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Press statement Astronomical Institute Utrecht

Utrecht Science Faculty profile 2015: Astronomical Institute to be closed

On June 16th , 2011, the Faculty of Science of Utrecht University announced its plans to restructure its efforts in research and education. These plans no longer include an Astronomical Institute after 2014. Only some effort in astronomy education at the Bachelors level is to remain in Utrecht. This decision effectively ends an almost 370-year old tradition of education and research in astronomy and astrophysics in Utrecht, which has produced eminent scientists such as Marcel Minnaert, Henk van de Hulst, Kees de Jager and Ed van den Heuvel.

The prospects for Utrecht Astronomy were excellent until now. Our efforts in theoretical astrophysics (high-energy astrophysics and stellar physics) are renowned world-wide. We have strong ties with our neighbor institute SRON, the Netherlands Institute for Space Research. This involves both astronomically oriented projects, notably in X-ray astronomy, as well as research into our Earth's atmosphere and (exo)planets. At the Astronomical Institute Utrecht we are developing instrumentation for the next generation of large telescopes in close collaboration with Dutch industry and Technical Universities. In the Netherlands we are unique in studying the Sun and its activity that impacts life and technology on Earth.

Research and education at our Institute is at the highest level, competitive and leading on a global scale. This has been affirmed time and time again by visiting committees of internationally renowned scientists. Utrecht is an integral and important part of the Netherlands Research School for Astronomy (NOVA), which just last year has been judged 'exemplary' (i.e. beyond excellence) in an independent review. Utrecht astronomers have successfully competed for prestigious national and international grants. Utrecht graduates can be found in leading positions in Astronomy all around the world. Others have embarked on a fruitful career elsewhere, thanks to their solid education.

As proven many times, the presence of Astronomy in a department of science is an asset: it attracts students and excites enthusiasm for science in general, and physics in particular.

Utrecht Astronomy has a strong outreach program with the goal to educate the general public about the exciting science of Astronomy. Astronomy fascinates everyone, and as such is an easily accessible portal to the natural sciences. Our program targets everyone from primary school kids to the elderly and has been singularly successful. Our astronomy students are strongly involved in outreach, and are the ambassadors for both the University and Astronomy. The old location of Utrecht astronomy, Sonnenborgh Observatory (part of the Utrecht University Museum), is the center for Astronomy Outreach in The Netherlands. It showcases the rich history of Utrecht Astronomy as well as fascinating modern achievements.

Staff and students are deeply distressed and disappointed with the decision to close our Institute. It came as complete surprise, given earlier assurances that Astronomy in Utrecht is essential, and would be maintained. One of the grounds for the decision taken by Utrecht University is that Astronomy need not be practiced at five locations in The Netherlands. This ignores the fact that NOVA has made a careful consideration of what science to do, and where this can best be done. There is little or no duplication in Dutch astronomical research. Instead we have strong collaborative ties.

All these facts do not, in any way or form, justify the decision now taken by Utrecht University, which in our view is absurd and arbitrary. It is not based on arguments about quality and excellence. Similar decisions are affecting other excellent groups in our Science Faculty as well.

Our primary concern now is for the students, both graduate and undergraduate, in Astronomy. We are committed to make sure that they can complete their PhD Theses and studies, and leave our Institute with a love for science in general, and for Astronomy in particular. Together with the Dutch astronomical community we are looking into ways to minimize the impact on the life and careers of the staff, and in particular our younger staff members.

We will do anything in our power to honor our commitments in national and international collaborations.

Individual staff members will continue to support outreach activities aimed at the general public in the greater Utrecht area.

We thank those of you who have already sent Emails of support. They are appreciated. In the mean time we will continue our work to the best of our abilities.

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