Submission from the Royal Astronomical
The community represented by the
RAS and the country as a whole benefit from a strong involvement
in high-quality space missions in astronomy, solar-terrestrial
relations, geophysics and planetary science provided these are
properly tensioned against ground-based facilities. These missions
must be chosen on scientific grounds.
Research Councils must provide the
appropriate balance in their programmes between the implementation
of space missions and the underlying science, such as theory,
through which the investment in the missions can be fully exploited
and between the subscription in the Space Science Programme in
ESA and the national exploitation through the contribution of
These missions need not be delivered
solely through ESA, although our membership of ESA is extremely
The UK needs to have a strong voice
in ESA, CoSPAR and at the UN in matters concerning space.
The UK voice on space will be heard
best within the UK if academia and industry are well coordinated.
This is not the case at present.
The training and development of space
scientists and engineers often takes place in universities with
space science or astronomy research programmes and this training
should be fostered at the BNSC level.
Better alignment between the industrial
aspirations and the scientific objectives must be sought. Other
countries, notably France, excel at this and thereby benefit much
more from ESA than we do.
To achieve this coordination, BNSC
should be advised by an independent UK Space Council.
The current format of BNSC is not
serving the needs of the country nor the space community.
More (good) publicity for our space
science, astronomy, Earth-observation and planetary science research
would be welcome. The public are deeply interested in space and
it is a major attractor for young people into the physical sciences.
The Royal Astronomical Society (RAS) is the
UK's leading professional body for astronomy and astrophysics,
geophysics, solar and solar-terrestrial physics, and planetary
sciences. The Society believes that access to space is fundamentally
important for the pursuit of scientific research in these disciplines,
coordinated by the relevant Research Councils with other techniques.
Conversely the Society also believes that the pursuit of scientific
research into space develops human capital and technological capabilitythe
skills base that helps drive the UK space industry. From this
position of experience, future interest and participation in the
business of the nation, the RAS welcomes the opportunity to contribute
evidence and ideas to the Inquiry into UK Space Policy.
1. The main concerns of the Society are
not immediately with the levels of investment in UK space activities
but with the poor level of coordination and effectiveness of the
current policy. Some structural changes should be effected to
improve this prior to the discussion of increased investment.
The opportunity should be taken to stimulate small companies in
the space sector as crucibles of innovation and coordinate the
training of young engineers and scientists to work in this exciting
and valuable field.
2. The RAS recognises the importance of
space as a scientific platform and is pleased with the position
of the UK scientific community on this frontier of research. It
is absolutely essential, if we are both to maintain our leading
position and to reap the benefit of the considerable investment
made in scientific space missions by the Research Councils and
other public bodies, that the skill base in the universities is
maintained to exploit the missions fully. This means maintaining
not only data analysis and interpretation groups, but also groups
of theorists, computing facilities and networks of other scientific
disciplines. Scientific space missions are not just or mainly
about producing data, they are about producing scientific understanding
in the heads of scientists. This means that the Research Councils
and other bodies must maintain the appropriately high level of
support for scientific exploitation even if this is, for clarity
of financial management, separated from the support identified
for each scientific space project. There is a danger of attrition
of scientific capability in the universities.
3. A crucial issue in managing space science
missions is to strike a balance in funding between building new
missions and exploitation of current missions. This is a major
problem because short-term financial pressures bear more heavily
on current missions. Managers have limited scope to cut missions
being built as these are usually subject of long-term international
agreements. There are always more options to cut the scientific
operation and exploitation of existing missions and these can
result in under-exploitation of scientific assets in which the
taxpayer has invested much money. This is another issue recognised
by the International Review of UK Physics and Astronomy. Their
report states that "it is imperative to ensure that the funding
agencies maintain a healthy balance between the large investments
in international facilities and funds spent nationally for exploitation
of these opportunities...".
4. Space platforms are increasingly important
for studies of the physics of the Earth. This is an area of science
in which NERC is the primary funding agency and in which many
UK scientists play internationally leading roles. One key area
of UK scientific leadership is the study of the interior of the
Earth and especially of its magnetic field. Other important areas
include climate change and the study of natural hazards and their
alleviation. These areas are also of great practical importance
for the future of humankind and thus are vital areas for knowledge
transfer to policy-makers and industry. It should be recognised
that a proper scientific understanding of our environment has
the potential to provide significant economic benefits by enabling
long-term policies that reduce the costs of environmental damage
and natural disasters. The RAS welcomes UK participation in relevant
space programmes such as the ESA Earth Observation programme and
the joint EU/ESA programme on Global Monitoring for Environment
and Security (GMES). It is important that UK scientists have the
resources to make a world-class contribution to these programmes.
5. The space industry is also an important
revenue earner for the UK and space in general is a subject of
strong public interest, often being the attractor of young people
into the physical sciences as a career. No one can seriously doubt
the importance of space to daily life as more of our telecommunications,
entertainment and transport depends upon an often hidden space
link. The fact that the European Commission is taking an interest
in the programme of ESA and its implementation indicates the importance
and high profile of these trans-national activities.
6. That the UK is a strong player in the
use of space for scientific purposes can be justified by simple
metrics. Over the past few decades UK academics have been principal
investigators in many space missions within ESA and other space
agencies, in excess of our pro rata share based on funding.
The level of scientific output in published papers from the UK
is also very high compared to other nations. These achievements
are in contrast to the level of per capita spending on
space science compared to our competitors but the static level
of the space budget is beginning to seriously erode this position
of strength. It is particularly disappointing that the UK no longer
takes its membership of CoSPAR seriously enough to send representatives
to the major assemblies concerned with space science.
7. The issue of UK competitiveness is only
partially determined by the level of investment. As outlined above,
the UK has notable strengths in space science and space instrument
design. It also has important industrial assets in space, for
example Astrium UK, a space prime contractor, and SSTL, a major
producer of small satellites. The coordination of academic and
industrial policy is very poor and this is the area where improvements
in structure and objectives could materially boost our competitiveness.
The RAS offers three suggestions:
(a) BNSC is advised by a UK Space Board,
formerly the BNSC Resources Board, composed of representatives
from its major partners, and by a UK Space Advisory Council, formerly
the Space Strategy Council, dominated by the 11 BNSC partners
with modest independent membership. Their functioning is neither
transparent nor vigorous. Both should be replaced by an independent
UK Space Council with representatives nominated by Academia, Industry,
Research Councils, Government and relevant Learned Societies.
This should be modelled on the US National Academy of Sciences'
Space Studies Board, which oversees the NASA programme. With a
completely independent chair, it should advise the DG BNSC on
UK space policy, provide annual assessments of progress toward
objectives and report directly to the appropriate minister. Issues
such as levels of investment, UK policy on Human Spaceflight,
and the strategic provision of trained manpower would all be better
debated within an independent framework and this would strengthen
the authority of the BNSC in the eyes of the space community.
It should not be the duty of the Space Council to choose space
missions or interfere in the processes within agencies who work
in space. However an independent body with an overview of the
country's space portfolio would be able to point out lacunae and
bad practice as well as celebrating successes and reporting independently
(b) The UK's programme of space technology
development is fragmented, with its component parts guarded as
independent territories. As a result there is too little interaction
between the space-relevant communities. Some government body,
it could be the BNSC, should have a central budget for innovation
in space technology. Other countries are far in advance of us
in deciding which area of space technology they will pursue, developing
support for this in academia and SME's and negotiating access
to European programmes relevant to the agreed objective. The encouragement
of SME's in the space sector is vital if the UK is to develop
its technical capabilities and remain a world provider of space
(c) Likewise the UK's programme of space
education is uncoordinated. SME's are the most able components
of industry to engage in knowledge transfer with universities
and institutes as a means of stimulating the flow of creativity.
The space industry in general has need of trained personnel in
both engineering and science but this need is not articulated
at the national level nor is its provision coordinated and the
output maximised in any way. It is left to the initiative of individual
universities to develop and maintain the relevant courses. The
fact that there is no central agency active in promoting training
and innovation in space may account for our declining position
in space affairs.
8. The British National Space Centre is
a strange construct compared to space agencies in other countries.
Having no independent budget and therefore no central space programme,
it can only follow the desires of others. Since its foundation,
it has provided an improved level of policy presentation at ESA
Council compared to the vacuum that existed before 1985 and it
has overseen the presentation of space affairs to government.
In recent times BNSC has taken a much more active role in publicising
UK space activities which has been welcomed. More would be good
for the countrythe public are deeply interested in space
and it is a major attractor for young people into the physical
9. Unfortunately BNSC has not effectively
coordinated the various sectors of the space community, it has
not forged a distinctive policy on technological development and
its actions have obstructed innovation from the grass roots on
several occasions. Much of this has been a result of its structure
and reporting lines but the failure of BNSC to lead the space
community has had a deadening effect on our world position. Many
opportunities have been lost.
10. The solution to the structural problem
of the BNSC has to be taken on by those fully aware of the conflicting
requirements. The lack of any independent Space Council makes
it especially difficult to formulate an informed and effective
proposal. It is the view of the RAS that the current format is
not serving the needs of the country nor the space community.
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, possibly an independent
UK Space Agency. Its form and its relationships with other bodies
such as NERC should be carefully considered by the newly reconstituted
UK Space Council as one of its first tasks. The RAS would welcome
participation in any discussions of this possibility.
11. The European Space Agency is our primary
route to space. ESA provides the mechanism by which the UK can
participate in missions quite beyond our individual capability
to afford or execute. More often than our proportional share,
these missions are led by the UK intellectually and are directly
in support of PPARC or NERC scientific strategy. The advantage
of participating fully in ESA is that we have a place at the policy
table and are active in selecting the missions it carries out,
as in the current debate on ESA's Cosmic Vision programme for
2015-25. However, the growing financial inability of UK scientists
to play a full role in new ESA projects was recognised by the
2005 International Review of UK Physics and Astronomy (sponsored
by RAS, IoP, PPARC and EPSRC). The report of this independent
review states that "There are recent examples where the money
invested in ESA programmes has not been fully capitalised because
it has not always been possible to support an instrument programme
commensurate with the UK subscription." Our space scientists
find it galling when their scientific leadership is recognised
in Europe as they participate in defining missions in ESA but
subsequently undermined nationally by lack of full support to
12. Occasional bi-lateral missions, for
example with the US, Japan, India and China are in the short-term
good value for money as we do not pay launch or platform costs.
However these are ad hoc opportunities since we play no part in
deciding which missions are selected. The UK will continue to
benefit in the long-term by focusing its space requirements on
ESA but allowing itself the freedom to engage in relevant bi-lateral
missions when they arise.
13. The cost-effectiveness of ESA has often
been questioned. Space is an expensive business and should only
be chosen as a mechanism for programme delivery when it is essential.
Efforts were made in ESA to reduce the cost targets for mission
in the 1990s and this may have been beneficial in halting an unhelpful
rise in mission costs. The UK has undertaken a very low cost approach
to one mission in recent years (Beagle 2). As the Committee's
own earlier inquiry showed, it was a failure, and it was poorly
managed overall as a national project. The UK's authority on this
issue is therefore not high. The two components that might be
investigated are the internal costs within ESA, how they are budgeted
and deployed, and the mission costs in European industry. The
internal costs are in part bound-up with various long-term practices
shared with other international organisations and unpicking these
would need high level support. Mission costs in industry are influenced
by ESA reporting policies and it would take a very detailed study
to be confident that any downward revisions would not produce
an unacceptable risk. The fact is that space missions are becoming
more and more ambitious and cost more to achieve. The only realistic
way of assessing whether ESA is more costly than necessary is
to compare it with another agency like NASA, again a complex task
if the outcome is to carry authority.
14. The Society, representing as it does
the majority of UK scientists active in space, believes that scientific
judgements must remain paramount in selecting science missions
to support. This applies within the ESA framework and in UK research
councils. It is recognised that other criteria can be important
at the national level and the RAS looks to other organisations
to make the case for industrial return or public engagement, for
example. Where programmes are chosen because they represent major
opportunities outside science, then the UK science budget should
only be asked to shoulder an appropriate proportion of the costs.
This would need discussion at national level. The impending Aurora
programme may be a case in point.
15. The UK has had a distinguished history
in space and we are playing our part as an effective member of
ESA. Revised structures and policies could substantially improve
our competitiveness and industrial return. It is imperative that
the coordination of the UK space sector is improved and long-term
issues such as training and technological objectives are properly
addressed before a convincing case for more investment can be
made, although the RAS believes that a proposal for more funding
will then be compelling.