Britain to Shut Down Venerable Observatory

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Science News Staff
1997-07-07 19:00
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Britain's oldest scientific institution has finally received its feared death sentence. Following weeks of speculation, on 4 July the new Labour government announced plans to close the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) in Cambridge. The RGO and the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh (ROE), will be merged over the next few years at the Edinburgh site to form a new U.K. Astronomy Technology Center; up to 100 RGO astronomers and technicians are expected to lose their jobs.

The decision follows a recommendation in May from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), a government agency that funds the country's astronomy program, to close RGO (Science, 13 June, p. 1641). "This decision will allow PPARC to reorganize the Royal Observatories in a way which best meets their scientific requirements," Science Minister John Battle said in a statement. But RGO officials sharply criticized the decision. "The RGO is recognized as the United Kingdom's brand name in astronomy," says RGO director Jasper Wall. "This is a betrayal of a branch of science that is part of our culture," he says.

The observatories' main job is to provide technological support for telescopes, such as the Isaac Newton Group in Las Palmas, Canary Islands, and the Joint Astronomy Center in Hawaii, that PPARC operates overseas for British astronomers. The two observatories have been chasing a dwindling pot of cash in PPARC's astronomy budget for many years. But the fiscal crisis worsened last May, when the newly elected Labour government said it would adhere to tough spending guidelines set by the previous Conservative government. Labour officials say the decision will free up part of RGO's budget--$15.2 million over the next 4 years and at least $6.5 million per year thereafter--for basic science projects.

But RGO's defenders doubt that science will benefit from the closure. The new center at Edinburgh "is not about improving the U.K.'s astronomy program--it is simply a way of saving money," asserts Tony Bell, the negotiator for the Institute of Professionals, Managers, and Scientists, an organization that represents many of the observatories' staff. Although the new government has asked PPARC to explore ways of keeping the RGO alive in some form, "the idea has not been thought through at all," says RGO astronomer Margaret Penston. "It would be tragic if it ended up as nothing more than a theme park," adds Bell.

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