Observatory jobs go as budget cut

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CUTS in Government science funding will mean around 50 job losses at Edinburgh's Royal Observatory over the next three years.

The UK's Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC), based at the observatory on Blackford Hill, has been told its budget will be halved over a three-year period starting in April.

And unless the centre, which designs and builds instruments for many of the world's major telescopes, can win new business, redundancies seem inevitable.

The cuts of up to 3.7 million a year have been passed down from the Science and Technology Facilities Council, whose own funding from the Government was cut by 80m in this year's spending review.

Professor Ian Robson, director of the ATC, which employs around 100 people, said: "We are very disappointed with the result of the spending review. We are looking at a reduction of 50 per cent in the workforce on site here unless we can generate external income."

He said the ATC was the world's best supplier of the sophisticated instrumentation it produces.

"In terms of the UK as a hotbed of science and technology and a leader in Europe, this is all quite tragic," he said.

But he said the skills used to build astronomical equipment could also be used for medical and other kinds of instruments and he was optimistic the centre could find a market for its work if it was given more time.

"These cuts come in on April 1 and it's difficult to be trying to downsize the organisation at the same time as trying to market yourself in terms of new business," he said. "If we can buy time for about a year we ought to be able to move out and develop new business markets."

The ATC was established in Edinburgh in 1998 as part of a major reorganisation of British astronomy which saw the closure of the Royal Greenwich Observatory. A major extension was opened in 2005 by then First Minister Jack McConnell.

Tony Bell, a senior official at Prospect union, which has members at the ATC,

said: "If there is a threat to the ATC or other centres, we will be challenging the council on its assumptions and spending choices."

Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, president of the Royal Astronomical Society, added: "Cuts to the ATC in Edinburgh are certainly a blow to astronomical instrumentation in the UK."

Fred Mackintosh, Lib Dem candidate for Edinburgh South at the next general election, said the Government should guarantee a secure future for the ATC.

He said: "The massive cuts to British astronomy announced by STFC will rip the heart out of the Royal Observatory and astronomy in Edinburgh."