Summer closure of ‘solar’ observatory ridiculed

Mills Observatory in Dundee. Picture: Jim GoveMills Observatory in Dundee. Picture: Jim Gove
Mills Observatory in Dundee. Picture: Jim Gove
FOR nearly 80 years it has been Britain’s only full-time public observatory giving stargazers free access to view the wonders of the constellations, stars and planets.

But now the Mills Observatory in Dundee faces being moth-balled for half the year as part of a cost-cutting exercise.

The proposal to close the Mills between April and September has angered Scotland’s Astronomer Royal, Professor John Brown, who said he feared the closure could be “the not-very-thin end of a terminal wedge”.

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He also dismissed suggestions by council officials that the observatory should be closed over the summer because the sky over the city is “too bright” at that time of year for stargazing. Brown said officials were also overlooking the importance of the Mills solar telescope which is used for studying the sun in daytime, especially in summer.

Prof John Brown. Picture:  Robert PerryProf John Brown. Picture:  Robert Perry
Prof John Brown. Picture: Robert Perry

The observatory, which opened in 1935, is owned by Dundee City Council but run by Leisure and Culture Dundee (LCD), a trust mostly dependent on council subsidies.

Last week the council’s finance sub-committee agreed to slash £7.6 million from its £344.5m budget for 2014-15.

This included a savings target of three per cent for third party organisations, such as LCD, receiving over £100,000 through grant aid or management fees.

A source close to the Mills Observatory said its budget was to be cut by 25 per cent. It will be closed from April to September when observatory staff will be redeployed to venues such as the McManus art gallery and museum or Broughty Castle museum.

It is understood one reason behind the move is that the northerly aspect of the Mills means it’s “too light” for astronomy in the spring and summer months. It is also argued that while the observatory attracts around 20,000 visitors annually, 80 per cent of visits take place in winter.

Last night Brown accused the council of a lack of “openness and transparency” by giving the Mills board of astronomers only a few days’ notice of the proposals.

“The Mills’ boast has long been that it is Britain’s only full-time public observatory,” he said. “This ‘full time’ claim has become increasingly questionable as hours and staff have been progressively pruned and an increasing fraction of resources and time has been diverted away from the original science awareness aims toward activities with an arts orientation, albeit with some science flavour.

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“The latest cost-cutting proposal of summer closure of the observatory would, however, put paid to any claims to being ‘full time’ and could well be the not-very-thin end of a terminal wedge. The rationale for this, that the Dundee summer sky is too light to do astronomy, is a nonsense.”

Other observatories in Scotland, including the Royal Observatory in Edinburgh, are owned by private institutions.

Dr Bill Samson, former city astronomer at the Mills Observatory and honorary secretary of the Mills Observatory advisory group, said: “I understand very well that there are budget cuts that need to be made and I am keen to work with Leisure and Culture Dundee to find a mutually beneficial solution.”

Dundee Scottish Labour councillor Lesley Brennan, said: “There needs to be a full and open discussion regarding this.”

A spokesman for LCD said: “Any change to the operation will be announced once a decision has been made. Leisure and Culture Dundee is consulting with user groups.”

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