Sale time nears for royal star chambers

November 15, 1996

The government looks set to give the final go-ahead to the sale of the two royal observatories.

The Royal Greenwich Observatory works closely with Cambridge University and the Royal Observatory Edinburgh with Edinburgh University. Both universities have shown strong interest in making a bid to the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

The need for the Government to provide about Pounds 12 million to indemnify itself and the council against the cost of transferring pensions to the private sector has delayed the sell-off. Ministers are expected to make a decision on the funds soon.

Bids for the observatories could also come from the public sector. A prior options review of the observatories said that the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils is an "obvious candidate" for such a bid.

The review proposed contracting out management of PPARC's observatories in Hawaii and La Palma with the council retaining ownership of the telescopes, valued at about Pounds 70 million. Much of the observatories' work relates to the design, manufacture and supply of sophisticated instrumentation to these telescopes overseas.

PPARC is also preoccupied with problems at Cern, the Geneva-based particle-smashing laboratory. Officials from the 19 Cern member states met last week to discuss Germany's recent decision to cut its Pounds 100 million subscription to Cern by 8.5 per cent a year.

This could derail the Large Hadron Collider project and jeopardise hundreds of millions of pounds of backing for the project from the United States and Japan.

The meeting agreed unanimously that that LHC should be completed on schedule for 2005. Ways of making up a shortfall for the project of around Pounds 150-Pounds 200 million would be thrashed out by Cern for members to consider in December. This could involve taking out commercial loans or a change in members' subscription.

No Cern members are keen to allow Germany a special deal and all would benefit from a similar reduction in annual subscriptions. This could save the United Kingdom about Pounds 5 million from next year's Pounds 70 million subscription.

Ken Pounds, chief executive of PPARC, said the saving would be "extremely helpful in making up the shortfall in funding for our domestic particle physics programme. It would also allow us to exploit our membership of Cern and participation in the LHC programme more effectively".

Changes in exchange rates cause fluctuations in the UK's annual subscription to Cern and the European Space Agency. The Commons science and technology committee recently said that these fluctuations should be borne by Treasury and not the science budget. The Government this week rejected this. "Consideration of which areas of science to fund must, of course, take their total cost into account," it said.

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