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Government set to 'destroy' UK radio astronomy

STFC proposes chop for e-Merlin programme

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The Government’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) is proposing to axe the annual £2.5m public funding for "e-Merlin" - an upgrade to the Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network between the UK's seven radio telescopes, the Times reports.

The proposal is part of a controversial plan to plug an £80m shortfall in STFC's budget. Jodrell Bank would also face closure as an observatory, while the close to £8m already spent on e-Merlin would be flushed down the toilet. According to scientists, the decision will "destroy Britain's leading role in radio astronomy".

Jodrell Bank's director, Phil Diamond, described the loss of e-Merlin as "catastrophic". He said: "It will essentially mean the STFC are closing down a field of astronomy. A lot of the scientific community would be outraged."

Simon Garrington, head of the Merlin project, added: "It would be an enormous blow if it came to pass. It would mean a complete withdrawal from observational radio astronomy in the UK. Merlin is the UK's national radio astronomy facility. It's unique."

The STFC revealed its proposed cuts this week at a public meeting, and described Merlin as "low priority". University of Leeds astronomer Dr Melville Hoare apparently stood up to protest the outrage, and yesterday thundered: "The decision should certainly be reversed. The £8m that's been spent will go to waste. That's government money, taxpayers' money. It is galling and so ridiculous."

The loss of Merlin will certainly be serious for UK radio astronomy. Jodrell Bank was last year announced as the headquarters for the Square Kilometre Array (SKA), a radio telescope network to be built in Australia or South Africa by 2020. If the facility closes, "Britain would start to lose the expertise it needed for a central role", as Royal Astronomical Society president Michael Rowan-Robinson put it.

The STFC's cost-cutting massacre will not go unopposed. Amid mounting dismay at its financial shoeing of various areas of UK scientific research, the Tories have gained the support of 16 MPs, Labour included, for "an early day motion condemning the impact of the cuts".

David Willetts, the Shadow Innovation Secretary, yesterday decried: "The Government has failed to appreciate the damage that is being done to the science community and needs to think again."

Among the STFC's other targets for belt-tightening are Britain's participation in the Gemini telecope programme and particle physics funding. ®

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