When it comes to vision, telescopes don’t get a look in

The latest twist in the future of the Royal Greenwich Observatory is a big disappointment. The RGO has always played a part in the public understanding of science, and it makes sense to incorporate this at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, on the site where thousands of tourists trek throughout the year to stand […]

The latest twist in the future of the Royal Greenwich Observatory is a big disappointment. The RGO has always played a part in the public understanding of science, and it makes sense to incorporate this at the Old Royal Observatory in Greenwich, on the site where thousands of tourists trek throughout the year to stand with one foot either side of the famous Greenwich meridian.

We can hope that the cash spent developing a bigger and more interactive visitor centre will inspire some young people to a technical or scientific career. It will certainly make some money.

But while visitors may be impressed, there is another cost. This development is taking place at the expense of a relatively small amount of public money that could have pump-primed a team of scientists and engineers into a business venture designing and making telescopes worth at least £1m, which could be exported. That was ruled out by the RGO’s governing research council because of the ‘costs, uncertainties and associated risks’ involved.

When the threat of closure of the RGO first emerged last summer, industry minister John Battle said the decision should be given ‘thorough consideration’. Look at the result.

In effect, the Government was faced with a choice of backing a safe-bet tourism development, or a venture in the manufacturing sector. Tourism won. And the impressive domed roof of the Old Royal Observatory will become a science spin-off from the Millennium Dome, a short bus ride down the road.