THE FUTURE OF THE ROYAL OBSERVATORIES
STATEMENT BY THE COUNCIL OF THE ROYAL ASTRONOMICAL SOCIETY
On July 4 1997, Mr John Battle, the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, announced that he had released the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) from the obligation to implement the conclusions of the 1995 Prior Options Review of the Royal Observatories. He gave his approval to PPARC's decision to bring together the main work of the two UK Royal Observatories in a single site in Edinburgh, to be known as the UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC). In the Minister's announcement, he stated: "A substantial amount of money will be freed up as a result of this decision amounting to 2.4 million pounds per annum in the first four years and at least 4 million pounds per annum thereafter".
UK astronomers will greet this announcement with mixed feelings. When the UK joined the Gemini project, it was understood that there would have to be some reduction in the infrastructural support of the ground-based astronomy programme, partly in order to find the operating costs for the two 8-metre optical-infrared telescopes and partly because the operational support would be located overseas. Under both SERC and PPARC, not only has the budget for UK astronomy had to absorb a growing contribution for the European Space Agency, but also it has had to provide for an expanding demand from University groups, representing the increasing widespread scientific interest in astronomy and its increasing capability. All of this has had to be contained within a budget which has declined in real terms, which has severely exacerbated the financial problem. The necessary scale of the economies has not only affected the work of the Royal Observatories, but all the national facilities supported by PPARC and the research grants to university groups, which are the lifeblood of the UK astronomical research endeavour. The current PPARC business plan foresees the closure of small telescopes, as well as drastically constraining the funds available to operate the existing suite of ground-based telescopes, including the MERLIN radio- linked interferometer array, and the funds made available for universities to participate in the space science programme. The economies, which result from the reorganisation of the programme of the Royal Observatories, will enable this business plan to be funded, although at a level much less than optimal, and give some prospect for new programmes in the future. From this perspective, the Minister's announcement is to be welcomed. Furthermore, the issue of the need for two Royal Observatories has been the subject of innumerable reviews over the last 15 years and has had a debilitating effect upon those responsible for running the programmes of the Observatories. Resolving this issue is also to be welcomed.
The closure of the support facilities associated with the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Cambridge is a great sorrow. In particular, the Council of the Royal Astronomical Society is concerned about the human costs that will necessarily be incurred in this decision. The RGO possesses a dedicated staff whose expertise has been essential for the development of UK ground-based astronomy. It is of the highest importance that this expertise be maintained within the UK astronomical community. In addition, both the RGO and the ROE have long and distinguished histories of support for astronomy and it is essential that this heritage be preserved.
The RGO has collaborated, not only with the University of Cambridge, but also with numerous other UK universities in scientific research and instrumentation, including, for example, the development of robotic telescopes with Liverpool John Moores University. These collaborations have been mutually beneficial and it is essential that these joint initiatives and collaborative arrangements be honoured by PPARC. In the rationalisation of activities which will take place over the next few years, it is very important that all the projects for which both Observatories are responsible are reviewed and that those essential for the health of UK astronomy are properly supported, either through the UKATC or through new arrangements with the universities.
In the RAS survey of the UK astronomical community concerning the future of the support for the ground-based astronomy programme, which was conducted earlier this year, it was stated that the responses indicated a majority opinion in favour of the proposals of the first Hough Report, if financial circumstances did not improve. The Council emphasises that it gave its reluctant support to these proposals in the event that no other feasible solution was forthcoming. The Council of the RAS very much regrets that no other solution could be found. The fact that such a drastic decision has had to be taken illustrates the stringency of the financial constraints upon the astronomy programme, and how seriously these constraints are being taken.
The Minister concluded his statement with words that we urge PPARC to take very seriously: "The concentration at Edinburgh will take place over some years. The RGO is an historic institution with a great tradition that has already survived two changes of location. I am asking PPARC to explore every possible avenue for keeping the institution alive. Nevertheless, this decision will lead to some job losses. Therefore I have asked PPARC to make every effort to help anyone who loses their job to find alternative employment."
Malcolm S. Longair, President, Royal Astronomical Society.
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