Closure of the RGO

July 25, 1997

Professor Pounds justifies the proposed closure of the RGO in terms of savings to be made for exciting projects for the next millennium. However, by taking this step, PPARC may be excluding the UK from some of the exciting developments that the UK academic community in ground-based astronomy is anxious to exploit.

Professor Pounds gives examples of future projects that are exclusively in space research, which are high-cost and high-risk projects, as evidenced by the recent Cluster mission. Many in the astronomy community believe that optical interferometry, using innovative techniques developed at the University of Cambridge, provides an opportunity for a major advance in observing techniques and important new science in many areas of astrophysics. Moreover, the cost of this will be much smaller than a space mission of comparable scientific impact. With the expertise of Cambridge University in interferometry, and that of the RGO in telescope and instrument design, developments in astronomy to be considered this autumn, by his statement that "PPARC sees little prospect of being involved in further large optical/infrared telescope construction", a decision that I can find in no PPARC minutes, is he saying that only space astronomers need apply?

Professor Pounds states that "the UK Gemini work is led from the Royal Observatory Edinburgh". However, while the UK Gemini project manager and his assistant are in Edinburgh, the UK project scientist is in Oxford and the overall coordination of the project is from the International Gemini project Office in Tucson, Arizona. Gemini work packages were placed with institutions by open competition, and led by project managers in those institutions. The RGO has won more Gemini work in open competition, in value Pounds 9 million, than any other institution in any of the member countries. By comparison, the value for the ROE is less than Pounds 2 million.

Professor Pounds states that consolidation on a single site was preferred in the proposals of both royal observatories. However this is because the directors were instructed by him to prepare proposals on this model. The director of RGO has always expressed the view that both observatories should remain open. A model where both royal observatories were run under a common management and administration, a model shown to work from 1993/94, could probably achieve the same savings.

However, the statement in Professor Pounds's letter which deserves the closest examination is that Pounds 2.45 million rising to Pounds 4 million will be saved and released for new research in universities by closing the RGO. A more precise figure is perhaps Pounds 3 million in staff costs, which was given as a parliamentary answer by Mr Battle to Mr Lansley on July 15 and can be seen in Hansard. Annexe E of PPARC's report on the future management of the royal observatories shows that these savings are made by reducing staff numbers from 195 at present to 75 by 2000/2001. Such a figure requires all staff at RGO to be made redundant, together with a quarter of those in Edinburgh. If key RGO staff are transferred to Edinburgh in order to complete PPARC's current programme, then the number of redundancies in Edinburgh increases still further. What are the sacked staff doing at present? They are not all involved in "no-longer-needed telescope engineering and support activities" as Professor Pounds states. The staff at RGO, for instance, are involved in services for public education, support of the telescope time allocation process, preparation of fundamental data for astronomers, support of visiting observers to the overseas observatories, management of infrastructure shared with Cambridge University, including the Starlink computer service, library and plate library, and,most important, contract work from outside PPARC.

If these staff are no longer in post, one of three things must happen. Either the services are not provided any more, they are carried out by the 75 staff who remain in Edinburgh (with even fewer being available for developing advanced technology) or they are carried out elsewhere with an increase in cost which offsets the savings that PPARC say they will make, and which the minister has detailed. In the case of "repayment work", ie contracts from outside PPARC, these savings are offset by loss of receipts from these contracts. In the current financial year these receipts are budgeted to be Pounds 0.85 million.

It is time for PPARC to be open about the losses as well as the savings from the consolidation plan, and to guarantee that its implementation will not result in cost increases elsewhere that offset these savings. For instance, can Professor Pounds guarantee that the proposal will not lead to an increase in the staff level at central office in Swindon, above the 82.5 members of staff envisaged in the current PPARC business plan for the year 1999-2000?

David Carter Project scientist, New Generation Astronomical Telescopes Project, Liverpool John Moores University

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