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A closed subject?

Is the sky about to fall in on the Royal Greenwich Observatory? Cuts and overcapacity in astronomy suggest it might. By Charles Arthur
About 100 staff at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Cambridge are becoming acutely aware of the meaning of the phrase "out of the frying pan and into the fire". Last December, they heard - with some relief - that a plan to privatise the two royal observatories (the other is based in Edinburgh) had been cancelled, because of financial and legal problems, such as funding pensions and redundancy obligations.

Now, though, they face the more daunting prospect of simple redundancy. At least, they suspect they do. The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), the RGO's funding body, is believed to have recommended that the observatory be closed to save pounds 1m a year.

But PPARC won't say if that is indeed its decision. The members of the council have been told to tell nobody (especially nosy journalists) the substance of their decision - though the news has leaked out, as these things will.

A fierce and outspoken critic of the idea is Sir Martin Rees, the Astronomer Royal, who last week wrote to the head of PPARC to demand why wider consultation had not been undertaken in the making of the decision - perhaps aiming at allowing the observatories to be managed by a consortium of universities, as happens in a number of other countries. "By closing either observatory, you would be damaging ongoing projects, and sending a negative signal about the UK's future in astronomy," he wrote. "Your proposal, if implemented, would probably attract more publicity than anything else PPARC has done."

Perhaps the second part of that message filtered through, for PPARC has clamped down fiercely to enforce its version of secrecy. Staff at the RGO, including its director, Dr Jasper Wall, have been told not to speak to the media. If they do, the threat is of disciplinary action, up to and including dismissal. Last week, BBC TV was setting up cameras to record an interview about closure with Dr Wall owhen a telephone call came in. After putting the phone down, Dr Wall apologised to the reporter - he couldn't talk. PPARC had told him not to, in the strongest possible terms. When The Independent called Dr Wall to confirm the details, he apologised: but he couldn't comment. PPARC had instructed him not to. And that was that.

The council's recommendation has now gone forward to the new minister for science and technology, John Battle, and will form his first major decision. For someone struggling to master his brief, it must be an unwelcome choice to have to make. Could PPARC have it wrong? Should the Labour government announce a job-cutting decision which will reduce the amount of scientific work going on, after Tony Blair had made so much of it (well, he mentioned it in a speech) during the election? Last week, in an informal meeting with science journalists, Mr Battle was noncommittal, while his civil servants murmured about getting up to speed. One got the sensation that our expectations were being gently lowered. Nevertheless, the decision is expected in days, or weeks.

The issue of closure is not in fact a new one. It has been a matter of debate among British astronomers and administrators since 1995, when it was recognised that there was overcapacity in the system. Britain actually had too much technical support for the astronomy work it was doing.

It is worth noting how much work that includes. British astronomers have been involved in some crucial findings - of which the most important is probably the discovery in May that the universe is bigger than it appears, and hence older; this means it is older than its oldest stars, ending a conundrum that had mystified people for decades. Conventional measurement systems seemed to show that some stars were older than the universe.

While not quite as old as the universe, the Royal Greenwich Observatory does have a long history. It was founded in 1675 by Charles II. After the Second World War, it was moved from the city to Herstmonceux in East Sussex to escape the growing problems of light pollution and smog. In 1990, it moved again, to Cambridge.

By now, though, the actual observatory had gone. The RGO was instead providing technical support, acting as a conduit between scientists in British universities and the powerful telescopes in spots far more suitable for observation, such as the Canary Islands and Hawaii.

From next year, there will be even more observation capacity to support, when a project called Gemini - with twin telescopes in the Chilean mountains and in Hawaii - goes into operation. The excess costs of having both Cambridge and Edinburgh providing technical support would mount to pounds 1m, concluded PPARC. Better instead, they reckoned, to cut those losses by closing the RGO, perhaps transferring some of the research to Cambridge University, and shift the focus of the technical support to Edinburgh.

This has not been warmly welcomed in Cambridge. But the RGO's employees have been used to uncertainty. Over the years, they have also got used to being gagged. When the move from Herstmonceux was suggested in 1990, they were prepared to be equally vocal in their opposition to it - though rather as today, the funding council (then the Science and Engineering Research Council) told staff that it would be "inappropriate" for them to wage a campaign against the move.

The Prior Options review under the Conservatives sought to see whether the observatories' work could be put in the private sector - though one PPARC employee says: "It had been obvious for 10 years that you couldn't, because of the pensions and so on. That was a pretext." It ate up about pounds 2m of PPARC's budget even so - a cost which Sir Martin described last December as "a waste of money".

Asked about the threats made against anyone who would speak today, PPARC's spokesman used remarkably similar words to those used in 1990: "The council has put recommendations through, which are in the purview of the minister, so it is not appropriate for us or our staff to comment."

Steve Farrar, who covers science for the Cambridge Evening News, confirms that RGO staff have been effectively silenced. In response, the paper has begun a campaign to support the Observatory, calling for it to stay open. It has even received samizdat proposals from staff there for budget distributions which would halve the number of redundancies.

However, the expectation remains that John Battle will have to announce an unpopular decision in the near future. British astronomy will almost certainly suffer in the short term. The only ones who may actually be fairly well-placed are the highly-trained staff at the Observatory. As one observed, "We're highly qualified people. If they close it, we'll get out quickly. There is no point hanging around while the place is slowly strangled. With all the science parks and hi-tech companies, Cambridge is a pretty easy place to get a job - if you're qualified"n