End of an era at Dunsink


Astronomers are banding together to fight the decision to end research at the historic observatory in Dublin, writes Dick Ahlstrom.

Dunsink Observatory is to close as a research centre early next year, ending an illustrious 220-year history of science. The Observatory will remain in the hands of the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies, however, to be used as a public science outreach centre.

The board of the institute's school of cosmic physics, which runs the observatory, decided at a November 24th meeting to move the remaining research staff and fellows from Dunsink back to its offices in Merrion Square. The decision followed a recommendation in a strategic review of the school's activities prepared earlier this year.

The decision has caused consternation among Ireland's astronomy community given the historic importance attached to Dunsink. It was home for more than a century to Ireland's "astronomer royal" and one time residence of Sir William Rowan Hamilton, Dunsink director and arguably the greatest scientist to come from this island.

Academic and amateur astronomers have quickly banded together to fight the planned decampment from Dunsink, due to take place early next year. Earlier this week they delivered a letter to the Minister for Education and Science, Mary Hanafin, expressing their "disappointment and alarm" at the decision and calling on her to intervene.

"The observatory in Dunsink is the oldest scientific institution in Ireland and is still, after more than 200 years, in full working order," the letter points out.

"Whilst we recognise that any such decision - to essentially close the Observatory - is fundamentally one to be made by the institute, such a move has very serious implications for astronomy in Ireland, from both a research and outreach/ educational point of view," it adds. It is signed by leading research scientists, Dr Paul Callanan of University College Cork, Prof Brian McBreen of University College Dublin, Prof Anthony Murphy of NUI Maynooth and Prof Mike Redfern of NUI Galway.

Dunsink has played a central role in the history of Irish science, says Redfern. "My God, do we not value this?" he asks. He acknowledges the decision lies with the institute, but others are involved, he suggests. "It is important to everybody. Its potential is wonderful. We just want to make sure they have considered all the options."

He also points to Dunsink's long history. It was established by Trinity College Dublin after a bequest in 1785. "They are only the custodians of Dunsink. They have been in charge of it for only a quarter of its existence," says Redfern of the institute.

"I think it is an opportunity being missed. Having a museum isn't the same. A museum isn't the same as a living institution. Look to Armagh," he suggests, a reference to the thriving research activity at Armagh Observatory and Planetarium.

Armagh was established five years after Dunsink and also has a long and distinguished history, explains its director, Prof Mark Bailey. It began to lose its way in the 1980s when research activity began to slow, he explains.

Then, in 1992, it put itself forward for a "research assessment exercise" which gave it a moderately good rating, something that allowed Armagh to bid for research funding and "opened the door to an expansion of the numbers", says Bailey.

Activity has grown steadily at Armagh since. It is an internationally recognised centre for astrophysical research into star birth and death, solar system dynamics and also near-earth objects, asteroids and comets with the potential to destroy life on earth.

"An observatory observes and therefore it exists," says Bailey. "If you are an observatory and you don't observe then what do you do? You support university researchers or you have to find a niche for yourself."

Ending research at Dunsink "would be like losing a slice of your history", according to leading amateur astronomer Terry Moseley. A Northern Ireland Office civil servant, Moseley is a member of the new Astronomy and Space Committee established this autumn by the Royal Irish Academy.

He sees a need for ongoing research at Dunsink, and likens the wind-down of Dunsink to a "death by a thousand cuts".

He too points to the success of Armagh as a way forward for Dunsink. "They were on the decline and now they are on the up and up," he says. "There is no reason Dunsink couldn't go the same way with the will and a bit of money."

The institute's registrar, Cecil Keaveney, confirmed the decision to move academic staff from Dunsink, but said the Institute was not walking away from the observatory. Activity of a different kind would increase, particularly in 2005, designated by the Tánaiste, Mary Harney as the William Rowan Hamilton year.

"We aim to change the emphasis of what is happening at Dunsink so we have a vibrant and full use of resources out there and bring in more members of the public than we do now with our open nights," he says. "We are expanding the use of Dunsink by creating a greater outreach programme."

Britain faced the same dilemma when research at Greenwich Observatory declined. It is now used for outreach and research is conducted at Cambridge.

"It is not necessary for our research staff to be based in Dunsink to carry out their work," Keaveney adds.