Grounding of a star turn

July 11, 1997

The Royal Greenwich Observatory could run for ever for a fraction of the cost of the Millennium Experience. So why is it being axed, asks Jasper Wall

On July 4 Pathfinder landed on Mars and the president of the United States congratulated his team of astronomers and engineers. On the same day Britain's minister of science announced the closure of the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Cambridge. The contrast could not be more stark, the message to UK science, and to the youth of this country contemplating science, a chilling one.

The RGO is home to 100 of the most dedicated and creative scientists and technologists in astronomy, with expertise in ground-based and space astronomy and at wavelengths from the ultraviolet through optical, infrared out to radio. The oldest scientific institute in the western world, it was founded in 1675 by Charles II, primarily to determine star positions and time so that his navy could find its position at sea.

But astronomy has changed since 1675, a change largely led by the Royal Greenwich Observatory and its development of astronomy technology. In recent times we have built the United Kingdom's premier optical observatory, the Isaac Newton Group of Telescopes in the Canary Islands, from a bare mountain top in 1980 to the world-leading observatory which it is today, its output of scientific results in cosmology and astrophysics unsurpassed. Technologically and logistically, building and operating the La Palma observatory on a mountain in the ocean 4,000 miles from the UK is an organisational feat comparable to that of the Falklands war.

Recently the RGO has been selected for contracts totalling some Pounds 9 million for the Gemini project, an international venture to build twin eight-metre telescopes on Hawaii and in Chile. There is no way that the UK would be participating in Gemini were it not for the RGO.

These telescopes represent but the start of the next millennium in ground-based astronomy. The technique of optical interferometry, pioneered by John Baldwin's group at Cambridge, will provide us with the resolving power to see to the mysterious hearts of galaxies and quasars. Such technology is prohibitive in cost for any one nation; astronomy is global, international.

Have we just ruled ourselves out of the next major advance in understanding? Do we now slip back to the second-rate observational position which the UK held from 1900 to 1950? It took UK astronomy 25 years of concerted effort to climb out of that black hole.

This decision also affects education and public understanding of science. We are proud of our work with schools throughout the UK, our fruitful interactions with many amateur astronomy groups, and our willingness to answer 20 to 30 queries daily.

For one fortieth of the cost of the Millennium Experience the RGO could run in perpetuity; the returns on such an endowment being used for telescopes, instruments, or blue-sky research to keep UK astronomy pre-eminent - the cost of staging a single G7 meeting. The Greenwich Millennium Experience project was accepted on a basis of continuity and science, comments which ring hollow in the face of July 4.

How then did it happen? A small ad hoc panel was set up in April, ostensibly to carry through an internal costing exercise to consider the possible consolidation of the Royal Observatories. The three astronomers selected for this panel were previously on record with definite views about the RGO. The exercise took me and my staff six weeks of intense work.

I was given 20 minutes to present my resulting proposals to the panel, which despite my invitation never visited the observatory. There was no astronomy-community consultation. The panel's conclusions were submitted to a Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) meeting on May 20, leaked to the press on May 23, and ever since then we have known what the recommendation in front of the minister was. My staff and I never saw the report, were not informed of the council's decision, and were prevented from discussing it with the media.

Creative accounting seems to be at work. True savings from consolidation in our detailed studies yield perhaps Pounds 1 million per year, whereas savings of Pounds 2.4 million are claimed. The other Pounds 1.4 million comes from programme cuts and PPARC then says that this money will be returned to science. What was it doing anyway? Science. This is double counting of the most obvious kind. The requisite "restructuring costs" (ie redundancy for astronomers and engineers) of Pounds 8 million have been conveniently forgotten. The public purse spent Pounds 8 million in relocating us to a purpose-designed building in Cambridge in 1990. This time, for another Pounds 8 million, it is the baby, bathwater and all.

As well as Pounds 9 million in Gemini contracts, the RGO has Pounds 2 million in contracts to build robotic telescopes in a collaboration with Liverpool John Moores University. We are being wooed as partners in large telescope and instrumentation projects by China, Japan, the US and Europe. This is the innovative commercial activity, distinctive to the RGO, which can provide the extra income to make two centres of excellence viable. There are regional issues as well as technology transfer in this; we placed some Pounds 800,000 in contracts in East Anglia last year.

There is a specious argument concerning infrared astronomy as the technology of the future and as a reason for choosing somewhere other than the RGO for an Astronomy Technology Centre. Infrared astronomy is of vital importance, particularly in looking at the most distant objects we can observe, redshifts moving much of their emission into the infrared waveband. However the key to understanding the universe does not lie here, but in observations combined across all bands.

The Gemini telescopes, technology leaders, have two thirds of their instruments at optical wavelengths. Thus infrared instrumentation capability is a necessary but not a sufficient condition. Any technology centre for UK astronomy must have expertise across all wavebands. It must also be able to design telescopes, interfaces, control systems, engineer these monstrous but delicate structures, know how to use them, have expertise in fundamental astronomy to know where to point them.

Minister, come and see the RGO which you threaten, the tight team, the enthusiasm, the skill range, the leanest administration I believe of any scientific institution in the UK. And consider the PPARC's secrecy, financial processes, top-heavy structure, manipulative decision-making and lack of vision.

In the interim the earth turns and each night reveals to us the great sweep of the universe unfolding about us; each night reveals to us the glories which make us ponder our origins. We stare in awe; we stare and study in detail, and further glimmerings of understanding emerge. In detail or as a spectacle - we ponder those origins.

We are far from understanding, and now we are farther. Assuredly we shall never comprehend the complexities of human nature which lead to decisions diminishing our culture, of which our science is such a vital part: decisions based on specious reasoning and ostensibly for minuscule savings - on paper.

Jasper Wall is director of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

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