On the eve of the national celebration of science, engineering and technology, a Government-backed research council has tabled plans to axe up to 60 research, engineering and astronomy jobs at the Royal Greenwich Observatory in Cambridge.
The proposals, announced just days before SET 98 aimed at boosting British engineering and science have dashed hopes within the RGO that a way would be found to prevent break-up of the organisation.
This has looked increasingly likely following the transfer of some of the RGO’s work to a new Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh this autumn.
The mood at the Observatory is one of ‘bitter disappointment’, according to Dr Felicity Maule Walker, the head of administration.
‘There is a unique group of people here which has brought in amazing international contracts and earned Britain international esteem in the scientific community,’ she said. ‘If you destroy that team, you will never pull that together again.’
The latest move follows the decision by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, which funds the RGO, to reject the Observatory’s plans for commercial development of telescopes reported in The Engineer in August.
The business plan forecast the RGO becoming self-financing within four years, at a maximum cost to the Government of less than £1m. It was rejected because of the risks and costs involved.
The revised plans, unveiled at a meeting of the research council last week, involve parts of the RGO’s work being transferred to the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. This will include developing a bigger visitor centre at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich with the creation of only one job for current RGO staff.
Just ‘a handful’ of RGO staff is likely to move to the new Astronomy Technology Centre in Edinburgh, due to open in September. Programmed work at the RGO is to stop in August. There are likely to be at least 60 redundancies.
Despite its rejection by PPARC, the bid to create a commercial venture to manufacture 2.5m diameter NGAT telescopes has not been entirely dropped. Members of the RGO involved are understood to be seeking venture capital backing for the idea.
Leader, page 12