Astronomers protest against plan to close French telescopes

By TARA PATEL in PARIS French astronomers are up in arms over a decision to shut down one of the country’s observatories and cut back resources at others. They have called for sweeping changes to the way astronomy programmes are evaluated after an announcement last month by the National Institute for Science of the Universe (INSU) of a major reorganisation that would divert money to ambitious international projects. Last year, France spent 1.2 billion francs ( £150 million) on astronomy, of which about 65 million francs went on its national observatories. At his first news conference, research minister Francois Fillon questioned the INSU decision. He said he was ‘distressed’ by the plan to close the Midi-Pyrenees Observatory by 1988. The observatory, with its 2-metre telescope, is at France’s best site, the Pic-du-Midi, 2800 metres above sea level in the Pyrenees. It is accessible only by cable car. Fillon said the whole issue will be re-examined ‘to see whether a more satisfying solution can be found’. The INSU also questioned the running of France’s three other observatories. It raised the possibility of transforming the radio observatory at Nancay, about 200 kilometres south of Paris, into a European centre by the turn of the century, and scheduled staff cuts at the Haute Provence Observatory near Marseilles. The INSU has also reduced the budget of the Cote d’Azur Observatory near Nice, putting its future into doubt. This observatory will soon to be the only place where the distance between Earth and the Moon is regularly measured to within a few centimetres. The INSU based its decision largely on recommendations made by a panel of French experts and an audit of the sites carried out by three foreign scientists. The audit found that scientific results from the telescopes in Haute Provence surpassed those from the Pic-du-Midi, which it says would need costly improvements to remain useful in the future. The directors of the observatories are challenging the qualifications of the experts and the auditors to make recommendations. The INSU already has its own scientific committees as does the CNRS,
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