Today is the last chance for researchers in the UK to have their say on whether the e-MERLIN network of radio telescopes, which includes the iconic Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank in northern England, should close.

If funding is withdrawn that will seriously threaten Jodrell Bank Phil Diamond, Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics

The Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC) has spent the last few weeks consulting the scientific community about the fate of the network after its biennial ‘programmatic’ review of funding, published earlier this month, deemed it low priority. That consultation will end today and a panel of experts will then consider comments from the community and make recommendations to the STFC about whether e-MERLIN should close. Funding for e-MERLIN could be withdrawn from April next year.

£80m shortfall

The programmatic review took place in the wake of an £80m shortfall in the budget of the STFC, which led to the UK pulling out of a number of international projects such as the International Linear Colider. However, astronomers involved in the e-MERLIN network were shocked to see the project deemed low priority as it had recently gone through a £8m upgrade.

“If funding is withdrawn that will seriously threaten Jodrell Bank” says Phil Diamond, director of the Jodrell Bank Centre for Astrophysics. This withdrawal would save the STFC around £2.7m per year in operational costs. Jodrell Bank Observatory, operated by the University of Manchester, celebrated its 50th anniversary last year.

The STFC says it expects fund all of the “high” and “medium-high” priority projects, which include the Advanced LIGO project to hunt for gravitational waves, the Compact Muon Solenoid at the Large Hadron Colider to detect traces of the Higgs boson and the SCUBA 2 camera for sub-millimetre astronomy that hopes to see the early stages of galaxy formation.

Mission to Mercury

The STFC also says that it will fund a “significant part” of the low priority projects, which includes the BepiColombo mission to Mercury planned for 2013 and the Gemini telescopes in Hawaii and Chile. The council has already decided to continue as a full member in Gemini despite having threatened to pull out in the wake of the funding crisis.

Indeed, Diamond is confident that some factors that were overlooked in the peer-review process that decided e-MERLIN’s low priority status will now help to reverse the STFC’s recommendation. “We hope to do well in the consultation process, the public response in support has been amazing,” says Diamond, referring to a string of articles in the UK media on the threat to Jodrell Bank.