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Royal Astronomical Society's Statement regarding the future of the UK's Royal Observatories

Last Updated on Sunday, 02 May 2010 19:03
Published on Friday, 25 February 2005 00:00


The Council of the Royal Astronomical Society has prepared the following statement, which has been submitted to the Select Committee on Science and Technology of the House of Commons:


Prior Options and the Future of the Royal Observatories

Note on behalf of the Royal Astronomical Society


The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) has represented the interests of UK Astronomers and Geophysicists since 1826. The current Council of the RAS comprises 21 members of the scientific community possessing a wide range of experience relevant to the issues being discussed as part of the Prior Options process for formulating the future role of the Royal Observatories under a new system of financing and management. The Council of the RAS understands the reasoning behind the present process for determining the role of the Observatories and does not feel it appropriate to comment upon the process by which the review has been carried out. The RAS recognises the management responsibilities of PPARC, and ultimately the Office of Science and Technology, for the proper use of public funds.

The RAS offers the following perspectives upon possible outcomes of the current process and hopes that its concerns will be fully taken into account during the forthcoming selection process.


1. It is the view of the RAS Council that, given the uncertainties and concerns which have been generated over the last decade on the future and role of the Royal Observatories, the outcome of the proposed changes to their status and management should be as final and complete as current financial conditions allow.

The process should not leave the Observatories and their staffs facing yet further major upheavals in order to carry out the currently foreseen future programme of PPARC. The uncertainties concerning the future of the Observatories has unquestionably had a negative impact upon the ability of the Observatories to carry out the tasks for which they are responsible and has resulted in the loss of highly expert staff, often overseas. The uncertainty has also weakened the UK's position as a partner in many of its most important international collaborative ventures. Whatever the recommended outcome of the present review, it must lead to a period of stability for the staffs of the Observatories.


2. The Royal Observatories have developed over the years many special areas of expertise which are crucial for the astronomy programme. The provision of facilities for use by the University community has been the foundation for much of the success of the astronomy programme. In addition, the maintenance and development of technical knowledge and skills for the benefit of the community of astronomers has been essential in enabling the UK to take part in major new international initiatives. It is essential that, whatever new management arrangements are developed, these skills, as well as the facilities needed to provide them, are preserved and developed. The Observatories are also the repository of much archival material of great interest and importance for astronomical research. The Council of the RAS expects that proper provision is made to ensure the safekeeping of this material and that access to it for research purposes is facilitated.


3. It is expected that, while PPARC has the responsibility to manage the Astronomy programme and the activities carried out in the Observatories, the UK academic community, as the end users, will be involved in a major way in how the Observatories are operated and what their future development should entail.


4. Given the strong financial pressures on PPARC, the Council of the RAS expects that the final programme of the Royal Observatories will enable a rigorously cost-effective service to be provided for those functions which they are charged to carry out, and that the resulting organisation will be sufficiently flexible that it can respond to future changes in programme scale and content without the need for further structural change.


5. The Council hopes that any formal definition of the future function and duties of the Royal Observatories will specifically include the statement that one of their objectives is the support of the academic community and, in particular, the training of students in the acquisition of data and the use of advanced instrumentation. The mode of operation of facilities should take fully into account the constraints under which academics are required to work.


6. The Council of the RAS requests that adequate provision is made in any future arrangements for the proper discharge of PPARC's responsibilities as an employer towards the current Observatory staff. This entails including such a requirement in the selection process to ensure that, whatever structure is set up to manage the Royal Observatories, the financial implications of the various employment options which may face individuals at present employed by PPARC are fully understood and accepted.

The RAS will be very pleased to assist PPARC in helping to achieve these goals. As the professional body of astronomers and geophysicists, it has the health of astronomy and geophysics as its highest priority and greatest concern. The Council of the RAS looks forward to helping PPARC maintain and enhance the excellence of its programme.


Officers of the Royal Astronomical Society:

President Professor Malcolm Longair, Department of Physics, University of Cambridge. Phone: 01223-337083


Secretaries Professor A. Michael Cruise, School of Physics and Space Research, University of Birmingham. Phone: 0121-414-651


Professor Kathy A. Whaler, Dept of Geology and Geophysics, University of Edinburgh. Phone: 0131-650 4904


Dr Margaret J. Penston, Royal Greenwich Observatory, Cambridge. Phone: 01223-374768


Executive Secretary Mr John Lane, Royal Astronomical Society, Burlington House, Piccadilly, London W1V 0NL. Phone: 0171-734 4582 or 3307. 

Issued by:
Dr Jacqueline Mitton, RAS Public Relations Officer
Phone: (0)1223-564914
FAX: (0)1223-572892
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