Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 42

Submission from the Institution of Mechanical Engineers


  The Institution of Mechanical Engineers (IMechE) is a professional body representing around 75,000 professional engineers, working in all sectors of industry, including a growing number in space-related industries. We welcome the opportunity to assist the work of the Committee by submitting evidence to this inquiry.

1.  The impact of current levels of investment on space-related activities on the UK's international competitiveness in this sector

  1.1  Space is a high-value, high technology global industry and Britain a world leader in many aspects. Jobs in the sector are highly skilled, and more than two thirds of the workers hold a university degree. The industry generates about £4 billion a year for the British economy, representing an excellent rate of return for the rather modest sums invested over recent years.

  1.2  The global space sector is growing rapidly, as society becomes ever more reliant on space-based technologies, eg for TV, mobile phones, weather forecasting and navigation, and as space-derived information becomes ever more crucial, eg climate monitoring, disaster predication and relief. As the sector grows, it is absolutely vital that UK government and industry investment also grows, or else we risk falling far behind our international competitors.

  1.3  To develop a high-tech, highly skilled economy that can compete in global markets, and play our full part in tackling climate change and natural disasters, we need to sustain our support for, and take a leading role in, programmes such as ARTES, GMES and Galileo. We are concerned that recent cuts in government funding in some of these areas, along with the UK's low position in the international league table of space-related investment (as a proportion of GDP), leaves us vulnerable to competition and risks undermining our hard-earned market and political influence.

  1.4  It is encouraging that industry turnover is showing strong growth and is now approaching £5 billion. However, funding agencies have to be consistent in their funding with continuous support of long term programmes.

2.  The benefits and value for money obtained from participation in the European Space Agency and other international programmes

  2.1  We support UK participation in the European Space Agency (ESA) and other international programmes, so long as they are focused on meeting clear, user-defined needs.

  2.2  ESA provides a strong framework through which UK companies can develop successful businesses and specialist capabilities, and investments made in it have seen excellent rates of return. Its benefits to the UK include:

    —  Development and support of a world-class science and engineering base.

    —  Attracting science and engineering graduates into industry and academe.

    —  World leadership in specialist fields, eg environmental monitoring.

    —  Development of spin-off technologies and industries.

    —  Access to global markets, eg through Galileo.

  2.3  For the UK to derive maximum benefit from ESA and other international programmes, it must engage fully, both in funding terms and in influencing the direction, planning and prioritising of future programmes. With sustained participation in ESA, and other programmes, such as those through EUMETSAT, valuable alliances and specialisms can be developed which will provide long lasting industrial and political benefits.

  2.4  ESA projects often provide the opportunity for upstream industry to develop ambitious technology within a framework of managed risk not typical of the wider commercial space industry. Being at the forefront of this type of technology development in the UK is crucial to maintaining our innovative engineering capabilities. Products developed within ESA programmes have a proven track record of success in wider engineering markets, further increasing the contribution to UK competitiveness.

  2.5  ESA programmes have in recent years formed strong collaborations, especially within the science and Earth Observation programmes, with emerging space markets. Forming strong relations with these countries at this stage will aid access to these markets as they develop.

  2.6  If the level of investment is insufficient, or if the strategy for directing this investment is not clear (making it difficult for UK industry to aim for consistent involvement), then key capabilities may be lost.

  2.7  The funding route is also somewhat fragmented with several government agencies providing the funding to ESA programmes. This may lead to conflict (who should pick up the tab for a certain programme) and a lack of a unified process of funding. This disparate spread of funding agencies perhaps reflects the reach of the industry on different areas of our lives but it also potentially leaves some programmes susceptible to financial pressures from a wide range of other areas of government. The BNSC has perhaps not been as effective as it should in this role and a more centralised process would be beneficial for the UK.

3.  The maximisation of commercial benefits and wealth creation from UK space-based technologies through innovation and knowledge transfer

  3.1  Global markets in space-based technologies are growing rapidly (10-15% per annum being typical) and estimates put the overall size of that market at around $100 billion. It is vital that UK companies derive the maximum possible commercial benefits from this market. To do so, industry, academia and government must work together to develop our world-leading expertise and innovation in specialist areas such as telecoms, navigation and environmental monitoring.

  3.2  The UK has a strong record of innovation and knowledge transfer as a direct result of participation in European space programmes. Within the space industry there are notable examples such as small satellite development, communication and navigational satellites as well as many examples of world leading technology at subsystem or equipment level.

  3.3  Technology transfer into wider industry is also evident with space technology being employed across many high value terrestrial sectors from security and scientific research to medical and industrial equipment. The downstream benefits are also significant, as evidenced by the tremendous growth in revenue streams that have been created as a result of space infrastructure.

4.  The delivery of public benefits from the space-related activities of different government departments (eg Defra, MoD, DTI, DfT) and the co-ordination of these activities

  4.1  The public benefits from space-related activities are numerous and expanding rapidly. They include navigation, climate and other environmental monitoring, disaster monitoring and relief assistance, communications, defence and security surveillance and broadcasting. They can be used to support areas of government policy, eg road pricing, and can help to attract young people into science and engineering courses and careers.

  4.2  The British National Space Centre (BNSC) was established to co-ordinate public sector space activities and act as a focus for UK involvement with ESA and other international programmes. While it has generally been successful in this regard, there is scope for greater knowledge sharing and co-ordination, not just within government but also involving industry. Such a partnership would help to more effectively co-ordinate responses to user-defined needs and opportunities, and help to spread the identification and exploitation of space-based solutions into new areas of government.

  4.3  BNSC provides a useful focus for some activities such as careers and as a gateway to government. It has also, at times, been able to support development of new technology through its funding programmes. It must, however, be seen to manage such funding effectively to give the best returns. It has not perhaps been the unifying body that it could have been since the responsibility for many decisions still lies with the member departments.

5.  Support for space-related research and the UK Skills Base

  5.1  The future success and prosperity of UK space-related industry depends absolutely on the availability of highly skilled scientists and engineers. Support, both in research funding and long-term policy commitments, is needed to ensure the flow of people that industry needs. Whilst the bulk of the near-market support should be in the specialist areas where UK already has strength (as defined in our answer to Q3), it is important to adequately spread research funding across a broad spectrum of areas. This will allow the UK to identify and exploit new opportunities in new areas where commercial, environmental and/or social benefits can be obtained, while also offering the most attractive range of opportunities for young people considering a career in space technology.

  5.2  Active and visible involvement in ambitious programmes in both industry and academia has the potential to encourage future generations to consider careers (or at least gain increased awareness and understanding) in science and engineering. There is still a perception that the UK isn't involved in space to the degree that it actually is, and so much of the work carried out in the industry is not noticed. The future skills base is one of the biggest concerns within the industry and so should become a priority. The development and support of education programmes could be improved at a comparatively modest cost.

October 2006

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