Minister takes fight to save observatory to Westminster

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THE Scottish Government has intervened to voice concerns to Westminster over the threat to Edinburgh's Royal Observatory.

Around 50 jobs are at risk at the UK's Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC), which is based at the observatory on Blackford Hill, because of cuts in government funding for science.

Now Enterprise Minister Jim Mather has written to John Denham, Secretary of State at the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, warning the cuts could damage world-leading research.

The move comes as city MP John Barrett called for a debate at Westminster and members of the Commons' universities and skills committee visited Edinburgh for talks on the issue. The ATC, which was established at the observatory in 1998 as part of a major reorganisation of British astronomy which saw the closure of the Royal Greenwich Observatory, is to have its 8 million-a-year budget slashed by almost half, threatening a 50 per cent reduction in the 100-strong workforce.

The cut was decided by the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), whose own funding from the Government was slashed by 80m in this year's spending review. It has also announced cuts of up to 25 per cent in physics grants to universities.

The ATC also stands to lose because it designs and builds parts for some of the world's major telescopes and the STFC is withdrawing from many of these to save money.

Mr Mather said he had written to the UK Government to express his "deep concern" at the 80m reduction in the science budget.

He said: "The proposed cut will inevitably impact on research in Scotland's universities and research facilities, and the economy of Scotland more generally. In Scotland, the cuts will have an immediate impact on the world-leading UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory. The Royal Observatory is world renowned, making a huge contribution to astronomical innovation and design.

"The cuts would also damage world-leading physics research in our universities."

And Mr Mather announced he would be visiting the observatory soon.

Meanwhile Mr Barrett, Liberal Democrat MP for Edinburgh West, called for an urgent Commons debate to hammer out a deal to save the observatory from the funding cuts which he said could threaten its future.

He said: "Any cutback in research and development is short sighted. These are areas where we ought to be committing additional funding.

"It is vital that we leave no stone unturned in the search for a solution to this funding crisis. A debate in parliament will force Ministers to face up to their responsibilities not to let the current confusion over funding rob us of a world-class facility."

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