Royal Observatory will transfer to Edinburgh

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Astronomers at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO) in Cambridge are considering staging a buyout, after the Government announced yesterday that it will begin winding down its operations after this year.

While their US counterparts celebrated the Mars Pathfinder mission, the mood was sombre at the RGO, where 100 jobs could be lost.

"I feel devastated. One twentieth of the cost of the Millennium Experience at Greenwich, the original home of the observatory, would endow the RGO in perpetuity," said Dr Margaret Penston, one of the astronomers.

The announcement was the first major decision to be made by John Battle, the minister for science, energy and industry. On the advice of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the main funding body for the field, he said yesterday that British astronomy work will be concentrated at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, in a new UK Astronomy Technology Centre (UKATC), beginning from the end of this year.

But scientists were angry at the manner in which the news was released - in a written parliamentary answer, made available on Friday morning just when concentration on the Mars Pathfinder mission would be at a maximum.

"It's not very satisfactory from our point of view," said Neil Parker, deputy director of the RGO. "We have more or less been excluded from the decision. We have not been aware of what the options on offer were or why they were made." None of the staff is keen to move to Edinburgh, he said, describing it as a "retrograde step". PPARC said the recommendation, made by its council on 21 May, was unanimous.

The RGO was founded in the 17th Century by Charles II to help measure the Greenwich meridian on which Greenwich Mean Time is based. The original building, on the zero meridian in south London's Greenwich Park, is now a museum: the scientists moved to Herstmonceux Castle, East Sussex in 1948 when the glare from London became too bright. They moved again to Cambridge in 1990.

The Department of Trade and Industry described the closure as "reversing the privatisation of PPARC observatories" - a claim that brought derision from those who stand to lose their jobs. The "privatisation" was the Prior Options review process conducted last year - but cut short by the Tory administration as costs escalated and the election approached.