Leadership diaries: A charity CEO on leading an observatory through uncertainty

Nestled in the Kielder Water and Forest Park in Northumberland, Kielder Observatory is in the largest gold tier- protected dark sky park in Europe, hosting public events seven days a week. The charity’s CEO, Catherine Johns documents a week behind the scenes of leading the charity into a position of being able to open to the public.


I’ve always liked Mondays: my day for following up what happened last week and prepping for whatever the coming week has in store. Mondays is when the whole team has a catch up: not easy when one half of the team works in Newcastle and 9am-5pm and the other half at Kielder 5pm-1am (and later at weekends). These weekly catch ups were established to keep us all connected at the start of the lockdowns and now we’re keeping them: sometimes we have to discuss serious things but mostly it’s who’s up to what and how we can all help. There’s also constant informal and lively competition about who got the best astro-image over the weekend...the Zoom backgrounds are quite something! The team have been an amazing lockdown crew; we’ve all had our moments but not one of us ever doubted we would make it through.


On Tuesday I have a variety of meetings to discuss the potential of Dark Skies North East – a new initiative that we are leading to ensure that dark skies are seen as integral to economic development, skills and innovation. For millennia humans have been able to look up at the stars and wonder and dream, but now 80% of the world’s population lives under serious light pollution. Places like Kielder have protected dark sky status so we can introduce people to the wonder of the night sky. Our challenge is how we connect this inspirational moment to careers in STEM. This initiative originated from conversations we had with North of Tyne Combined Authority – we have a contract with them to visit every school in Newcastle, North Tyneside and Northumberland to inspire their students. With additional help from the Reece Foundation, we have been piloting Star Groups in schools, regular observing groups, and this might be the way to go. These meetings are followed by a meeting of our Finance and Risk Committee to review our latest budget projections and our risk register. Unbelievably in this year, it looks like we will break even, thanks to the commitment and hard work of the team and our partners and funders.


I try and have one day a week free of meetings and this week it is Wednesday. This gives me time to focus on some of the many projects: this week I am working on SPIDER Astronomy, a wonderful project with Sunderland Culture, where we will work with a creative practitioner to identify some of the barriers to complete novices accessing and using our new SPIDER radio telescope, donated by the Tanlaw Foundation, and create some resources to tackle those barriers. The Tanlaw Foundation is driven by the ethos of radio astronomy for all and we hope to help make that a reality, with support from UKRI and Wellcome. I also have fun with Kielder Constellations, our new Augmented Reality App that has just been made available for testing on Android. Try as I might, I cannot break it and so, with a few tweaks, it is ready for soft launch to the public. There is no doubt that Kielder Observatory is one of the most extraordinary locations to visit, (technically the most remote place in England) and I’ve often seen visitors transform in front of my eyes as they take in the awe-inspiring, glittering skies. Projects like SPIDER Astronomy and the AR app help us reach out to people who perhaps can’t visit the Observatory – everyone needs that “Kielder moment”; that moment of hope and connection, now more than ever. Every Wednesday evening, I have a catch up with my MBA cohort buddies to check progress on our business plan. We are all studying with Quantic School of Technology and are scattered all over the world, from Israel to France to Denmark to Poland to South Africa. It’s been an absolute joy getting to know so many inspiring people and we will all miss it when we graduate in August.


Thursday is a half day! One of my goals has always been to learn tennis and I’m finally taking lessons. Before I down tools, I learn that Beacon Films has been successful in securing funding from National Lottery Heritage Fund for a film project with Kielder, opening up paid placements for disabled and neurodivergent filmmakers. A quick chat about strategy with the chair of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, where I serve as a board member, is invigorating – CaSE has just received a significant grant from Wellcome and it’s an exciting time for the organisation.


On Friday I spend some time with a couple of the team reviewing our volunteering programme; half of our team started as volunteers and we want to attract more to join us. We also place orders for our new merchandise, designed by a member of the team. Then I spend a few hours drafting an application to Arts Council England for the dance company I help run, Southpaw Dance Company, which has the same power to transform lives that Kielder Observatory does.


Saturday is a trip to the Observatory for a Health and Safety audit. It may not sound like fun but it helps us to review the site with critical eyes and make continuous improvements. I’m in the middle of checking the Fire Risk Assessment when one of the team comes to get me to see the Starlink “trains”. Starlink is contentious among astronomers but the launches of these satellite constellations are absolutely spectacular, especially when immediately followed by a bright pass of the International Space Station. A clear sky at Kielder is truly special: the air is crisp, the silence is bewitching, the stars are mesmerising. A reminder how lucky we are to be alive on this tiny little planet near one of the billions of stars in one of the billions of galaxies that exist in the known universe. That’s the Kielder moment. ■

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