Closure of the RGO

July 25, 1997

The letter (THES, July 18) from Professor Pounds, chief executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council does nothing to allay concerns about his council's stewardship of the royal observatories.

He does not challenge the account (THES, July 11) of how the recommendation was made to close the Royal Greenwich Observatory: an ad hoc panel - operating with minimal consultation, and making no site visit - allowed its director 20 minutes to present his case. The focus was solely on the RGO's role as a "technology centre", and on a judgement of its plan for "repayment work". There was little consultation: indeed there was a clamp-down on discussion.

Professor Pounds recalls that a merger with the Royal Observatory Edinburgh was mooted in 1983. Further discussion, however, led the Science and Engineering Research Council to decide otherwise, and to build new premises in Cambridge that the RGO moved to in 1990. A disruptive reversal after only seven years seems ill-judged even to some of the minority who then favoured a merger, especially as the current quality of the RGO is not in dispute.

Professor Pounds claims that the need for the RGO's expertise will dwindle after current projects are completed. But there are no firm grounds for such projections until PPARC has adequately addressed what the overall balance of its programme should be. Any extra savings made by closing one royal observatory, rather than implementing evolutionary changes at both, are at best only a fraction of the Pounds 2.5 million a year mentioned by Professor Pounds.

The observatories compare well in cost-effectiveness with the other elements of the United Kingdom's "big science" infrastructure. The total budget of all four sites (Hawaii, La Palma, RGO and ROE) is only a quarter of the UK's contribution to CERN, and half our contribution to ESA.

PPARC should respond to the wide criticism of its handling of the issue by thinking again.

Martin Rees Astronomer Royal, University of Cambridge

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