Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 16

Submission from the University of Leicester


    —  The University of Leicester has had an active space science programme for more than 40 years, carried out largely through the UK membership of ESA, but also in bi-lateral projects with NASA and other agencies. Consequently, we are well-place to contribute to this inquiry.

    —  The health of UK space science is currently fragile, as expertise is shrinking.

    —  There are problems with the comparatively low levels of investment within the UK to all University groups to participate in ESA programmes, which are already partially supported through the ESA subscription, and bi-lateral opportunities.

    —  The British National Space Centre is not effective in promoting UK space interests as it has no executive or funding powers. It should be replaced with a national space agency similar to the DLR, CNES and ASI in Germany, France and Italy, our major European competitors.

    —  Knowledge transfer between academia and industry should be promoted actively and new programmes developed that encourage the participations of SMEs by fully-funding their participation in these.

    —  UK participation in Human Space Flight programmes will have important educational and motivational benefits for young people, encouraging their participation in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics, subjects which are key to future economic prosperity.

1.  The University of Leicester

  The University has been active in Space Science since 1960. Originally noted for its pioneering X-ray Astrophysics, the University has, in recent years, broadened its space activities to include Earth Observation Science (since 1991) and Planetary Science from Orbiters and Landers (since 1996). The University's space activity is centered in the Department of Physics and Astronomy, in whose purpose-built Space Research Centre the design and construction of satellite-borne sensors and optics and carried out. Space research at Leicester is, however, an interdisciplinary activity, also involving the Departments of Chemistry and Geography in the Earth Observation Science area. The Space Research Centre itself has a complement of 60 staff including PhD students, technicians, engineers, research associates and academic staff. The total research budget of the Centre is approximately £3 million a year. Leicester is involved in a number of missions currently operating (Chandra, XMM Newton, Swift, Envisat, Meteosat 2nd Generation-GERB). The University also has significant roles in a number of missions now in preparation—in either Phase A or B studies. These missions include Bepi-Colombo—an ESA project to orbit Mercury, GAIA—to map the galaxy, James Webb Space Telescope—the successor to the Hubble Space Telescope, Astrosat—the first Indian National Astronomy Satellite and XEUS, a future European X-ray astrophysical observatory. The University undertakes a large-scale programme of knowledge transfer and is active through the Leicester-based National Space Centre in particular in all forms of outreach to the public and to industry. Within the wider Department of Physics & Astronomy, colleagues are involved in the analysis of data from missions now in orbit and also in the interpretation of the Earth's magnetosphere and the magnetospheres of other planets through space-based measurements and measurements by ground-based radars at high latitudes.

2.  UK Space Science

  Overall, the health of UK space science appears to be fragile. While individual groups and centres—including the University of Leicester—are capable of competing at the highest levels within the European Space Agency community and throughout the World, the pool of expertise in space in the UK is shrinking. 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, ie France, Germany and Italy. The number of UK research groups which are competent to build major space experiments within, for example, the ESA context, is decreasing. This is despite the growing recognition of UK industry that a healthy scientific community is essential in order for space industry to gain contracts and indeed prime status within the ESA framework. In the era (c 1990) of SOHO, Cluster and XMM-Newton the typical UK involvement in the scientific payload of a large Cornerstone mission was at a level of some £20 million. The scale factor for present involvement, such as in the BepiColombo mission is much reduced.

  Full exploitation of the potential of space missions in a number of space science disciplines can only be achieved when combined with cost-effective coordinated programmes of ground-based observations, and these should not be neglected in national policy and planning. This is evidently the case in all aspects of studies of the terrestrial environment, from remote sensing studies of the Earth's atmosphere and oceans, to in situ studies of the outer plasma regions and radiation belts. The importance of these disciplines to a wide range of technical applications and in understanding global climate change should be stressed. In this regard, the rationale behind the recent decision by the PPARC to terminate their involvement in ground-based experimental studies of the upper atmosphere and ionosphere is hard to comprehend.

3.  The European Space Agency (ESA)

  The exceptional level of resource made available to the planetary science community as a result of the UK's decision to participate in the non-mandatory Aurora programme within the ESA Exploration Directorate has overshadowed the rather bleak financial outlook for the mandatory ESA Science Programme—which covers solar-terrestrial science, fundamental physics, astrophysics and the exploration of planetary bodies other than the Moon and Mars.

  The future science programme will be formulated in early 2007 following responses to the Cosmic Visions 2015-25 call for proposals, which has just been delayed from September 2006 to early 2007. It seems likely that the first mission within Cosmic Visions will only be launched within the expected Science budget closer to 2020 than 2015. Access to space seems certain to be curtailed or indeed lost entirely for a decade for X-ray Astronomers at Leicester and throughout Europe—where the proposed new Cornerstone-class (ie €600 million) observatory XEUS cannot be accommodated within the Science Programme probably until well after 2020. Other areas of space science and space astronomy are under similar threat unless the ESA Science Budget is increased (which requires Ministerial consent).

  It has been evident for many years that the resources available to the national space instrument programme is at a level which does not match the central investment required by membership of ESA and participation in the mandatory ESA Science Programme. As a consequence, potential UK scientific leadership roles are routinely missed, including, for example, leadership of the Bepi-Colombo magnetic field investigation proposed by Imperial College, despite the project having been initiated and promoted within the UK from that quarter.

  The UK space science and astronomy communities are particularly exposed to the threat caused by an inadequately funded Science Programme because the small scale of UK national funding relative to our mandatory ESA contribution does not easily allow participation in bilateral missions with non-ESA partners. Such projects are often of smaller scope but remain highly valuable, allowing access to more frequent flight opportunities in particular disciplines between infrequent ESA flagship missions. Valuable political benefits are also in prospect, such as the possibility of fostering positive cooperation with China at the present time through projects such as the space weather KuaFu mission. We submit therefore that the UK should support a future increase in the ESA Science programme, but necessarily accompanied by the modest increases in the national budget without which we are once again like the fabled golfer who, having paid his expensive club membership, cannot afford to buy any balls or clubs.

4.  The British National Space Centre (BNSC)

  The hardest question for UK space scientists to answer when abroad continues to be: "explain the function of BNSC". No matter how able and well-organised BNSC staff may be, the worldwide perception is of an organisation with no budget and therefore without power, whose consultative nature renders it ineffectual in the promotion of UK space interests. The coordination by BNSC of the interests of multiple Government Departments may be successful on the day-to-day working basis unseen by outsiders, but has suffered some very public disasters, such as the failure of the UK to join the GMES programme at an appropriate level. We submit that the UK should consider the establishment of a national space agency with executive (ie funding and policy) responsibilities rather than a consultative mandate—on the model of DLR, CNES and ASI in our major European competitors, Germany, France and Italy.

5.  Knowledge Transfer (KT)

  We submit that the way forward for UK space science requires close working partnerships between Industry and University groups—such as the framework agreement currently being finalised between the University of Leicester Space Research Centre and EADS Astrium (Stevenage). The benefit to the Industrial partner arises from access to fundamental understanding of mission requirements, a prerequisite in the preparation of proposals for mission studies; the University side gains from studentship support, consultancies and direct influence in the accommodation of the science payloads. As long-standing proponents of the spin-off of detector technologies developed for space astronomy into the life sciences and medicine, we are confident that the scope for wealth creation from space-based technologies is indeed considerable, subject to the following provisos. First, KT is a slower process than the optimistic schedules of most Research Council grant schemes allow for. Second, the disincentive to small companies of finding matching funding from their internal resources is almost total. We submit that the UK examine the Small Business Innovative Research (SBIR) scheme operated by the Federal Agencies such as NASA in the United States as an attractive model for innovation out of the academic space community under the fully-funded leadership of SMEs.

6.  Outreach, Skills and Human Spaceflight

  The existence of high-profile UK leadership roles in space missions results in strongly positive public images of science, which stimulates public interest in science generally and importantly encourages the engagement of young people. The massive media interest in the UK participation in the Huygens landing on Titan is a recent example. We also note the continuing public interest in the "heroic failure" of Beagle 2 at Mars, which clearly touched a highly responsive public nerve specifically because it was a UK-led venture.

  The current position (dating from the 1985 review which also established BNSC) that the UK does not participate in Human Spaceflight places a unique constraint on the young people of this country. They, unlike the citizens of every other state, are effectively disbarred from becoming astronauts not by lack of funding or talent, but by their Government's negative policies. We support the findings of the recent RAS enquiry chaired by Professors Frank Close and Ken Pounds (University of Leicester) that the UK Government at least reconsiders those policies for the sake of the likely positive impact on post-14 student recruitment in the Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) subjects, which are the key to future economic prosperity.

October 2006

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