Galactic gazers predict shake-up

June 9, 2000

The cost of joining the European Southern Observatory in a bid to put the United Kingdom back in astronomy's premier league spells big cuts in facilities elsewhere.

The move is to be discussed at a "town meeting" of astronomers, organised by the Royal Astronomical Society in London on June 22.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council is negotiating to join ESO and is seeking a lump sum of Pounds 60 million, plus Pounds 5 million a year from the Office of Science and Technology towards the annual Pounds 12 million subscription.

Membership of the eight-nation collaboration is seen as UK astronomy's top priority.

It would give scientists access to the superior power of the 8m optical telescopes being built on a mountain in the Atacama Desert, Chile.

Many are concerned that reliance on older 4m technology has seen the UK lose its lead.

A meeting of PPARC's astronomy committee on June 29 will hear that, even if extra government funds are found in the forthcoming comprehensive spending review, savings of Pounds 5 million a year will be needed.

Martin Ward, an astrophysicist at the University of Leicester and a member of the astronomy committee, said joining ESO would mean reducing the breadth of the national astronomy programme.

Discussions of such cuts required sensitivity and care in order to ensure the backing of the science community.

"It's probably the biggest shake-up in UK ground-based astronomy in the past 30 years," he said.

The possibilities under consideration include an end to funding the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes on La Palma, the national radio astronomy network, Merlin, and the Anglo-Australian Telescope.

There may also be substantial reductions in the operating costs of the Hawaiian-based UK Infra-Red and the James Clerk Maxwell telescopes.

Philip Diamond, director of Merlin, said he hoped a compromise solution might emerge.

"Joining ESO is a good idea but we have to avoid damaging the UK's traditional diversity in astronomy," he said.

Proponents argue that the benefits far outweigh the cost - without membership of ESO, UK astronomers will find themselves on the fringes of world-class science, with just a quarter-share in the two 8m Gemini telescopes.

George Efstathiou, an astrophysicist at the University of Cambridge and a member of the astronomy committee, said it was reasonable to give up some existing facilities to meet the cost.

"Being outside ESO is clearly damaging astronomy in this country."

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