimetre Array (ALMA). This will be the largest ground-based astronomy project of the decade. It will detect and study the earliest and most distant galaxies, the epoch of the first light of the universe. It will also look deep into the dust-obscured regions where stars are born to examine the details of star and planet formation. The UK is participating in this £250 million project as part of the European component and signed a memorandum of understanding with ESO to this end in December 1998.

Moving right up to date, the executive board of the UK VISTA project has just announced that it is aiming to locate this new, powerful, 4-metre instrument at the ESO Paranal observatory in Chile. The project will provide the largest and most effective telescope of its kind, for use by the VISTA consortium of universities, when it enters service in 2004. However, I should emphasise that PPARC does not own it; it is owned by the consortium of universities. Therefore the kind of deal that the noble Earl referred to may not be possible. As the organisation that will pay for the running of VISTA once it is commissioned, PPARC have been asked by the VISTA Consortium to negotiate with ESO the Financial and technical conditions for siting it at its observatory at Paranal.

It is a difficult job to balance our investment between the short term demands from the astronomy community and positioning the UK as favourably as possible in the medium to long term. This means ensuring that we are making the right investments in new and advanced capabilities such as the very large 50 metre telescope that we shall need in 10 to 20 years' time, as well as getting the time on today's facilities that the astronomers most need right now. As new astronomical facilities come on line, they very rarely replace existing facilities but they provide new capabilities in addition to those that astronomers already have. For PPARC, this means that it must also juggle the requirements for funding an ever increasing range of existing facilities within what is, after all, a fixed budget. Therefore, UK membership of ESO must be considered against this backdrop.

The most recent figures for joining ESO as a full member show that it would cost the UK some £55 million for the joining fee plus an additional£12 million or so annual contribution. This is because we did not join in 1989 and is a reflection of back fees and because fees are based on gross national product rather than on any more astronomical consideration. Frankly, that is not likely to be affordable within the current level of funding available and, even if more money could be found, it is not clear that membership of ESO on those terms provides particularly good value for money when compared with other UK research priorities.

The approach we are taking is certainly not to turn our backs on ESO but to encourage Ian Halliday, the Chief Executive of PPARC, and officials of PPARC to hold discussions with ESO to see whether there are alternative packages of collaborative activity and access to ESO facilities that would be more attractive to the UK, both scientifically and financially. These discussions are ongoing. Mr Halliday has had two meetings with the ESO director general. They have already agreed that there is potential benefit to both sides in moving towards a single European optical astronomy body.

The noble Earl, Lord Northesk, said that my noble friend Lord Sainsbury, the Science Minister, had not yet become involved. He has not, but he is certainly prepared to be as soon as we reach that stage of negotiations and we do hope—and we are enthusiastic about this—that these discussions will provide a springboard for the wider debate on how to give European astronomy as strong a position as possible for the future on the global stage.

The Question before the House refers to an, expeditious participation in the European Southern Observatory I think what I have said shows that we are pursuing our approach to the European Southern Observatory with all due dispatch. The important consideration is that we should reach a conclusion, the best conclusion that we possibly can, in time for the spending review 2000. I am confident that we shall be able to do that, although I cannot of course be confident about the exact nature of the result of the negotiations.

House adjourned at three minutes past nine o'clock.