February 28, 2008

UK Reinstated into Gemini Observatory Consortium

Britain has now been fully reinstated as member of the Gemini Observatory after a $160 million budget shortfall temporarily suspended the country's membership.

The reinstatement means British astronomers will continue to have direct access to two prime 8m-class telescopes in Chile and Hawaii.    

After 15 months of development, the two optical-infrared reflecting telescopes, known as Gemini South and Gemini North, are only now realizing their full potential to view the most distant objects in the Universe.

The UK's Science and Technology Facilities Council (SFTC), which administers the country's astronomy and physics budget, agreed to maintain the UK's subscription and recoup costs by selling observing time.  

Britain currently puts about £4m ($8M) into the Gemini consortium each year to maintain these extraordinary telescopes, and has invested around £70m ($140M) in its development.

The Gemini consortium partner countries, including the U.S., Canada, Chile, Australia, Brazil and Argentina were upset by the initial decision of the UK's STFC to negotiate a withdrawal from the consortium due to budgetary shortfalls.  The partner countries moved quickly to eliminate the UK from the project, even going so far as removing UK flags from observatory buildings and the UK's name from the consortium's website.

But anger among the UK's astronomy community, followed by a review of the program's scientific value, resulted in the STFC policy change to remain part of the consortium.

Further discussion with Gemini partners were concluded Wednesday by a joint statement confirming the UK's full and continued membership in the Gemini observatory project.

"The Science and Technology Facilities Council has reaffirmed the UK's position as a full member of the Partnership under the terms of the current Gemini Agreement. The Gemini Board welcomes this statement, the Board acknowledges the STFC's need to address its budgetary constraints and notes that, under the terms of the Agreement, the UK is entitled to seek to sell some of its telescope time both within the partnership and, subject to the approval of the Board, outside the current partnership," the announcement read.

Opponents of the initial decision to withdraw said the eventual outcome ought to have been the policy from the start.   They argued the UK should have sold time on the telescopes in the beginning, rather than abandon the project altogether, if the country needed more money.

However, reinstatement to the consortium could have negative consequences for other areas of the UK's physics and astronomy programs, and the STFC will need to decide how to recoup the £15m ($30M) it needs to remain in project.

The council will update scientists on its budget position next week, when it might become clear where any additional cuts could be made.  

Speaking of the UK's withdrawal and subsequent reinstatement to the Gemini project, one British researcher told BBC News the ordeal had been a rollercoaster.   

Indeed, the past few months have shown exactly that: 

  • November 14, 2007 - Budget concerns lead the UK to give notice of its desire to withdraw from its Gemini investment
  • January 25, 2008 - The UK is immediately ejected from Gemini by the partners.
  • February 6, 2008 - The UK announces it wants to negotiate a "reduced investment", and is conditionally reinstated for six months.
  • February 27, 2008 - The UK is reinstated as a full member, and will seek to sell some observing opportunities.  The words "United Kingdom" are displayed once again on the Gemini website on Wednesday night.


On the Net:


Gemini Observatory

STFC Funding Crisis: Astronomy