Articles: Dunsink Observatory

By Brian O'Halloran, Dunsink

Some of you may be aware of the dire peril that our National Observatory at Dunsink currently faces. As it stands, Dunsink will shut at the end of January 2005 – the research staff will be relocated to a site as yet undetermined and the site itself (including the 12” Grubb refractor) will be left unattended. If this occurs, it will be an unforgivable act against not only our R&D capabilities, but also our scientific heritage – especially as in 2005 we celebrate the Hamilton Year, in honour of Dunsink’s most famous Director!!!! What is ironic is that after many years of neglect by the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies (the Government body that runs Dunsink), the Observatory was finally being given the resources to restore the lost academic and outreach capabilities in the last year or two only for it be stripped away for reasons that have not been acknowledged by the powers-that-be.

First of all, it’s perhaps best to recap some of the recent history at Dunsink.

The current Director, Evert Meurs, arrived at Dunsink in 1994 at a particularly low point in its history – the academic staff was at an all-time numeric low following retirements, very little in the way of academic research was being published and the buildings themselves were badly in need of repair. Resources were promised to attract new senior and junior academic staff – however, due to political infighting within DIAS, it was only this year that the go-ahead to advertise for long term postdoctoral positions was finally given, and senior positions have yet to be filled. Despite being handicapped by lack of numbers and resources, the staff at Dunsink (academic, technical and student) have managed to churn out high-quality academic research in highly respected peer-reviewed journals (and with new staff arriving, the expectation was that this would accelerate), contributed to the design of hardware for ESA’s INTEGRAL gamma-ray satellite and the REM gamma-ray burst telescope in Chile and have participated in outreach activities as much as possible. A significant feather in the cap of Dunsink was the recent award of a major high-energy astrophysics IAU (International Astronomical Union) Symposium to be held in Dublin in the summer of 2005 – an indication of the high level of academic regard that the staff at Dunsink, especially Prof. Meurs, is held in by the astronomical community. Dunsink has also been instrumental in getting Ireland to begin accession talks to join the European Southern Observatory, which we will join in the very near future.

However, trouble soon appeared on the horizon.

A recent external review committee (nominally independent, but consisted of academics with strong links to some on the DIAS board) visited the site and interviewed the staff and students. They astonishingly concluded that no world-class science was being conducted at the Observatory (ignoring the number of publications attributed to the Observatory staff, and that all were published in world-class journals), the students were isolated (certainly untrue, given their frequent interaction with staff at Dunsink and those at other academic institutions in Ireland and overseas) and amazingly, no mention was made in the final report of the IAU Symposium, INTEGRAL, REM or the efforts to join ESO! Dunsink was to be shut by the end of the year with no consultation with the staff and the professional community in general, and with virtually no right of appeal. When word leaked of the closure, denials were made by the DIAS board that any sort of closure was being mooted. However, once the initial furore had subsided, the decision was rubberstamped and the closure was set for the end of January 2005. The staff are to be relocated to a location somewhere in central Dublin, at great expense to the taxpayer. The site itself is to be left unattended, pending a ‘grand review’ of what should be done with the Dunsink site – very little input from the current staff or the astronomical community has been or will be sought. All in all, it’s a very troubling situation.

The question is, given the lack of support for Dunsink in the past, why shut it down when things are looking up for the Observatory? If it was a case of the scientific potential of the Observatory not being delivered upon, that is certainly not the case. Indeed, given DIAS’ reluctance to staff Dunsink to an acceptable level, the output from the staff has been outstanding. If there is a compelling reason to amalgamate the Astronomy and Astrophysics Sections of DIAS within one location as part of an overall plan to move the institute forward, then certainly that should be the way to go – alas, there isn’t one. Given the severe lack of space at DIAS’ premises in Merrion Square and the high costs of renting a building within central Dublin to accommodate everyone, a better solution would be to move both groups to Dunsink where plenty of land is available to build an institute that can accommodate everyone, and would be much less of a burden to the taxpayer. In terms of outreach, the staff have done their best to accommodate the general public in terms of inquiries, open nights etc. The public outreach side however would certainly need to be expanded upon – that is simply a case of making the funding and manpower to make it a reality, something that the DIAS board have been very unwilling to do for the sake of internal politics.

The real reason may be linked to the purchase of land next door to Dunsink by property developers – the land would be much easier to develop if land currently belonging to Dunsink (and administered by OPW) is sold to the developers, allowing access to the road running next to Dunsink. However, to do that, the academic staff (and the Travellers encamped next door) would have to be moved ASAP, a scenario that may also be linked to the recent disturbances at Dunsink. Given the presence of property developers in the equation and the haste at removing the staff, well, something is not quite right.

The reaction of the Irish professional community to this is one of shock and disgust – we have obtained strong support from our colleagues in the Royal Irish Academy, the Astronomical Science Group of Ireland (ASGI) and from further field. We intend to lobby the Government and the relevant bodies to prevent this short-sighted policy from being implemented. We hope that the amateur community can help us in this fight – we need public opinion on our side, so we need everyone to get the word out. Contact your political representatives if you believe that they can help us in this fight. We need the whole Irish astronomical community to pull together on this – to lose Dunsink with its academic and outreach potential especially in these boom times, would be a crime that Irish astronomy may have a very hard time recovering from and something we may not be forgiven for by future generations of astronomers.


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