Observatory staff bank on rescue plan

September 12, 1997

Plans to save the 300-year-old Royal Greenwich Observatory from closure will be presented to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council later this month as the observatory staff propose to go it alone.

Two months after the Government gave the council permission to form a new Edinburgh-based technical support body for British astronomy from the RGO and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh, a rescue package has been put together by Greenwich managers to save what remains from closure.

At the same time negotiations are underway between PPARC and Edinburgh University for the latter to take over much of the research and non-technological activities undertaken at the ROE. These are believed not to fit with the council's plans for the new Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh.

Keith Tritton, head of astronomy at Greenwich, said that much of the work undertaken at the RGO would not be transferring to the new ATC, which will provide technological support for British astronomy programmes.

"We believe there will be a viable business still here once technical support moves to Edinburgh," he said. Plans for the future role of the RGO include research, education and raising public understanding, as well as the continuation of telescope construction and support for overseas customers.

"PPARC is not interested in providing technology for the general overseas market," Dr Tritton said. "They are only interested in providing technical services for PPARC-funded projects. We will be very careful not to tread on the toes of people carrying out work in Edinburgh."

Staff hope the RGO can become a non-profit making company limited by guarantee, independent of PPARC. They acknowledge that the council's support would be needed in some form in the short term. This may include a guarantee of work or the transfer of assets. "We are developing this in close contact with PPARC," added Dr Tritton.

Ken Pounds, PPARC chief executive, said he expected a proposal from RGO management later this month. He said: "We will do what we can. But what we cannot do is use public money to set up a private company. That doesn't mean we cannot help at all. We have had to put aside a significant amount for restructuring, a large proportion of which is to make people redundant. If it turned out to be possible to use that money in a more productive way, to ease the transitions from PPARC funding for RGO to private funding, then of course we would be very happy to look at that."

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