Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 94 - 99)



  Q94  Chairman: Good morning to everybody and good morning to our first panel of witnesses this morning, David Williams, the Director General of the British National Space Centre, Paula Freedman, the Director of DTI Space within BNSC and Dr Arwyn Davies, the Director of Earth Observation at both the BNSC and the Natural Environment Research Council, NERC. Happy New Year to you all and welcome to our visitors as well this morning; you are very, very welcome. David, a fair amount of discussion in terms of our inquiry, and it is great to see it is so topical at the moment in terms of what is happening in the media, is really about the benefits and drawbacks of the UK's partnership approach to space rather than having an agency. I wonder if you could start by giving us your candid views as to what are the advantages of having that partnership approach rather than an agency because everybody else seems to have agencies.

  Dr Williams: Not many countries actually have agencies. NASA is an agency, Germany do and France, but within Europe many of the countries operate at a departmental level or at the inter-governmental level. The main reason that we have a partnership rather than an agency at the moment is that one of the things we wish to do with space is to keep the tension across why we do things using satellite systems as opposed to other mechanisms. For example, in the science world, the partner that looks after space science, PPARC, decides whether it should use a satellite system or a ground-based telescope. The Natural Environment Research Council likewise decide which way they should do the science, whether it is a satellite-based system or a non-satellite-based system and keeping that tension in the system, I think, is an important element in the debate and in the way that space is funded so that we do useful things. If we had an agency, we could look at it the other way and say, "Well, the agency spends the money on space programmes", but you still need to bridge that gap and have the user community on side and agreeing that that is the way forward, so the important element of the partnership was to get that link across to the user side to make sure that we are doing things not just because it is a satellite system or a space system, but because it is useful in the area of application that it is being applied, and that is valid in the DTI as well for the more commercial things and in the MoD for the MoD activities.

  Q95  Chairman: But surely then the issue with the BNSC is that you just do not have any lobbying power? This was the criticism which was made by CCLRC in its submission to us, that you do not have a lobbying power with government and, therefore, you are not taken terribly seriously.

  Dr Williams: We have direct access to the Minister, I have direct access to the Minister and that in itself is enormously useful and important when it comes to specific issues, trying to promote things within government. We are directly linked into the Department of Trade and Industry mechanisms for access to, if you like, the financial regimes. Something like 80% of the total budget of the BNSC comes through the Office of Science and Innovation in the Department of Trade and Industry into DTI directly, into PPARC and into NERC, so we do have a lobbying mechanism, it is just not a public lobbying mechanism. I think if we went outside to an agency, I could stand up and say, "Yes, I think we should do more in space", or, "I think we should do this", but I am not sure that that is more effective than my talking directly to the Minister and directly to the officials at my level and above and saying, "Let's work this into the system, let's work with the Treasury in trying to make this happen" in a more quiet way, so we do have a quiet lobbying mechanism and it is called the line management system in government rather than a public lobbying system.

  Q96  Chairman: So why do you think that the CCLRC say that it is not an effective way of lobbying government?

  Dr Williams: I think that is probably for the CCLRC to answer in the next session because that is their view, not my view.

  Q97  Chairman: Miss Freedman, do you want to comment on that? Why not an agency?

  Miss Freedman: I was going to add that of course there is an enormous network of stakeholders within the civil space activity, a very competent and energetic industry, a large number of scientists and academics and of course they are all very skilled at lobbying. Indeed, industry has worked on the Case for Space very much as part of their lobbying activity. The NAO, which reported on BNSC a couple of—

  Q98  Chairman: And was very critical of it.

  Miss Freedman: In some ways it was, but it did comment on the agency status and said that there are a variety of organisational arrangements that exist among nations and that the UK's partnership approach is appropriate, given the UK's policy emphasis on the users and the users of space.

  Q99  Chairman: My question is: is it effective? The indication from both of you is that there are no problems. The NAO thought there were significant problems.

  Dr Williams: There are always problems when you want to try and get more money through the government system and the issue there is that it is a matter of priorities for the Government on how it spends money. Yes, the partnership brings problems in the interaction between departments because it really highlights the fact that what you have to do is demonstrate that the satellite system or the space system which is being developed really has value in the community that is going to use it in a way which is not `hideable', you cannot hide that issue in that debate of why you do something where I think in some agencies sometimes there is a tendency to go off and do things because they have a budget.

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