Select Committee on Science and Technology Seventh Report


6  SPACE SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY

Overview

175. Space science and technology encompasses a number of disciplines such as space-based astronomy, planetary science, solar and solar-terrestrial physics and fundamental physics in space. The UK has taken lead roles in many space science missions including:

Future missions in which the UK is playing a lead include:

  • the James Webb Space Telescope which will replace the Hubble Space Telescope;
  • GAIA which will map the motions of stars in our galaxy;
  • Planck which will study the radio echoes of the Big Bang, and
  • LISA which will search for gravitational waves from distant black holes.

These scientific projects increase human knowledge of the local and distant universe and allow scientists to test their understanding of the physical laws which govern its origin and evolution. Major space projects take 10 to 15 years from inception to launch and data gathering. Consequently, space missions currently producing results are the product of funding decisions taken over a decade ago.

Health of space science and technology in the UK

176. The UK has world-leading space scientists and technologists, especially in instrument design, detector development and imaging systems. Professor Richard Holdaway, the then Head of Science Programmes at CCLRC, told us that "We have absolutely outstanding space scientists in this country".[308] In 2005, the Institute of Physics reported that the UK enjoys a "high standing in astrophysics and solar system physics. The best departments and individuals have outstanding international reputations".[309] PPARC (now STFC) told us that UK space science is "amongst the best in the world—second only to the USA in terms of the numbers of publications and citations."[310] It notes that in open competition UK scientists have secured the highest utilisation of the joint ESA/NASA Hubble Space Telescope, and UK scientists have led two out of the three instruments on the ESA XMM-Newton X-ray telescope which is yielding peer-reviewed papers at rate of one a day.[311]

177. We have, however, heard differing opinions about the health of space science in the UK. The then Minister of Science and Innovation said that "the academic base is a strong one" and indicated that the UK had strengths in astronomy, small satellites, robotics, IT, data analysis and instrumentation.[312] David Southwood, Director of Science at ESA also told us that the UK has a "strong space science community."[313] In contrast, the University of Leicester has said that that "The health of UK space science is currently fragile, as expertise is shrinking."[314] Furthermore it stated that "The number of UK research groups which are competent to build major space experiments within, for example, the ESA context, is decreasing."[315] Similarly, the UK Space Academic Network told us that

    In the roughly five decades that have elapsed since its early beginnings, UK space science has thrived because of its innovative approach to the development of front line techniques. This has been coupled with an ability to play a leadership role in a well chosen series of both ESA and bi-lateral projects. Our capacity to function effectively in both of these spheres is increasingly under threat.[316]

178. It is difficult to ascertain the health of the field by considering the number of students studying at undergraduate or postgraduate level because a variety of subjects, such as physics, astronomy, or technology, can lead into academic careers in this area. There is no central collation of the numbers of students in this field and using existing data focusing on different areas can create contrasting pictures. If one considers the statistics provided by STFC (Table 11) regarding numbers of postgraduate students funded by them in the area of astronomy, the picture seems positive, with the number of students increasing, but these figures cover all astronomy, not just space-related studies.[317]

Table 11: Postgraduate studentships in Astronomy supported by PPARC/STFC

  
2000
2001
2002
2003
2004
2005
2006
Number of new studentships
107
102
102
107
103
108
108
Existing total
322
321
335
329
346
347
350

Source: BNSC, Ev 377

If one looks, however, at graphs presented in the Royal Society's recent report, A degree of concern? UK first degrees in science, technology and mathematics, these show that the number of students at undergraduate level is decreasing in subjects that could feed into space science such as environmental science, physics, chemistry, and electronic and electrical engineering.[318] This report also found that the numbers of students entering A-level physics and maths had declined from 1991 to 1996.[319] The Royal Society suggested that "Measures to tackle the declining numbers of A-level physics and mathematics students and teachers are required to ensure the UK space science community retain its world class reputation in the long term." [320]

179. In the light of the contrasting views on the health of space science and technology in the UK, we recommend that the BNSC undertake research in this area and commission a study on the size and health of the space science and technology field.

SKILLS

180. It is important that the academic areas of space science and technology are healthy because this also has an impact upon the space industry. Industry relies upon universities, particularly research groups, to train students and equip them with the skills necessary to pursue a career in the space sector. The Royal Society notes that "A major role for universities is to provide a constant stream of highly trained staff for industry."[321] We are concerned that there is a skills shortage in the space industry. The BNSC study, Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2006, stated that the main shortages are in a range of engineering disciplines and physics.[322] The Education and Skills Case for Space concluded that "The space industry has both skills gaps (within its existing workforce) and skills shortages (recruitment problems)".[323] Evidence suggests that this situation could worsen. The Education and Skills Case for Space states that the space industry is faced with problems caused by an ageing workforce and a decline in the standard of new recruits.[324] The Institution of Mechanical Engineers told us that "The future skills base is one of the biggest concerns within the industry".[325] QinetiQ said that "The quality and number of students pursuing science and engineering subjects to A-Level, degree and post-graduate levels is a source of concern not just to the high end businesses but to employers as a whole."[326]

181. A skills shortage in the space industry could be caused by a lack of UK students studying relevant subjects or a reduction in the numbers of students choosing a career in the industry. We have heard that there is not a demand pull from space science and engineering degrees within UK universities into industry. Lord Rees of Ludlow, President of the Royal Society, said that "it is very important to ensure that the careers which are perceived to be on offer, not just in academia but in industry, are attractive to people."[327] He explained that "many of those who are graduating in engineering are then going on to work in the City or management consulting."[328] The Education and Skills Case for Space argues that there is low overall awareness of the UK space industry and that there is a lack of careers information, advice and guidance.[329] One solution offered by the Government is a competition for undergraduates to design and build instrumentation for a satellite would stimulate interest in the space industry. [330] This proposal seems to be a rather nominal attempt to tackle the skills crisis.

182. Some industrialists with difficulties with recruitment are filling the gap by recruiting internationally. Sir Martin Sweeting from SSTL explained that "we tend to recruit not just of course from the UK, but worldwide and we see differing skills coming from different nationalities, different problem-solving skills, different numerical and mathematical skills and perhaps different practical skills…but it is quite a struggle".[331] David Williams from Avanti told us that "I think 70 to 80% of our highly qualified satellite engineers have come from China or India in the last two years".[332] We recognise that there is likely to be a degree of international mobility in a high-tech industry such as the space industry. However, we also note the Minister's view that "we have got to produce more home-grown expertise."[333] We believe that it is important that the UK continues to seek ways to attract and retain the brightest and best international scientists and engineers in the field of space. This approach will include attracting scientists from abroad as well as nurturing existing talent within the UK.

183. We are concerned that there is a skills shortage in the space industry. Potential space scientists and engineers may be moving into other sectors due to the low profile of the industry. Although the UK is currently able to attract and retain international scientists and engineers to fill the gap left by a lack of "home-grown" talent, we are concerned that this situation is not sustainable, particularly if the number of overseas students entering UK universities declines. We believe that a broad programme of incentives may be necessary to ensure a continued flow of people into the space sector from UK universities and from abroad. We recommend that the BNSC work with DIUS, HEFCE, individual universities and industry in order to develop a 'people' strategy to address the skills shortage.

Creation of the Science and Technology Facilities Council

184. On 22 March 2006, the Government announced a consultation on a proposal to merge CCLRC and PPARC to create a Large Facilities Council. It was also suggested that PPARC's grant-giving function might be transferred to the EPSRC. The details of the consultation were announced in the Science and Innovation Investment Framework 2004-2014: Next Steps. 125 responses were received by the deadline. On 25 July 2006, the Government announced that the new Council would go ahead but that it would retain PPARC's grant-giving powers and would be given responsibility for nuclear physics research, previously in EPSRC's portfolio.[334] The Council commenced work on 1 April 2007.

185. Professor Keith Mason reassured us that the establishment of the new council was not intended as a cost-cutting measure. He told us that "if we are to make a success of this new council and realise its full potential we need to resource it appropriately, and that requires some increase—a modest increase."[335] The Regulatory Impact Assessment relating to the creation of STFC stated that the budget of the new organisation for 2007-08 would be the sum of the constituent parts and thus in the region of £530 million.[336] In our recent scrutiny report on the Office of Science and Innovation we recommended that funding for the STFC from the CSR round be an increase over the combined existing budgets of its component parts.[337] We await the Government response.

186. There have been concerns that funding for large facilities could reduce the funding available for basic science. The Regulatory Impact Assessment noted that "there is a risk that funding may be diverted away from grants to support facilities management and that Universities could also be disadvantaged in favour of Government-run facilities as a result."[338] Lord Rees, President of the Royal Society, told us that "There is indeed a tension between the big facilities and the small science".[339] We also received a submission from a group of interested scientists, raising concerns that programmes funded through PPARC's solar system sub-panel (SSSP) might not be funded in future, "as more pressing large facilities costs eat into basic science spend."[340] When we put these concerns to Professor Mason, he reassured us that "We are putting in place mechanisms through peer review and strategy teams which will be capable of looking across the whole patch and making sure that balance is achieved."[341]

187. Investment by STFC in space science research should be balanced between pure and applied research. The quest for knowledge is important in its own right and should be at the heart of scientific endeavour. There is the possibility that given the potential for commercial exploitation of space activities, the promise of future applications rather than science could drive the space agenda. The University of Leicester has told us that "Past Government policy which favoured the exploitation of space in terms of satellite communication and the return from Earth Observation, has left pure Space Science somewhat underfunded in comparison with the major space-faring nations of Western Europe".[342] We are pleased that the Government has outlined its commitment to basic science. The then Minister for Science and Innovation Malcolm Wicks stated in the debate on the establishment of the STFC that it is "very important that […] the Government and the research councils spend large proportions of their budgets on what some people call pure or basic research. We do not want a situation in which everything must have a commercial pay-off within a few years".[343]

188. Several witnesses emphasised that the creation of the STFC could help to strengthen the BNSC partnership. The Royal Astronomical Society argued that "The merger between CCLRC and PPARC into the Large Facilities Council may provide the opportunity to reform BNSC into a new, technically-aware guiding structure for space in the UK."[344] Keith Mason, the Chief Executive of the STFC told us that the STFC "will be an even stronger partner of BNSC. We are certainly looking, as part of the evolution of BNSC […] to see how the creation of the STFC can support that and take the agenda forward in a coherent way."[345] The then Minister emphasised that the creation of the STFC improved opportunities for space science and technology.[346]

189. Although the STFC is responsible for funding many fields of space science and technology, it is important that it works with other Research Councils, such as NERC, BBSRC, and EPSRC, recognising the multi-disciplinary nature of space activities. Scientists funded by the STFC studying the climate and atmosphere of Mars, for example, may be grappling with the same issues that face scientists funded by NERC studying the Earth's climate. It is also important that the STFC and NERC establish whether their funding remits cover all areas of space science and technology. The Royal Society has told us that "there may be gaps in the funding remit of research councils related to space science. Given the current restructuring of CCLRC and PPARC to the LFC, it is important to ensure that the full range of is covered in the remits of other relevant research councils."[347] Dr David Tsiklauri from the University of Salford, the British Antarctic Survey, and the University of Leicester all suggested that funding for space weather research and for work relating to the ionosphere may have fallen into the cracks between Research Council remits.[348] The British Antarctic Survey noted that the area of space weather, which refers to conditions such as solar eruptions that can adversely affect technological systems, does not receive significant funding from ESA either, because it falls between science and applications programmes.[349] Professor Alan Thorpe, Chief Executive of NERC told us that space weather research was not currently part of its directed and strategic research programme.[350]

190. We welcome the creation of the STFC and were pleased to hear assurances from the Chief Executive that the STFC will not favour funding for large facilities over basic science. We recommend that the STFC work with NERC and EPSRC to ensure that there are no gaps in funding for research in space science.

Current levels of investment

191. PPARC told us that it invested on average over one quarter of its annual budget on space science and it is unclear how this budget will be affected by the creation of STFC.[351] PPARC, now the STFC, is responsible for paying the ESA general subscription (paragraph 103), paying the subscription to the ESA Aurora programme and also maintaining funding at a national level. The ESA science programme contribution within the general subscription funds the development of the satellite platform, the launch and the data recovery aspects of missions. National funding is necessary for scientists to build the instrumentation and analyse the data. The funding from PPARC for space instrumentation (the sensors and telescopes that deliver the science outcomes) is shown in Graph 3.

Graph 3: PPARC Funding for Space Instrumentation



Source: PPARC Ev 375

192. The funding in this area has been variable but in real terms at 2005-06 funding for space instrumentation is now approximately 33% below the level of a decade ago when the missions currently producing data were developed. The financial preparation for future mission instrumentation is therefore substantially below the level of past investment which has built the UK's current strong position in ESA and with international partners. This is demonstrated by the UK's involvement with the Bepi-Columbo mission, which will explore Mercury. Professor Mason told us that, due to the results of the Spending Review 2004, PPARC did not have sufficient resources to fund the programme appropriately and that the UK was funding Bepi-Columbo "only at half the rate that we thought we really needed to."[352] The University of Leicester echoed this.[353]

193. Over the last decade, PPARC has invested more resources into data analysis and interpretation. This has been required because the UK's success in funding, developing and building instruments in the past has generated substantial quantities of data that need to be analysed. PPARC funding to support data analysis and interpretation has therefore increased by more than 8% per annum (see table 12).

Table 12: PPARC funding for data analysis and interpretation

Year
1999-2000
2000-2001
2001-2002
2002-2003
2003-2004
2004-2005
2005-2006
2006-2007
2007-2008
Funding/£ million
9.6
9.0
9.8
11.2
11.4
12.7
12.3
14.5
14.2


Source: PPARC, Ev 376

194. The increasing spend on data analysis means that, despite the reduction in funding for space instrumentation, there has been an increase in overall funding for space research by PPARC between 1999-2000 and 2005-2006 (from £16.2 million to £21 million). There is, however, concern that there will be long-term effects of the decline in investment in instrumentation. For example, the UK Space Academic Network argued that "the decline in resource in the past decade for the national programme means that we are living on past investment."[354] PPARC agreed, stating that "The UK is currently in a reasonably good competitive position because of investment decisions taken some years ago. But our position for the next 20 years is not as certain."[355] We are concerned that investment in space science instrumentation has reduced over the last decade. We recommend that the STFC increase funding for space science instrumentation.


308   Q 213 Back

309   Institute of Physics, International Perceptions of UK Research in Physics and Astronomy, 2005, p 17. Back

310   Ev 194 Back

311   Ev 194 Back

312   Qq 577, 578 Back

313   Q 534  Back

314   Ev 162 Back

315   Ev 163 Back

316   Ev 179 Back

317   These figures do not take account of the division between ground-based and space-based astronomy, neither do they include postgraduates funded by other Councils, universities and private funds.  Back

318   Royal Society, A degree of concern? UK first degrees in science, technology and mathematics, October 2006, p 33.  Back

319   As above, p 18. Back

320   Ev 220 Back

321   Ev 222  Back

322   BNSC, The Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2006: Executive Summary, January 2006, p 11  Back

323   Graham Hulbert & Paul Spencer, The Education and Skills Case for Space, June 2006, p 37 Back

324   Ev 306, Graham Hulbert & Paul Spencer, The Education and Skills Case for Space, p 34-36 Back

325   Ev 215 Back

326   Ev 264  Back

327   Q 449 Back

328   As above. Back

329   Graham Hulbert & Paul Spencer, The Education and Skills Case for Space, p 37 Back

330   Q 578 Back

331   Q 35 Back

332   Q 36 Back

333   Q 700 Back

334   On 18 October 2006, the Government announced that Professor Keith Mason, the then Chief Executive of PPARC, would be Chief Executive of the new council. On 9 November 2006, in response to concerns about the focus on large facilities in the proposed name of the council, it was announced that the new council would be called the Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC). The statutory instrument creating the STFC was debated on 11 December 2006. Back

335   Q 208 Back

336   Regulatory Impact Assessment on the Science and Technology Facilities Council Order 2007 (RIA), para 20  Back

337   Science and Technology Committee, Sixth Report of Session 2006-07, Office of Science and Innovation: Scrutiny Report 2005 and 2006, HC 203, p 31 Back

338   Regulatory Impact Assessment on the Science and Technology Facilities Council Order 2007 (RIA), p 5  Back

339   Q 461 Back

340   Ev 228  Back

341   Q 206  Back

342   Ev 163 Back

343   Third Delegated Legislation Committee, Draft Science and Technology Facilities Council Order 2007 and Draft Technology Strategy Board Order 2007, 11 December 2006, p 16 Back

344   Ev 209 Back

345   Q 205 Back

346   Q 615  Back

347   Ev 222  Back

348   Ev 300, 301, 163 Back

349   Ev 302 Back

350   Q 355 Back

351   Ev 194 Back

352   Science and Technology Committee, Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council: Introductory Hearing, HC 808-i, 18 January 2006, Q 20  Back

353   Ev 163 Back

354   Ev 179 Back

355   Ev 196 Back


 
previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 17 July 2007