Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 59

Submission from Dr Ben Douglas


  1.  I am a General Practitioner with a dedicated interest in space medicine, and a high awareness of the benefits to be gained from a thriving space biomedical research community in the UK. However, UK opposition to human space activities means that there are currently no opportunities for space medical education or research in this country. I have incurred significant financial penalties developing my expertise in this rapidly developing field of medical science, and if the UK situation remains unchanged then it seems inevitable that I will have to emigrate to pursue my vocation.

  2.  UK opposition to human space activities is inherently counter-productive. There are a broad spectrum of benefits to be gained from involvement in these activities, including: scientific and technological advances, consequent improved economic returns, cultural and political gains, and educational benefits.

Detailed Submission

  3.  I am a General Practitioner currently working in central London. I studied medicine at the University of Aberdeen, and it was in 1996 that I developed my passionate interest in space medicine. During a third year summer research project in diving medicine I discovered a research paper discussing the rationale for a decompression sickness treatment facility on a Moon base. This caught my attention, and led to me undertaking my final year Elective at the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) Kennedy Space Center (KSC).

  4.  I was the first non-US citizen to directly apply to the KSC Medical Student Education Program run by the Biomedical Office (two previous UK nationals had attended the KSC rotation after originally attending other NASA centres). After six months of deliberations, KSC approved my application, and opened their rotation to international applicants. The rotation provides the opportunity to study an advanced field of medical science at an international centre of excellence. It is therefore no surprise that it has become an extremely popular Elective for UK medical students, and there is stiff competition for places and a very high standard of applicants.

  5.  From a personal perspective, attending KSC was invaluable. In addition to expert tuition on space medicine topics, observing operational space medicine, and undertaking original research into the medical challenges of a human Mars mission, I was also fortunate enough to witness an entire Space Shuttle mission (STS-96) from launch to landing, and to speak to the astronauts afterwards (one of whom was a medical doctor and had featured in the BBC documentary "Astronauts" and another of whom subsequently died in the Columbia disaster). The experience was profoundly inspiring, and increased my awareness of the multitude of ways that human space exploration and space medicine are beneficial on Earth.

  6.  After graduating I undertook a self-constructed GP training rotation throughout Scotland, and obtained Membership of the Royal College of General Practitioners (MRCGP). Despite my continued dedication to space medicine, UK opposition to human space activities has severely impaired my ability to develop my expertise in this specialty. Due to the complete absence of space medicine qualifications in the UK (or the ability to be funded to study abroad, as the Japanese are) I am limited to obtaining an aviation medicine qualification or pursuing another field of space science research, either of which I have to self-fund (at considerable cost) by working evenings and weekends as a GP. Despite the fact that I would rather remain in the UK, the total lack of postgraduate positions or research opportunities for space medicine in the UK means that I will inevitably have to consider emigrating if the situation remains unchanged.

  7.  It seems completely ridiculous that space medicine, which is a respected specialty internationally, is treated with a parochial disdain in the UK. Indeed, no other specialty is so utterly unsupported, completely denied research opportunities, or demands that its practitioners pay such a financial penalty to progress in their career. With a view to my UK colleagues (such as the members of the UK Space Biomedicine Group) it is very clear that this situation cannot continue indefinitely. Their options, like mine, are limited to abandoning space medicine or emigrating in the near future.

  8.  With regard to human space activities, some of the main benefits to be gained lie in the field of space physiology and medicine (such as improved understanding and treatment of osteoporosis, radiation protection, and immunology) but these health advances will only occur if there is a sufficiently mature space medical research infrastructure to investigate them. The UK has a strong health research base, yet the UK's expertise in this area is at risk of collapse due to lack of support.

  9.  It seems ironic that the UK has a strong tradition of supporting both scientific and exploration ventures, and currently spends several billion pounds on science (never mind healthcare and education) each year, including Antarctic research (which is analogous in many ways to space exploration) but does not recognise the dramatic potential of human space exploration.

  10.  Current UK space policy intends to review the human aspects of the ESA Aurora programme at some point in the future, but this approach is fundamentally unsound. Other international partners are developing their infrastructures (including space medicine) now, and if the UK persists in this detrimental course of action then it is likely that the UK will not have the capability to play any significant role in the human aspects of Aurora. This would be of severe consequence to the UK, both in terms of a further decline in UK science and negative cultural impact.

  11.  It is interesting to view the argument without mention of the word "space": here is a situation where there is an important field of science with far-reaching implications for human health and the understanding of the fundamental questions of how the solar system developed and where life itself originated, and yet the UK is utterly disinterested. Furthermore, British scientists are being actively excluded from joining the world in this important field of science, despite the desperate need to recruit and retain scientists in the UK. When presented in this way, it is clear that the UK position is absurd.

  12.  In summary, it is my sincere belief that space medicine, and indeed human space activities, have much to offer the United Kingdom. It is time to discard the traditional short-sighted and irrational prejudices, and comprehend the opportunities, before we are permanently left behind by the rest of the unfettered international community.

October 2006

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