The biggest shift since Henry VIII?

November 15, 1996

The establishment of the Greenwich Observatory by Charles II in 1675 was the state's first venture into funding science. It says something for the wholesale disposal of family silver on which the Government is now engaged that this week it plans to offload even this apparently uncommercial business of stargazing on to the private sector.

The Royal Observatories of Edinburgh and Greenwich (the latter now sited in Cambridge) do not charge for what they do, which means that they are not natural profit-making ventures. And almost no observations are carried out in Britain. The centres here are technical and managerial ones. The big telescopes are in Australia, Hawaii and the Canaries. These are valued at Pounds 70 million, and new telescopes and instruments routinely cost millions.

It is hard to see how they can be other than public property even if the people who run them do not see them that way. New investment will require solid funding guarantees. Privatisation would have to be underwritten and would not therefore save significant sums of money for the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council.

However, the universities may be able to provide at least part of the solution to the problem of privatising the observatories, Both observatories are close to universities with prominent astronomy departments, and share staff with them. While a firm might have trouble making telescopes pay, running them might well fit neatly into such departments as a support activity, perhaps with the help of a technology-oriented company.

The same may also apply to many of the 40 laboratories involved in the Government's Prior Options review (page 48). Some managers of such laboratories distrust the idea because of what they see as the short-termism of academic life, with funding rarely available for more than five years. As civil servants, many have been able to plot out a virtual lifetime of work, freed from such constraints.

But this freedom has not been available to everybody and in any case is no longer available. It certainly cannot be found in the private sector, where even the most long-term investors in research are demanding more, sooner, from their scientists. Nor does the example of BSE encourage confidence in governments' willingness to give house room to dissenting opinions.

By contrast, one measure of quality of a university department is its inclination to plan ahead and think unpopular thoughts years before they come into fashion. Many would welcome the people and the contracts that government research laboratories would bring, and already have close links with them.

Government laboratories have big payrolls, major equipment, and large amounts of land and buildings. They represent investments that it is hard to imagine any university being able to make today. They also have massive intellectual property, including lengthy archives of observations, which are unique and should not vanish into the inaccessibility of the private sector.

Providentially, the Government seems glad to spend hundreds of millions of pounds to rid itself of these assets. The money is needed mainly to cheer up the pensions of the personnel to be shifted. It could produce a pensions system for the staff of university-affiliated research centres, or supplement university pensions for people expecting more lucrative civil service pensions. This cash, provided it is not top-sliced off either the science vote or the funding councils' grants, could give a real and much needed boost to university research, which, it is generally admitted in Whitehall, is now badly under-funded.

Sceptics have said that privatisation is the biggest shift of wealth in Britain since Henry VIII closed the abbeys in 1536 and 1539. Prior Options is a flawed idea, but it does appear to offer the universities a chance to acquire a few of the assets now being dispersed.

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