Astroparticle physics community is exceptional but needs to grow, says report

30 June 2015

The UK's astroparticle physics community has an exceptional international standing and its scientific output is high, but its size is critically low and its expertise needs to be better represented at research council level.

Astroparticle

These are among the conclusions of a report, A Review of UK Astroparticle Physics Research, commissioned by the IOP's Science and Innovation Committee and published in June.

The report draws on both a census of UK activity in astroparticle physics and an international survey of how UK research in the field is perceived, which received responses from 25 countries.

The census showed that the numbers of people working in astroparticle physics are smaller than those in nuclear physics, and considerably smaller than in particle physics or astronomy. It is likely that the community is also very significantly smaller than in comparator countries such as France, Italy, Germany and Spain, the report says.

However, the vast majority of respondents to the international survey thought that the community was of high or exceptional quality, and that the depth of its research was either high or adequate. More than half thought that the community showed high or exceptionally high levels of international leadership. The report notes: "For many years, the UK has been leading in international working groups, conducting pioneering research responsible for many breakthrough discoveries."

In addition, an independent bibliometric analysis showed that the productivity and quality of refereed, peer-reviewed journal publications in UK astrophysics research is high. "The findings present the UK community, given its size, as an outstandingly strong contributor to the field," the report notes.

The report also describes the contribution of the community to the training of MSc and PhD students, to public engagement in science and to industry and knowledge transfer.

But the size of the community hampers its ability to contribute to a wider range of pressing scientific questions, develop new applications and train people in necessary skills, the report says.

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is the principal funder of astroparticle physics research in the UK, and the report welcomes the STFC's recent commitment to a strong UK participation in the construction phase of the LUX-ZEPLIN direct dark matter research project, and is becoming the UK shareholder in the Cherenkov Telescope Array. Both of these will provide additional breadth to the UK's astroparticle physics community, the report says.

However, it also calls on the STFC to examine its peer review mechanisms to ensure that interdisciplinary fields such as astroparticle physics are adequately represented in the funding and prioritisation process. While "the number of suitable experts assessing astroparticle physics projects is still too low", the report says, it does not recommend ring-fencing the astroparticle physics budget, arguing that this would be counterproductive.