The world’s most famous radio receiver to close? 

7 March 2008

UK’s world-class astronomy project faces closure

Turning a blind eye to a magic kingdom of marvellous things

For arch Government stupidity there can be few more stunning examples than the threat to close not only Jodrell Bank radio telescope – surely the world’s most famous radio receiver, a listed building, no less, and still at the centre of deep space radio astrononomy – but also the entire MERLIN (Multi-Element Radio Linked Interferometer Network, an array of radio telescopes) project, for want of £40million. But that’s just what the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) plans to do.

In terms of national budgets, £40m is peanuts. I mean, how many weeks of the war in Iraq would that finance? Well, the answer is two. Late last year, Britain’s war spending was estimated (albeit by the Daily Mail, which I hesitate to rely on as gospel) at £80 million a month.

In fact Jodrell Bank itself costs way less than that: just £2.5million/year. The Times yesterday listed several other things that cost around the same amount:

• compensating prisoners for claims of abuse, assault, unlawful detention and medical negligence last year

• expenses claimed by Cabinet ministers in 2007

• council tax rebate for Armed Forces serving in Iraq and Afghanistan

• value of Admiralty House, the grace-and-favour apartment occupied by Lord Malloch-Brown, Foreign Office Minister

• grants and subsidies to the Prince of Wales last year

Similarly, there are plenty of other things one can imagine would be less worthy as recipients of £40m than Jodrell Bank and MERLIN. And I do not mean that there are other science and research projects that could be cut instead. We should be increasing our investment in scientific research of all kinds, and particularly (because it needs defending more as it does not have obvious physical benefits like the space programme, er, did), pure science, which tells us more about our place in the Universe and about how it works.

These insights and observations do impact us on Earth. For example, it can easily be argued that the environmental movement and our consciousness of the fragility of our planet’s ecosystem would not be what they are today without the pictures of the Earth from space that were brought back by the Apollo astronauts.

But even if that was not the case, we need to do pure science: we need to know. Jodrell Bank and its associated sites make up a series of instruments that have the highest resolution of any deep-seeing apparatus on Earth – it’s only bettered by the Hubble Space Telescope. Britain has a leading role in radio astronomy and, today, it is threatened by a short-sighted Government that does not understand the importance of scientific research. Are we going “faith-based” like the States? I damn well hope not.

Sir Patrick Moore is apparently launching a petition to help to save the project and the telescope – and as a result, the work at the University of Manchester that relies on it. There is a petition here at the infamous 10 Downing Street site; if I get information on the one that Sir Patrick is running I’ll update this article accordingly.

In the meantime, to paraphrase Alyx (with apologies to Jonathan Coulton):

Look at me still talking when there’s Science to do.

When I look out there, it makes me glad I’m not you.

There’s experiments to run. There is research to be done.

If MERLIN is… still alive…”

A Transdiffusion Presentation

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Richard G Elen Contact More by me