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Jodrell Bank Observatory

Volume 700: debated on Thursday 24 April 2008

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What proposals they have for securing the future of Jodrell Bank Observatory in Cheshire.

My Lords, the future of the Jodrell Bank Observatory is a matter for the University of Manchester. Delays in the e-MERLIN project are costly to the STFC. The STFC is discussing with the Northwest Development Agency and the University of Manchester e-MERLIN and the next generation, the SKA, on which the University of Manchester and Jodrell Bank are leading. No decisions have been made by the STFC, which has made clear that e-MERLIN is part of its strategy for radio astronomy.

My Lords, does my noble friend recognise the historic role of Jodrell Bank in the discovery of quasars and the important future potential, currently through the e-MERLIN programme, of inspiring students and research in the physical sciences, including astronomy, so vital for our nation? Will she remind the STFC of the vital role that Jodrell Bank plays alongside Daresbury in inspiring and encouraging the centre of excellence in the north-west rivalling those of London and Cambridge?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for his question because it gives me the opportunity to do as he suggests and draw attention to the iconic status of Jodrell Bank and the contribution that it has made in placing the UK at the forefront of worldwide astronomy. I concur with him and stress, for example, that the Daresbury Science and Technology Campus, along with a host of key scientific developments in the north-west, make a tremendous contribution to our scientific effort in this country.

My Lords, although the Minister has said that the future of Jodrell Bank lies in the hands of Manchester University, is it not also a fact, though, that the Science and Technology Facilities Council, as the funding agency, is going to be the determining factor in whether Manchester is able to sustain these internationally renowned facilities at Jodrell Bank? Universities UK has said that there should be a,

“sensible period of adjustment before abrupt decisions are taken”.

Does the noble Baroness agree with that view? Will she at least give an assurance today that the Government will monitor any of the STFC’s decisions in regard to Jodrell Bank?

My Lords, the noble Lord raises a number of very important questions. I support Universities UK’s call for close monitoring. The department and the STFC will look closely at the effects of its strategy in the workplace. I stress that the STFC has said that e-MERLIN is helping to prepare the ground for the next generation, the SKA. That is a very important statement. But, as I have said, discussions are taking place between the funding council, the university and the Northwest Development Agency about how to go forward.

My Lords, having heard the Minister’s first reply to the noble Lord, Lord Harrison, and then having contrasted it with her second reply, is it not the case that the first reply was fairly complacent bearing in mind that this is a very important national asset?

My Lords, I stand by both my replies. I am trying to stress that we have an important arrangement with our funding councils whereby they must review the scientific priorities within their particular areas. A review has taken place. The STFC has looked at the programmes associated with Jodrell Bank and it is in discussions with the university and the development agency to make the best decisions for radio astronomy going forward in the region.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the fact that no decision has been made is quite damaging? Science in the north-west, as well as Jodrell Bank, depends on this. Can she apply pressure for an early positive decision to be taken to further the interests of science not only in the north-west but nationally and internationally as well?

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that. The STFC would be the first to recognise that communications around the decisions, and the consultation process around the programme review that it has undertaken, have created an element of heat and an unnecessary degree of uncertainty. We expect to see an outcome from the consultation for the STFC’s July council, and I hope that that will create more certainty in those areas, as my noble friend suggests.

My Lords, the Minister stressed that she would emphasise the historic role of Jodrell Bank. Will she also reassure the House that she will be stressing the importance of Jodrell Bank in carrying forward the next generation work in terms of its e-MERLIN and SKA facilities, which are very important in terms of the next generation of radio telescopy?

My Lords, I agree with the noble Baroness. I am trying to stress that the same expertise—in fact, many of the same people—are involved with e-MERLIN and SKA. The expertise, technologies and resources that are being developed at Jodrell Bank are seen by the STFC as being important or as even laying the ground for SKA.

My Lords, will the Minister accept my warm personal support for the observations of the noble Lord, Lord Harrison? Will she bear in mind that the founders of Jodrell Bank, Professor Bernard Lovell, who luckily is still with us, and Professor Hanbury Brown, are among the greatest scientists we have produced, and that the nation owes them a considerable vote of thanks for their efforts in founding Jodrell Bank and in seeing that this amazing scientific work was developed? Does she agree that we should always respect the names of these gentlemen, one of whom is with us while the other is now deceased, in a very strong way? The nation has benefited greatly from their wisdom.

My Lords, I agree with the noble Lord. As I said at the start, Jodrell Bank houses the Lovell telescope, which is an iconic facility that has placed the UK at the forefront of radio astronomy for the past 50 years. The Government are proud to recognise the contribution of those scientists. We also recognise, as I said in my Answer, that the STFC sees e-MERLIN as part of its strategic future. I hope that the House recognises that we have to allow research councils to make the difficult decisions about scientific priorities and that we as politicians should not micromanage what they do. However, we must recognise the contribution that these scientists make.