Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 11

Submission from Dr Simon N Evetts


  2.  Britain has been considered one of the great nations with regards to space medicine since the early days of air travel. Our lack of participation in human space travel has meant that we are not a world leader in the associated field of space medicine and indeed we are lagging behind most of the developed nations in this regard. The lack of national support for space medicine research and human space flight is such that the scientific, medical and financial gains that result from these activities are not accrued by Britain. Furthermore, without British people working in space and the possibility for British school children being able to do the same, a hugely potent means of inspiring the young to learn about science is absent.

  3.  Without active participation in space medicine research and human space flight activities, Britain will not only continue to fall behind its peers but will almost certainly finds itself economically disadvantaged when the burgeoning private space sector in conjunction with national space programmes lead to a significant and vibrant global space industry in the near future. This letter offers personal insight and experiences to support these contentions.


  5.  A field in which early British physicians and physiologists proved ahead of their time and in which Britain has ranked amongst the elite nations for some decades is that of aviation medicine. Aviation medicine is an integral element of the aviation industry without which the enormous potential of this industry could not have been realised. The natural progression for aviation medicine is to become the science of aerospace medicine in this embryonic age of space travel. Over the forthcoming half century, space travel will be as important and as integral to world affairs and economy as air travel has proven to be over the last 50 years. As the commercial space industry becomes established, which with Virgin Galactic proposing to place 1000s of tourists in space over the next decade, it is starting to do, the scientific, economic, medical and educational interests of all developed nations will be strongly influenced by the degree of integration a given nation has with the international space industry.

  6.  Although there are numerous Britons working in the field of human space flight in the States and Europe, because of the lack of governmental support here in the UK, there are very few who are actively engaged in associated research living and working in Britain itself. I am one of these few. The activities researchers like myself are involved in are often self-funded or funded through indirect means, normally only to the extent in which a minimal contribution to the fields in question is possible. Our country has already fallen behind the majority of developed nations with regards to space life science and the terrestrial spin-offs that result from such work. Without direct action now Britain will find itself at a disadvantage with regards to all industries that will be economically tied to the burgeoning commercial space industry in the future and with respect to advances in medicine, education, life science research in general and associated commercial activities.

  7.  It is all very well stating that the above argument is the case but actual hard facts are required to support the notion. I am a co-Principal Investigator of a joint Brazilian/British space life science research team. Amongst a number of research programmes we are pursuing, is one in which a device for taking blood in microgravity has been developed and is being validated. We have recently proven that the device and its associated procedures work in microgravity during ESA parabolic flights. Although it was conceived primarily for use in space it has become very evident over the last few years that the terrestrial applications far outweigh those of the space. The device, if it passes full clinical validation, will, under many circumstances, offer a quick, easy and cheap substitute for the commonly used arterial puncture and venous sampling methods of blood sampling. We expect that hospitals, medical centres and research establishments around the world will be interested in this device. Our research over the last 5 years has been almost entirely self-funded. The grant applications that have been submitted have all been turned down due to the nature of the work (in the UK the field of human space flight research falls into the void between national funding bodies). There is huge commercial potential in our work, but because of the virtual absence of support in Britain we are currently in negotiations with an American company concerning the continuation of the work through clinical trials and the subsequent commercial exploitation of this initiative. The prestige, indirect spin-offs, financial gain and more than likely the future development of the research programme will fall in to the lap of that nation which is so astute at encouraging, nurturing and profiting from new ventures, America.

  8.  There are other issues, however, equally as important as the direct financial argument, foremost amongst these is the ability of "space" to inspire the young to study science. As a space life scientist I have spoken at schools, and have consequently learned that space is one of the top two or three most attractive subjects to children. We have 100s (maybe 1000s?) of people involved in space engineering, electronics and other hard sciences and many in the soft sciences, but what inspires children is whether they can actually go into space themselves, not what space jobs they could do on the ground. The key issue is that there must be the possibility (even if it is remote) for a Briton to float about in the "great weightless playground" for the children to be really inspired. It's not the job I do that gets the kids' attention, it's the pictures and video footage of me bobbing about weightless that grabs them.

  9.  With regard to this one issue (inspiring kids), whether Britain follows a government-funded astronaut programme or a private sector "tourist" programme, the crucial point is to have UK professionals who actually visit or work in space, however they get up there. It is these jobs that will lead to an increase in science interest and motivate older children to go to university to get the necessary qualifications to be an "astronaut" (whether it be astro-physician, astro-engineer, astro-psychologist, atro-pilot or whatever). The increase in science activities and all its associated spin-offs and the positive effect on UK industry will benefit everyone.

  10.  Britain is considered a Lion amongst antelope in the field of aviation medicine, but we are doomed to be nothing more than a Sloth in the bushes if our government does not embark upon a course of active participation in the field of human space flight. We must be involved now; we must make up for lost time and we must support the growing private space sector with sound, empirical science. If we do not we might as well drop the "Great" from Great Britain today, for this second Space Age will be dominated by those that embrace the challenges and actually participate!

October 2006

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