Observatory may go home

July 11, 1997

Preliminary talks are underway which could see the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) at Cambridge returned to its original London home by the millennium.

The National Maritime Museum at Greenwich, which houses the original 1675 Royal Observatory, has expressed interest in the RGO's future after the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) was last week given the government go-ahead to move all astronomy technical support from the RGO to the Royal Observatory Edinburgh.

Richard Ormond, the museum's director, confirmed preliminary talks had started. "We feel keenly about the issue and are prepared to help," he said. "It is far too early to say what might or might not happen. The future of the RGO name is a matter of concern. I am sure we will be having further discussions."

The move of technical support to Edinburgh, will mean up to 100 job losses and leave the future of what remains at the RGO, including its name, libraries and public understanding arm in question.

PPARC says the move of technical support is essential as demand for it drops. Peter Williams, PPARC's chairman, said the case for the move was "compelling" and the "logic overwhelming".

Chief executive Ken Pounds added that because budgets were not increasing PPARC had to make savings.

"The alternative would have been fewer grants and the loss of 150 jobs in the universities," he said.

Savings of Pounds 2.4 million for each of the next four years and then Pounds 4 million a year will be redirected to astronomy research in universities. Professor Pounds said: "This is where we get better value for money."

Others, including Astronomer Royal Martin Rees, have reacted angrily to the decision. RGO director Jaspar Wall called it a "betrayal of a branch of science".

Margaret Penston, chairwoman of unions at PPARC and herself an astronomer at RGO, said staff were "angry, frustrated and sad". Professor Pounds added: "We want to see greater partnership developing between Edinburgh University and the observatory. Both would benefit," he said.

Opinion, page 14

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