Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 32

Submission from the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils (CCLRC)


    —    Space science and technology affects virtually the whole UK population, either directly or indirectly;

    —    The UK already has a space programme that is diverse, world-leading, and of immense benefit to the UK economy and to the quality of life;

    —    The balance between the UK National Space Programme and the UK contribution to the ESA programme needs to be addressed;

    —    A Joint Space Technology Programme is being prepared for submission to the Comprehensive Spending Review 2007. This addresses the imbalance between the UK space programme and the ESA space programme. If successful, it would also enable UK industry to position itself more favourably for participation in future ESA missions, and as a result would deliver an even greater benefit to the UK economy;

    —    BNSC must be better positioned within government. The establishment of the Large Facilities Research Council presents an ideal opportunity to reconsider its current role, as well as providing an option for locating a UK National Space Centre on the proposed Harwell Science Innovation Campus;

    —    The Select Committee may wish to consider visiting some of the UK centres of space activity (eg EADS-Astrium, RAL, and SSTL), and also an ESA site such as ESTEC in Holland, in order to benchmark UK activities;

    —    With a government investment of £200 million and a £4-7 billion annual industry, government should recognise that space research and development plays a significant role in the UK economy and in government strategy in general, and the timeliness and potential to increase both even further should now be exploited. In addition to the economy, Space R&D also plays a vital role in, for example: security; in understanding climate change; and in providing training for young students in science and engineering.

  1.  Whether it be through the reception of live television programmes; the transmission of international telephone calls; the use of GPS for transport, leisure or military purposes; the monitoring of natural and man-made disasters; national security; climate change; weather forecasting; remote medical diagnostics; remote village education; or even the detection of near-Earth objects, space research and development directly affects the lives of the vast majority of the UK population, and indeed a large percentage of the global population.

  2.  Space R&D is big business in the UK. Although government currently invests around £200 million per annum in the UK space programme, the industry annual turnover is of order £4-7 billion per annum. UK scientists and technologists clearly punch well above their weight in terms of scientific leadership within the European Space Agency. The UK is the leading proponent of space value-added products and services, and our space industry is one of the most innovative industries in Europe.

  3.  The UK has a number of space "jewels in the crown" which are recognised at an international level, including EADS-Astrium, Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd, Avante, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory (RAL), and the planetary research group at the Open University. There are many other leading "high-tech" companies in the UK, as well as high-quality university research groups and world-leading institutes such as the Met Office Hadley Centre.

  4.  There are many examples of successful spin-out companies emanating from the UK space programme which benefit the UK economy or add to the quality of life. An excellent example of this is Thruvision Ltd, (a high-technology spin-out from the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory's space programme). The Company is currently developing terahertz technology for the security market, enabling detection of weapons and explosives. This technology was originally funded as part of a small (£100k) grant from PPARC and NERC for the remote studies of planetary atmospheres. Thruvision is now a multi-million pound 35-person SME.

  5.  However, despite the above benefits, the UK Government has not in the past regarded space science and technology as particularly strategically important, in contrast to most other developed nations. This represents a very significant loss to the UK economy and the strategic use of space-based information for the government. Without access to space systems, government departments which use space data (in many cases being unaware of the source), would be seriously handicapped without such data. This applies to MoD, DEFRA, DTI and DETR in particular.

  6.  The UK currently does not have a Space Agency. Instead, space policy in the UK is coordinated by the British National Space Centre (BNSC), a quaintly British organisation that is a voluntary consortium of Research Councils and other government organisations, and has an insignificant budget of its own. In most other cases (ie within Europe and most developed countries), national space activities are coordinated by funded national space agencies. BNSC works well within ESA and its Council, and has done a remarkable job in guiding ESA to reduce its own costs and become more efficient and effective. However, by its very constitution BNSC is not able to lobby government in terms of the strategic benefit to government and society, and has little in-house scientific or technical expertise. Agency status may not necessarily be the right solution for the UK, but both of these are weaknesses which need addressing in order for the UK to maximise its exploitation of space technology, reap the return from its investments, and continue to contribute to the UK economy.

  7.  Despite the disadvantage of not being an agency, the recent appointment of Dr David Williams as Director General, BNSC, enables BNSC to continue to demonstrate a highly professional and experienced leadership. BNSC has also reorganised its management structure by establishing a Space Board (chaired by Prof Keith Mason, CEO of PPARC) and a Space Council (chaired by Prof Richard Holdaway of RAL). PPARC successfully directs the space science programme and NERC successfully directs the Earth Observation programme.

  8.  The reorganisation of BNSC is clearly a very positive step forward. However, BNSC could be better positioned within government. With the creation of the "Large Facilities Research Council" (LFRC) a more suitable "parent body" will shortly be available. With the LFRC strategically linked to the development of the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus there is now the opportunity to establish an appropriate National Space Centre for Science and Technology on the Campus, along with a number of high-technology industrial space and university groups. The Centre would provide the catalyst for a co-ordinated space innovation and knowledge transfer programme, as well as a focus for training in space technology, on behalf of industry. An independent Space Council, with representatives from industry and academia, could also be constituted to advise both BNSC and government at ministerial level on the performance and strategy for a UK space programme.

  9.  The UK is also alone amongst major ESA member states in not having an ESA centre on its soil. This is a strategic disadvantage for the UK, but could be addressed by including an ESA base on the Harwell Campus if government so wished, to work alongside other UK and European space companies currently considering relocating their R&D centres to the Harwell Campus.

  10.  A final factor critical to the future success of UK Space is to achieve the appropriate balance between the UK's involvement in ESA's programme, and the national programme. The latter is very small, whereas the majority of other ESA national space agencies have a national programme that is funded to at least 20% of their contribution to the ESA programme. A solution that is being proposed by the BNSC partnership and supported by UK industry is a cross-research council cross-government department CSR2007 bid for a co-ordinated Joint Space Technology development Programme. This is being submitted through the OSI by CCLRC, and is seen as critical to the ongoing and increasing benefit to the UK economy and of the government investment in space.

October 2006

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