June 3, 2012

RAS Responds About STFC Island Site Telescopes

The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) recently expressed deep regret at the decision of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) to end support for two major astronomical telescopes. The decision, a consequence of ongoing real terms cuts to the UK science budget by the Government, will almost certainly see the Hawaii-based UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) cease operations in the autumn of 2013 and the James Clerk Maxwell Telescope (JCMT) do the same a year later, with the loss of around 40 jobs.

The Society however welcomed the decision to seek to continue UK involvement in the William Herschel Telescope (WHT), sited on the island of La Palma in the Canaries, which observes the sky in visible light. Without the WHT, UK astronomers would have been in the odd position of being unable to observe the northern hemisphere of the sky — in other words many of the stars and galaxies above our heads — at optical wavelengths. This access is also critical for instrument development and for observations that complement new radio observatories like the pan-European LOFAR array.

Professor David Southwood, President of the Royal Astronomical Society, commented: “The closure of these innovative facilities, telescopes that continue to deliver ground-breaking research, is a sad day for British astronomy. It will further reduce the capacity of UK astronomers to carry out world-leading science."

"After consultation with the astronomical community, I am pleased that STFC has found a solution that will allow UK scientists to continue to use the Isaac Newton Group, an issue of concern for the RAS since 2007."

"At the moment UK astronomers and space scientists are amongst the most productive in the world and are second only to the United States in the number of citations of our scientific papers. This and the quality of our facilities have made the UK an attractive destination for researchers from across the globe. Astronomy remains a core inspiration for bringing students into science and engineering, recognized as being of key importance for long term economic growth."

"As we move to step up involvement in projects like the Square Kilometer Array and the European Extremely Large Telescope, the UK needs to remain a credible international partner with a decent research infrastructure. Reduction in access to astronomical observatories and in research funding more generally puts this at risk.”


Image Caption: The James Clerk Maxwell Telescope on Mauna Kea, Hawaii.