Stay of Execution Part II

These days we have to be grateful for partial victories. You will all remember the pre-Xmas pain of finally hearing the results of the STFC prioritisation review. This included the half-expected but grim news that there would be a “managed withdrawal” from UKIRT. Over the following weeks this got worse, as we discovered that this meant shutting down UKIRT by the end of this year, 2010.  The announcement hit my own scientific ambitions, as it would mean UKIDSS would not get finished as originally intended. It was also grim timing, so soon after the workshop celebrating 30 years of UKIRT. And, as I wrote during my last UKIRT run, UKIRT has gradually evolved into the most efficient telescope I know.

However, the UKIRT leadership evolved a cunning plan. UKIRT is run by the Joint Astronomy Centre (JAC), sharing much support with the JCMT, which is guaranteed to stay open to mid-2012. If UKIRT closes, the operating cost of JCMT would actually go up somewhat. So a new “bare bones” model was developed in which the cost of running both telescopes would be pretty much the same as running JCMT by itself. I have been aware of this behind the scenes for a while, but I am very pleased to see that it has been officially approved by STFC and by the UKIRT Board, and was announced yesterday on the UKIRT website.

The general idea is that the TSS runs UKIRT from sea level, there are no visiting observers, and there is heavily reduced tech support. UKIRT Head Andy Adamson has already moved to Gemini, but luckily the equally trusty Tom Kerr is taking over. You can read more about minimalist mode at Tom’s blog, A Pacific View, which regularly has the most stunning pictures.

The good news is that UKIDSS will finish, and UKIRT stays open, and presumably continues to welcome possible partners. The bad news is that this means real cuts, and there will be real redundancies, over and above the voluntary ship jumping and person shuffling – something lke thirteen posts I believe.

6 Responses to Stay of Execution Part II

  1. Tom says:

    Andy – just a small detail, but the number you quote, 13, includes ship jumping and shuffling, so the actual number of people being made redundant is less than 13.

    It still means some will be losing their positions which as you can imagine is a very hard thing to deal with. Those being made redundant will receive a redundancy package which is certainly more generous than typical local practise thanks to some tireless work from admin here, but still, not a pleasant situation.


  2. What usually happens in such circumstances (cf. the closing of the RGO) is that the good, senior people get jobs elsewhere which otherwise younger, less experienced people would have gotten. So, the net result is not the folks directly involved losing their jobs, but rather younger people not getting jobs they otherwise would have.

  3. John Womersley says:

    Yes, definitely not a pleasant situation, but I would like to thank all the JAC staff that I talked to during my recent visit for keeping a positive attitude and for their understanding of why this approach was the best way forward in the present circumstances.


  4. Good and bad news indeed! The job losses are particularly painful as each person represents a piece of the institutional memory that allows a facility to function.

    We do have several openings over at Keck, including a just announced EE position in my group, so UKIRT’s loss may be our gain.

  5. Tom says:


    Unfortunately I missed you during your last visit as I was observing at the summit, but I do understand that your visit was appreciated by the staff here.

    Andrew – I believe a list of affected staff (or their positions, not sure what yet) will be distributed to the other observatories here in the hope that people who want to stay involved in observatory work might find a position at the other telescopes.


  6. Gary Davis says:

    Sorry to be so late replying to this, but as the author of minimalist mode I welcome and value your support Andy. It is a positive and appropriate response to a very difficult situation, enabling the continued operation of UKIRT and the continued delivery of data for UKIDSS. Regrettably, this otherwise-positive solution comes with a price, which is the loss of several staff positions, some of whom have been with us for many years and whose contributions have helped to make UKIRT the excellent observatory that it is. So whilst keeping the telescope open is undoubtedly a good thing, the impact for some individuals is devastating.

    The JAC will be losing 13 positions over a 16-month period, of which 10 are attributable to UKIRT’s change of mode. Some of these have already been vacated, and I’ve also arranged some internal re-deployments, so the actual number of redundancies is 5. An excellent support and compensation package has been put in place (thanks to support from STFC senior management). And yes, the other observatories on Mauna Kea have been notified in an attempt to ensure continuity of employment for those who wish to remain in astronomy. These measures will help but it is obviously a very difficult situation, as Tom notes above.

    In the meantime, we remain open for business and I have ongoing discussions with several parties who are interested in purchasing, or increasing their purchase of, UKIRT time.

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