Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 35

Submission from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC)


  1.1  PPARC is the largest funding partner in BNSC. In this memorandum PPARC outlines how and why it invests in space. It also outlines PPARC's relationship with its partners in BNSC; with the European Space Agency (ESA) and with other space agencies. PPARC also comments on the impact that current levels of investment in space are having on the UK's competitiveness; and considers what impact greater levels of investment might have.

  1.2  PPARC believes that progress in space science depends on technological innovation and that this innovation benefits both the competitiveness of the UK space industry and also the wider economy. The memorandum summarises what activities PPARC undertakes to transfer this knowledge to other sectors of the economy and includes some success stories.

  1.3  PPARC believes that space is a strategic activity requiring joined-up action in order to yield the full range of scientific, economic and societal benefits. PPARC feels that there is scope for increased recognition of the public and commercial benefits offered by the sector, particularly across Government. In this memorandum PPARC outlines why it believes that the BNSC is the best mechanism for co-ordinating these activities.

  1.4  PPARC plays an active role in supporting the UK skills base. It funds training of PhD students and researchers undertaking space related research in universities and laboratories. It also inspires and stimulates the next generation of scientists and engineers through its Science and Society programme.


  2.1  PPARC's mission is to pursue a programme of high-quality basic research in astronomy, space science and particle physics. In doing so, PPARC also trains high-quality scientists and engineers; increases the UK's industrial competitiveness; attracts future generations of scientists and engineers; and stimulates the public interest.

  2.2  PPARC's research programme responds to fundamental questions about the origin, current state and future of the Universe and all that lies within it. This programme requires long-term strategic planning and investment to provide UK researchers with access to the state-of-the-art facilities necessary for competitive research. The PPARC "Road Map" sets out this planning in a structured way. It is built around nine key science questions:

    —  What is the Universe made of and how does it evolve?

    —  What is the origin of mass?

    —  Are we alone in the Universe?

    —  Why is there more matter than antimatter?

    —  How do galaxies, stars and planets form and evolve?

    —  Is there a unified theory of all particle interactions?

    —  What are the laws of physics in extreme conditions?

    —  How does the Sun affect the Earth?

    —  What are the origins and properties of the energetic particles reaching the Earth?

  2.3  PPARC's Road Map elaborates on these questions, and identifies current and possible future projects needed to help answer them. Space science projects contribute to answering most of these questions. And as advances in its science often derive from innovative technology, the Road Map also helps PPARC identify critical technologies requiring early investment.

  2.4  This structured approach allows PPARC to target investment to yield the highest scientific return. This approach has enabled UK space science to be amongst the best in the world—second only to the USA in terms of the numbers of publications and citations. In open competition, UK scientists have secured the second highest utilisation of the Hubble Space Telescope (a joint ESA/NASA project). The ESA Newton X-ray telescope, in which the UK led two out of the three instruments, is yielding internationally peer-reviewed science papers at the rate of one every working day.

  2.5  On average PPARC invests over one quarter of its annual budget on space science. This accounts for around one third of the UK's public expenditure on civil space. Most of PPARC's investment in space science is via membership of the European Space Agency (ESA), through both its subscription to the agency's Space Science Programme and funding of the domestic activity to support the subscription (building instruments and doing the resulting scientific research). To a limited extent, PPARC also takes part in bilateral international projects with other space agencies. The UK does not undertake national space science missions.


  3.1  Membership of ESA is of fundamental importance to UK space science. Membership allows the UK to participate in a far greater range of projects than would otherwise be possible. Such projects are scientifically competitive on a world scale and—in several areas—ahead even of NASA, despite the US agency's much larger budget.

  3.2  ESA is a relatively effective organisation. Financial and management control of the ESA Science Programme has historically been quite successful—over the last 20 years the average cost overrun at completion of ESA science missions is only 4%. The annual budget of the Science Programme declined by about 20% between 1995 and 2005, but this has now stabilised. However, the context in which ESA is operating is changing. A number of issues will have to be taken into consideration;

    The relationship between ESA and the European Union (EU). The EU and ESA are developing a framework for managing future space related activities in Europe through the European Space Policy (ESP). A series of joint EU-ESA meetings are being held at Ministerial Level in order to develop the ESP.

    The relative financial contributions made by member states. There are two parts to the ESA programme—the Mandatory Activities (ie the "club membership fee") and the Optional Programmes. The Space Science Programme constitutes the majority of the Mandatory Activities. Member states' contributions to the Mandatory Activities are proportional to their Net National Income (NNI). This value is periodically re-calculated but at present it is 17.7% for the UK, making the UK the second largest contributor to the Mandatory Activities behind Germany. However, most of ESA's activities are through Optional Programmes, in which the member nations participate at a level of their choosing. Overall, the UK contributes about 8% of ESA's budget.

    Financial Management Reform. The Director General of ESA has begun a financial reform process, which Lord Sainsbury—the UK's Minster for Science and Innovation helped to initiate. The Agency aims to refine its operation, methods and organisation in preparation for the future.

    Enlargement. At present there are 17 full members of ESA and 5 "cooperating states". In the mid-term, it is anticipated that membership could grow in line with the expansion of the EU. The organisation will have to consider whether and how the enlargement can be implemented. The issues are wide-ranging, encompassing relationships with the EU, industrial policy, and the focus of ESA's activities. The Director General of ESA is presently consulting member states as to their views and the UK has begun a corresponding national reflection.

    Industrial return. ESA's industrial returns policy is enshrined in its Convention and ensures that industrial activities in each member state reflect their level of financial contribution. This approach is intended to ensure that technological benefits accrue to all member states. And it should be understood that the vast majority of contracts are awarded in (vigorous) open competition. The advantages and disadvantages of ESA's industrial policy have been debated before and will be again in the context of enlargement. But whether the status quo is maintained, or the policy evolved to relax geo-return requirements, PPARC wants to help ensure that UK industry wins an appropriate proportion of the contracts to secure the economic and technological benefits as well as the scientific benefits of the UK's involvement in ESA.

  3.3  PPARC (acting through BNSC) monitors the share of contracts awarded to UK companies in proportion to the UK contribution to ESA (the "geo-return"). For various reasons—including the current strength of the UK economy relative to our neighbours—the UK's geo-return in the Science Programme is currently less than the ideal. Coordinated action between BNSC and ESA is addressing this issue with some success.

  3.4  In summary, PPARC believes that membership of ESA continues to provide the most cost-effective way of sharing the costs of world class "big science" projects, maintaining a vibrant and active space science community, and developing technological capability in the UK.

  3.5  Although the majority of PPARC's space science activities take place through the UK's membership of ESA our approach to space science is flexible and designed to obtain the best benefits for UK science. This allows some scope to participate in non-ESA missions on a bilateral basis with other nations. These missions can allow niche or novel areas of science to be addressed rapidly and cost effectively. An example is the PPARC involvement in the NASA Swift astronomy mission. This relatively small mission was launched in 2005 and is dedicated to the study of Gamma-ray bursts. These are the most powerful explosions in the Universe but occur randomly and rapidly and are poorly understood. The UK was able to apply instrument technology already developed on an ESA mission to make a financially modest (£6 million over 5 years) but scientifically fundamental contribution to a mission which has immediately yielded important scientific results.

  3.6  The UK, through PPARC, is seen as a desirable international partner. This is largely due to the quality and expertise of UK space scientists and engineers. Hitherto, the USA and Japan have been PPARC's principal partners for such bilateral cooperation. However, subject to scientific priority and resources, new strategic opportunities are emerging. In particular, the space agencies of both India and China are becoming major players. Each will launch robotic missions to the Moon within the next two years and China is planning further missions of interest to the UK science community.


  4.1  PPARC's investment in space science is fundamental to UK international competitiveness in space activities as a whole;

    —  Scientifically, as already described;

    —  Technologically, because the challenges of PPARC's science drives technological innovation through to in-orbit use;

    —  Programmatically, because the ESA Science Programme provides an underlying base from which the UK industrial community can achieve greater competitiveness and provides opportunities for new companies to enter the field;

    —  Operationally, because UK service industries are prominent in providing services to ESA's technical and operations centres.

  4.2  PPARC's primary rationale for investment in space is to yield scientific return. However, it is clear from the above that the additional benefits of PPARC's investments are intertwined with the UK's wider space policy, where the goals may also be economic or societal. It is evident that other countries (eg within Europe, Italy) and elsewhere (China and India) are placing increased priority on investment in space science activities as part of strategic national policy.

  4.3  Due to the nature and complexity of the work undertaken in the sector investment decisions have to be made many years sooner than they do in some other sectors. 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.

  4.4  The private sector is unlikely to invest in pure science such as is undertaken by PPARC. All nations which have a presence in space recognise this and most invest strategically for the long term. And because the commercial space sector has long lead-times this can make it unattractive for private sector investment. This factor needs to be recognised and all stakeholders in the sector should consider what mechanisms could be devised to make investment by the private sector more attractive. But it must also be recognised that investment by the private sector alone will not be enough and must be accompanied by greater investment from the public sector. Most other nations which have a presence in space invest more public money per capita in their domestic space programmes than the UK does. Countries such as China and India have a low cost base and are investing substantially in basic space technology and are likely to catch up rapidly. The USA has leveraged its capability in basic science (supported by substantial military funding for space) to create capability now exploited in the civil domain. An example lies in the case history of satellite navigation. This began with US scientists attempting to track Sputnik in 1957. This led to the use of early navigation satellites to provide targeting information to Polaris submarines, and eventually to today's GPS navigation system—used by a wide range of people from taxi drivers to hill-walkers.

  4.5  The UK invests proportionately smaller amounts in its domestic (non-ESA) space programme relative to other countries. PPARC feels that it is in this area that increased investment would generate a greater impact in three ways. Firstly it would increase and accelerate technological innovation and spin-off across all UK space activities. Secondly it would allow more effective exploitation of the UK's NNI-based subscription to ESA, where at present the UK is not always able to fund a sufficient breadth of instrument contribution. And thirdly it would provide the UK with the means to negotiate strongly on the fast-changing global stage.

  4.6  With such long lead times and a rapidly expanding market the UK needs to adopt a strategic approach—not just a scientific approach—to get the best benefits from the space sector. An appropriate infrastructure needs to be in place to enable the UK to take advantage of opportunities not falling within existing Government departmental structures.

  4.7  NASA, for example, is beginning a $100 billion lunar exploration programme which integrates scientific, economic and technological goals. The US is open for international partnerships to develop some aspects of the programme, such as software, communications support systems or scientific instrumentation. PPARC believes that the UK could well have expertise to exploit both the commercial and scientific benefits from such a programme.


  5.1  Progress in PPARC's space science depends on technological innovation in such fields as instrumentation, control systems, propulsion, autonomy, software and data processing. These technological innovations and capabilities often have the potential to be applied far beyond the PPARC science for which they were originally developed and can ultimately produce wider economic benefits. PPARC actively helps the UK secure these wider benefits especially by brokering "knowledge transfer" at the interfaces between organisations and areas of application.

  5.2  Nationally, the principal mechanisms for creating such new technology are:

    —  Rolling grants for long term research of needs

    —  PPARC R&D (PRD) for technology pre-development

    —  Project development awards for flight projects

  As a result of recent changes, the PRD mechanism may involve pure academic teams, pure industrial teams or (typically) mixed teams from academia and industry.

  5.3  Nationally, the principal mechanism for knowledge transfer of capability created in the PPARC programme is through the PPARC Industrial Support Scheme (PIPSS), which focuses exclusively on knowledge transfer objectives. PPARC also participates in a DTI-supported "Knowledge Transfer Network" for instrumentation, and also in RCUK supported schemes to help transfer knowledge arising from UK investment in all of PPARC's international subscriptions (to ESA, CERN[41] and ESO[42]).

  5.4  There have been a number of successes in knowledge transfer from the PPARC space programme, including;

    —  E2V ltd. E2V are specialists in optical sensors and a major supplier to PPARC's programmes. Their work has led to export contracts in the space, healthcare, defence and aerospace sectors. E2V is an active participant in partnerships with universities. In 2005 E2V Technologies had 1,300 employees and a £100 million turnover—with exports accounting for 75% of sales.

    —  LogicaCMG. LogicaCMG is also a major supplier to PPARC's space science programme through ESA. LogicaCMG software supports a third of the world's satellites. By 2004 LogicaCMG had 6,000 employees in the UK and a £1.7 billion turnover. Logica's expertise developed through science missions has helped its other business sectors. Experience gained on PPARC-funded projects in flight dynamics software has led directly to at least €50 million export contracts.

    —  Thruvision. Thruvision is a spin-off company created in 2005 to exploit space instrumentation technology for remote security screening—which is now being trialled at airports.

  5.5  PPARC is keen to help devise mechanisms to enable UK industry to maximise the commercial and technological benefits from the UK's investment in space science by supporting technological innovation and transferring knowledge and skills into the wider economy.

  5.6  The UK space community in universities and industry is highly innovative, and is well used to working together. However, for the UK to remain competitive in a global marketplace of ideas the UK needs to improve its ways of working, for example by accelerating the process from R&D to market. This will need improved funding models and ways of integrating intellectual capital. The formation of the new Research Council could act as a stimulus for this process.


  6.1  The space related activities which PPARC supports deliver public benefits in three areas—science, education and knowledge transfer. These activities also deliver wider public benefits which are much more difficult to quantify, such as the inspirational value they provide to the creative industries and the public in general.

  6.2  Space is pervasive and is used by numerous Government departments. The investment in space is very much user driven. And whilst this approach has, to a certain extent, been successful PPARC believes that there may well be scope for more joined-up thinking by BNSC partners and other stakeholders in order to enable Government departments to fully appreciate the public and commercial benefits offered by the sector.

  6.3  In his written statement to Parliament on the Comprehensive Spending Review[43] the Chancellor outlined the new challenges which Britain will face. PPARC believes that the UK space sector could play a considerable role in developing innovative responses to almost all of these challenges.

  6.4  The merits of having a single dedicated space agency have been debated several times before. And although most other leading nations have a single dedicated agency, PPARC believes that the BNSC partnership arrangement (especially if developed to its full potential) is an appropriate model for the UK as it ensures a more customer focused approach.

  6.5  The partnership approach should not inhibit Government departments from developing a common space policy, and in fact should facilitate the process. Developing a common policy could help maximise the delivery of public benefits from space related activities. BNSC would be an appropriate vehicle to develop such a policy—provided sufficient consensus and commitment existed, or could be developed, across Government departments for such an approach.

  6.6  Acting through CCLRC, the BNSC partners are proposing a `Joint Partners Space Technology Programme'. This is an encouraging development which—among other benefits—would ensure that Government departments had sufficient advice on the potential that space offers for various applications.

  6.7  In 2005 BNSC set up the UK Space Board (currently chaired by the PPARC Chief Executive) to provide a strategic steering role. The Board has been successful in strengthening the coordination of UK civil space activities.


  7.1  PPARC plays two distinct roles in education;

    —  Delivering excellent training in exciting scientific research through its post-graduate studentship schemes.

    —  To communicate the excitement and benefits of PPARC sciences to the general public and especially to inspire the next generation to train in science, technology, engineering and mathematics—skills which are essential for the long-term health of the UK economy.

  7.2  Far from being "ivory tower" academics, PPARC space science students are often working in an international environment and employing novel technology and computing techniques to solve difficult problems in time critical projects. Not surprisingly such skills and experience are in great demand in other sectors. Research commissioned by PPARC suggests that around half of these students take up careers in the commercial sector.[44]

  7.3  PPARC believes that space can be a remarkable tool in attracting and sustaining young people's interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. PPARC has a dedicated Science and Society programme which for example, supports three "robotic" telescopes to allocate observation time to school children. It also operates a loan scheme which has allowed thousands of schoolchildren to get "hands-on" with samples of Moon rock.

  7.4  Science and Society goals are included in every major project PPARC funds. For example, in the planned ExoMars mission, PPARC aims to ensure that UK schools will be given opportunities to meet the scientists involved in the project and to use interactive (and inspirational) educational material.

  7.5  Evidence for the direct impact of space activities on career decisions exists historically in the US (where an "Apollo" generation of innovators was created in the early 'seventies) and more recently PPARC, along with partners EADSAstrium Ltd, BNSC and the Regional Development Agency "Yorkshire Forward", has published a consultants' report entitled "The Education and Skills Case for Space".[45] The report looked at what evidence existed to show that relating space activities to young people improves educational standards and skills and can affect choice of a science or technology subject post-16 or on entering university. This report reveals better evidence that the excitement of space does affect educational standards and students' subject choice for post-16 and university studies.

  7.6  In summary, PPARC believes that its space science activities are contributing both directly and indirectly to the skills base of the UK and that exciting opportunities exist to increase impact in this area.

October 2006

41   The European Organisation for Nuclear Research. Back

42   The European Southern Observatory. Back

43 Back

44   In 1995 PPARC commissioned a study to trace the career paths of PhD students within the remit of PPARC. The study focused on students whose PhD awards had ended 6-8 years earlier-as it was expected that they would be well established in a career. In 2003 a further study was commissioned to follow up these students and to establish how their career had developed since 1995. A copy of this report can be found on the following web page; Back

45   A copy of the report can be found at This report follows on from the report by Prof Martin Barstow (University of Leicester), entitled "Bringing Space into School Science", which was published in 2005. A copy of this can be found at Back

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