Closure threat propels astronomers to institute's aid

Munich

Top astronomers are protesting that a proposal to close the Astronomical Institute at the University of Basle in Switzerland ignores the institute's strong track record in research.

The university's governing council recommended on 22 January that the department, along with the university's institutes of geology and Slavic studies, should close by 2008.

Rolf Soiron, the businessman who chairs the council, says that the closures were needed to consolidate finances and avoid duplication of training and research facilities in Switzerland.

The Swiss government, which supports the consolidation of small university departments, has backed the plan. “It is a courageous and exemplary move,” says Charles Kleiber, the Swiss state secretary for education and science.

But astronomers are complaining that the decision was made in response to low student numbers, without any external scientific assessment of the institute's performance. In letters to Soiron, more than 100 astronomers from around the world protested against the decision.

The institute has “produced by far the most careful and thorough dynamical models of the Milky Way that are available anywhere in the world”, wrote Scott Tremaine, chair of astrophysical sciences at Princeton University, New Jersey.

Astronomers also criticized the treatment of Eva Grebel, a rising star among galactic astronomers, who won tenure at the institute only last September.

“People will think that in Switzerland you can easily lose your job, even though you are tenured. This is a blow to our reputation,” says Willy Benz, an astrophysicist at the University of Berne and a member of the Swiss Science and Technology Council.

The university defends the plan. “This was not done in a rush. The board spent months coming up with a balanced reform,” says Maria Schoch, a spokeswoman for the rector.

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Schiermeier, Q. Closure threat propels astronomers to institute's aid. Nature 427, 768 (2004). https://doi.org/10.1038/427768b

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