Astronomy staff battle to protect Newall site

May 28, 1999

Major expansion plans at Cambridge University risk being scuppered by a 68-year-old land agreement in a row that is set to be judged by the Duke of Edinburgh, Prince Philip.

A group of academics intend to invoke disciplinary action against Cambridge vice-chancellor, Alec Broers, for allegedly breaching a legal agreement over the use of a plot of land in west Cambridge, the site of the university's flagship computer laboratory and part of the massive west Cambridge development.

The 13-hectare field, Vicar's Farm, was sold to the university in 1931 by the first director of the Solar Physics Observatory, H.F. Newall, on condition it would not be put to any use that would be prejudicial to the observatory. Astronomers and protesters argue that development plans will prejudice the observatory, and have seized on the agreement.

Academics are now collecting signatures for an appeal to the university chancellor, Prince Philip, following the vice-chancellor's failure to respond to initial correspondence.

In a campaigning leaflet distributed to academics this week, protest leader Roger Griffin, a reader in observational astronomy, said the university's plans would damage astronomy at the university, creating light, heat and noise pollution.

"The present proposals are more damaging than anything Professor Newall could have imagined in his worst nightmares," he said. "The university bound itself to respect Professor Newall's intentions, so it certainly ought to honour them."

But it is understood that the land forms the basis of the university's plans for a massive computer laboratory, deemed essential for the development of one of its flagship research fields. The laboratory is also set to house a site for the computer software giant Microsoft, following a multimillion-pound donation - a deal that has already caused disquiet among academics worried about academic freedom and intellectual property rights.

Dr Griffin said: "There is no reason why a safeguard written into a legal document for the benefit of an academic department should be ignored - least of all for a controversial development that is partly to enable a commercial firm to infiltrate another department."

Dr Griffin also argues that the university's actions will discourage other potential university benefactors, "who might naturally expect their own intentions to be honoured".

The protesters allege that the safeguards in the land deal have gradually been eroded, and that the university has failed to consult with the current director of the Institute of Astronomy, or the professor of astrophysics, as stipulated in the agreement.

Richard Ellis, director of the Institute of Astronomy, said in a letter to protesters last month that he had been in discussions with the estates department. "I am confident that a satisfactory agreement can be reached," he said.

A spokesperson said: "Dr Griffin has expressed concerns about the development of the west Cambridge site. His concerns are under consideration. The university will be planning carefully the lighting provision on the west Cambridge site, in consultation with the directors of the observatory. In choosing appropriate lighting levels, we will have to ensure the safety of our students and staff."

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