Brits get cash for star role in Chile

November 24, 2000

Astronomers have applauded the government's announcement that the United Kingdom will be joining the European Southern Observatory.

Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, said: "The UK has slipped internationally in terms of large telescopes. The ESO has proved itself to be a world beater and it is certainly right that we should join."

ESO membership will cost £12 million a year with a joining fee of about £70 million. It will give British astronomers access to a suite of four 8m optical telescopes being built in Chile, and a role in the future development of far larger telescopes.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council will be given an extra £20 million to enable the UK to join.

The remainder of the fee will have to be found from the PPARC budget. The PPARC is consequently restructuring its ground-based astronomy programme, leading to fears that facilities such as the Isaac Newton Group of telescopes on La Palma, the Anglo-Australian Telescope and the Merlin national radio astronomy network may be at risk.

The announcement came as part of the government's science budget spending review for 2001-04, which represents a 7 per cent per year increase in real terms over the next three years, according to trade and industry secretary Stephen Byers. "What is needed is long-term sustainable investment," he said.

Much of the extra money has been earmarked for special programmes. This includes an extra £356 million for new initiatives including three cross-research council programmes. These are:

  • Genomics - £110 million to develop powerful instruments and data management tools
  • e-science - £15 million as a cross-research council programme; a further £74 million will be top-sliced from the individual research councils to fund e-science in their own subject areas
  • basic technology (covering areas such as nanotechnology) - £44 million.

The DTI's contribution to the Joint Infrastructure Fund - run with the Wellcome Trust - will be £125 million in 2001-02. Its contribution to the JIF's successor, the science research investment fund, will rise to £250 million in 2003-04.

PhD students will see stipends rise to a minimum of £9,000 by 2003-04. In some cases, the stipend will be higher - the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, for example, is allowing departments to pay more.

Finally, £110 million over three years has been allocated to knowledge transfer.

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