Review frenzy sets Royal observatories reeling

July 28, 1995

The astronomy community is reeling after the announcement of another review of the Royal observatories, which will bring the number of reviews this year to three and continue a chain of studies that started in the early 1980s.

The head of the Royal Greenwich Observatory has said that research is being "substantially damaged" because of the amount of management time that senior astronomers are forced to spend on such reviews.

The Department of Trade and Industry announced this week a management review of the Royal observatories - Royal Greenwich Observatory, the Royal Edinburgh Observatory and sites in Hawaii and La Palma, in the Canaries.

The prior options review will "examine rigorously" the possibilities of privatisation, abolition and contracting out as well as reorganisation within the public sector.

Jasper Wall said that the reviews seemed arbitrary, "implemented whenever a previous review doesn't produce the 'right answer'".

Jim Hough, of the University of Hertfordshire, author of two independent 1995 reviews, said: "We are happy with the recommendations that we made and perhaps we are disappointed that our recommendations have to be delayed until the prior options is completed". He had found that privatisation or contracting out were not appropriate.

Professor Hough's review recommended that the overseas observatories should be given more autonomy and that, in the United Kingdom, where work is primarily on instrumentation and technology, there should be a single astronomical technology centre. His second, unpublished, review, recommended a site for the centre.

The DTI said that the review "takes place against the background of this earlier work". Its first term of reference is to "establish what programme functions, falling within the current remit of the Royal Observatories need to be carried out in pursuit of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council mission".

Dr Wall said that the problems would not be solved until international astronomy subscriptions were entered into at a governmental level.

Ian Halliday, from the University of Wales, Swansea, has been asked to chair the steering group, which will include Ken Pounds, chief executive of PPARC and Adrian Carter, of the Office of Science and Technology. It will make its recommendations by December 22.

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