Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 100 - 119)



  Q100  Chairman: Let us just say then that some of the NAO's criticisms were valid. Has in fact the BNSC improved in terms of its effectiveness since that report and what now needs to be done to improve it further, or is it perfect?

  Dr Williams: The NAO brought forward a number of issues and since then we have established the UK Space Board which has the main funding partners on it and allows us to debate in a controlled environment and an organised environment how we do things collectively with the major funding partners. We have the Space Advisory Council beneath that which brings forward ideas on where to go and that involves the wider partnership and industry, so organisationally we have strengthened that part of, if you like, the UK space management system.

  Q101  Chairman: But how independent is the Space Board?

  Dr Williams: The Space Board is very independent. It is chaired by the Chairman of the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, there is the Chairman of NERC, there is the Chief of Policy in the MoD, the Met Office are involved at chief executive level, and I attend as effectively the executive officer along with staff, so it is independent in the fact that it is talking about the individual budgets and it is talking about the collective and how we work together and it does not have external advisory members on it in that sense.

  Q102  Chairman: What I am trying to get at in this first session of questions really, David, is that the BNSC seems to be responsible for space policy and advising the Government on space policy. I am trying to work out how independent they are as a result of the reorganisation that followed the NAO inquiry and also the setting up of the UK Space Board. In policy terms, is it independent and is it effective and, secondly, in lobbying terms, is it independent and is it effective?

  Dr Williams: In policy terms, it gets independent advice and gives good advice which we take forward to the Minister, and I think we are all fairly happy with the way it works as the Space Board. We interact in different forms with industry, we have the industry group which advises on technology and we have industry people involved in other advisory bodies that report, so I think from that point of view we get good, independent advice coming in to the BNSC. If we come back to the lobbying, in terms of working the system for money, each partner works their own corner because effectively each partner has to go through a mechanism to get funding and, as the BNSC, we give overall advice to the Minister who then takes it into the system and works on the political side of the house to try and improve the overall position for space across government. It is a difficult task when you work in a partnership and the Treasury do respond well to joined-up approaches in terms of forward bidding, and we are putting a document in that all the partners will submit as a cover document for their CSR bid this year which shows that they are working within a framework of the overall space activity and that this is what we are trying to achieve overall, and individually each partner then has a programme. The Treasury are receptive to that approach, they do like the joined-up government approach, so I think we do have a mechanism that works. There is no doubt it is not perfect, but I am not sure that the agency would be any more perfect; it would have different problems.

  Q103  Chairman: So you have got a magic wand, it is the new year, what could you do to improve things further? Space is obviously a very, very important area for the British economy and it is important for all sorts of other public service delivery issues, so what would make your organisation more effective?

  Dr Williams: As with all these things, I think we are very effective today and one of the points I have always wanted to make is that, although in the UK we do not contribute to all areas of space, where we do contribute and where we do work, we are very, very good.

  Q104  Chairman: That is not what I asked. I asked: what would you do to improve things?

  Dr Williams: If we wanted to improve, we would need more money to do new things. To do that, we need to persuade those parts of government and those parts of industry to invest more money to achieve those goals. One of the things I would like to do to improve it is to get more private venture into funding space, and the other one is to try and work to get more science vote into space and to get other departments working on space issues. DfT are very good at the moment, but Defra we need to work with to get them to bid for funds. It is a matter of working with the partnership to get more people bringing things in. On the other side, we could do more, I think, on the education side and on the skills and science side, and there we are looking at what we can do in the future to strengthen the use of space and the attraction of space in attracting people into science.

  Q105  Chairman: The Science and Technology Facilities Council has been established. What impact will that have on your organisation?

  Dr Williams: Initially, it will bring together the CCLRC and the PPARC capability. It will allow us to have a focus on the Harwell Business Campus for background technology and technology support and one of the things we have done already this year in the process of this CSR bidding for 2007 is to make a bid into government through the CCLRC for a national technology programme. That bid has gone in as a bid into the system. It will then merge with the PPARC bidding and, if it is successful, Harwell will become a focus for the UK activity of national technology, we will use it to work across the UK, and it will not all be done there, but we will do it in a good e-science mode by which the work will be done where the skills are rather than bringing it into Harwell, and we want to use Harwell to attract inward investment from Europe and from the European Space Agency to build the sort of core capability in the UK which will carry it forward a long way.

  Q106  Chairman: It is a positive move, as far as you are concerned?

  Dr Williams: A positive move, yes.

  Q107  Graham Stringer: Dr Williams, as an outsider coming into this organisation, you must have made an initial assessment of what was right and wrong. What was the most surprising thing you found?

  Dr Williams: I did know the BNSC from my previous life and I had interacted with it and in fact I have worked in it in the past. The most surprising thing for me was probably the decline in national activity, if we are looking at the programmatic side, in that we had lost some capability of the national programme, and that has been recognised in the NAO report, and this is beginning to impact on our ability to prepare ourselves to work with the European Space Agency, and this is reflected in the way we try to put emphasis on building that area up in the future.

  Q108  Graham Stringer: You have partly answered this question, but I will ask it in a slightly different way. How do you believe you could increase the effectiveness of the Centre at co-ordinating the UK space programme?

  Dr Williams: We can always look to improve. I think the way that we have established the committee structure at the top level is now good. What I want to do is work more with what I call the departments which are not fully funding space, but where we believe they have an interest, to try and strengthen the cross-departmental links in government where we see societal needs that space can answer, so I think this is important and I think I would like to work on that. I think we need to do more on the, if you like, skills in the society side of the house, trying to bring more of what we do on space into the system as a whole, and I think we need to work more on getting industry to recognise that you have to get to the point where private venture is a recognisable source of money for the development of space systems rather than it just always being government money and government money.

  Q109  Graham Stringer: In the written evidence we have received, the criticism is that the individual parts of the Space Centre act individually and it is a title rather than an effective, co-ordinating body. Is that fair? Do different partners just act individually without regard to the overall policy?

  Dr Williams: That has not occurred to me. I see it that, as departments, we interact very well. In the London headquarters, I have staff from the DTI, I have staff from NERC, I have staff from particle physics and I have staff from the MoD and we have people on secondment from DfT and Defra, so we have got a good collection of people who represent the different working departments and we have secondees from industry, so we have a team which works together in a very good way and very well. When you see the individual people acting, it is more on the publicity issue because you have always got the presentation of where does the credit go, and what I am trying to do through the communications programme is saying that we should be promoting UK space and giving credit to the relevant part of government or industry, according to how it works, but the first criterion is to promote UK space. I believe at the present time, within the constraints of a partnership and within the constraints that individual spends go through individual departments, we are working together and we are working harder to improve that inter-relationship between us and it is driving forward and going well.

  Q110  Graham Stringer: Can you tell us about the relationship with the Ministry of Defence. Could it be improved? Are there difficulties?

  Dr Williams: The Ministry of Defence have seconded staff into the headquarters. They help tremendously in understanding where the MoD work and how they do things and the policy aspects of the MoD and where we can interact. The MoD themselves are funding the meteorological systems because they require those, so they fund a significant element of the space programme itself and they have their own military programmes for military use. The difficulty we always have is in the background technology, that the technology is the same between civil and military. If you build a sensor, it is a sensor and its application is a separate issue. There is a problem, which is not the MoD's problem, it is government-wide, of spending civil money doing military things and military money doing civil things and how you get across that interface in a joint environment.

  Q111  Graham Stringer: Is that just an accountancy problem or is it a real problem on the ground?

  Dr Williams: It is probably more an accountancy problem than a real one.

  Q112  Graham Stringer: Can you give us an example of where it has caused practical problems?

  Dr Williams: The criterion is that you cannot spend civil money doing military things, so if we come up with a specification which is a military requirement, the civil world is not allowed to go into it and they are not allowed to talk to us about doing it, so they do it separately and we do not see that as a civil programme. On the civil side, we have had some problems on the Galileo programme where at the European level other countries have been saying, "We want to use this programme for military requirements", but it is very clearly a civil application and the UK has a very strong, loud voice in Europe, saying, "We must maintain this and we cannot allow it to drift across to the military side". It has caused, if you like, a lot of good discussion in the UK, it has caused a lot of discussion in Europe about the technical specifications and about the application of a civil system in a military regime and there is no doubt that, if you just want to use a navigation system to drive down the motorway, whether it is a civil lorry or a military lorry is irrelevant, it is when you go beyond that that you begin to run into problems.

  Q113  Graham Stringer: That is interesting. How do you deal with departments like DFID which are not partners, but potentially have an interest?

  Dr Williams: I personally at the moment have not had very much interaction with DFID, but we know that there is currently an initiative to improve education in Africa and in my previous life I did quite a lot of work in that field in Africa in terms of improving access to capabilities. We are keen to open discussion with them on how we can supply a system and supply information that will help them. We have in the UK a disaster management constellation which is a series of satellites built by Surrey Satellite Technology which are owned by different countries around the world, but which collectively respond when there is a crisis, and we have joined an international charter on crisis management so that, when a country has a disaster, we can call that charter into play and the satellites which exist are turned on to provide information. We are trying to bring that into the thinking of DFID so that they can bring it into their mainstream. There has been, I have to say, not a lot of direct discussion, but that will start in the next two or three months because it is an initiative in an area which is recognised as important.

  Q114  Graham Stringer: Are there any problems with departments like Defra, which have a policy lead and they are interested in statistics and the information flows, but they are less interested in the hardware?

  Dr Williams: Defra, quite rightly, are looking at the output. They are saying, "What we want is to deliver evidence-based policy". They currently have a mechanism to do that which works, but, as is the problem with all systems, it could improve. What we are doing with a satellite capability called GMES, global monitoring for environment and security, is, at a European level, looking at whether in 10 years' time or twelve years' time we have a more rational and a more equitable set of information to allow a European-level capability of monitoring to come into place. That is a fairly big challenge for a specific department because they are running a system today and yet they are looking five to 10 years ahead at whether they can change that system to a new flow of information, and they are not going to do that until they have full confidence that that new flow will be real and will be useful and will not degrade the evidence-based policy-making. Therefore, they are having this balance of, "Yes, we've got to keep going with the existing capability. We have to have this ten-year R&D vision of where we want to be", and then it becomes a matter of priority for funding and it is causing problems. What it is also doing is highlighting that a programme like GMES has really got to focus on what the application-users need and it should not be driven by the short-term industrial requirements of Europe, which is where the balance is at the moment, in my opinion.

  Q115  Graham Stringer: That is a really interesting analysis of how the problems arise where there is a lack of imagination. Can you be very specific about what those problems are?

  Dr Williams: Well, if you want to build a satellite and you say, "We'll build a satellite and it will last for five years. Please will you use that and fund it to do your evidence-based policy", the Department has quite a good reaction of, "Five years is not a very long horizon. We have to train people, we have to buy new equipment, we have to change the system and, in doing that, it will cost us money and it will cost time and effort. What we want to see is a sort of ten- to 15-year horizon of the system so that we have the timescale to switch over gradually and move in and change the way we do business to this new method in a way which will not degrade how we provide evidence, but improve the way we provide evidence". The current GMES proposal is a series of single satellites which does not do that. If you look at the only parallel I know on that, you have the meteorological data service and there the initial programme was for a series of three satellites over 10 or twelve years and that gave the weather services the confidence to begin to use the data and over a period of 20 years it has now completely transitioned and the users are now fully funding and running a system, so we have got to get to that point. Defra are bringing a real challenge in saying, "Look, it's no use talking about one-offs, you have got to talk about continuity and the way forward", and we have to take that into the European theatre where there is a bit more of a drive for a short-term industrial return and convert the way they think to the same sort of argument. Otherwise, I think GMES has problems.

  Q116  Chairman: You did mention DfES within your comments there. Do you have any meetings with the Secretary of State for DfES in terms of the educational impact of space and space programmes?

  Dr Williams: No, I have had no direct interaction with DfES. It is a weakness that we recognise and acknowledge and it is an area that we want to address going forward in skills in science and science in society to try to build a bridge across that field. I was very pleased that, when the astronauts came over, the Secretary of State for DfES was there and made a short speech and I think he recognises that space has a role to play in promoting science, but we have had no direct interaction.

  Q117  Chairman: And whose fault is that—yours or theirs or both?

  Dr Williams: A little bit of both, I believe, and I am determined to try and rectify that as I settle into the post and move forward.

  Q118  Dr Iddon: You are moving on, Dr Williams, from the UK Space Strategy 2003-06 and beyond to a new policy which will be 2007-10. Could you perhaps outline to the Committee please what will be the major changes between the existing policy and the new policy, as you see it?

  Dr Williams: At the current time, I do not think we know what the absolute change will be. What we have done is establish a consultation process that was released this week, having taken quite a while to get into position. What we have done there is, for all the areas that we currently have activity, we have asked some strategic questions and asked people to comment on whether we should focus on these and what we may change, so the public consultation actually is a very important stage in getting the widest possible input on what society thinks we are doing right, what society thinks we are doing wrong and where society thinks we can improve the way we do space. Whether it will result in any dramatic changes remains to be seen because dramatic changes tend to mean extra funding and changes in the funding base, so it will be difficult to say that things will change dramatically. I think we are going to keep the focus at this present time on doing useful things with space and doing things that benefit either the commercial world, the science world or society at large, the societal world. It is difficult at this stage to say that there will be a dramatic change and that we will go back into launches, for example. I do not see that as baseline and I do not see us at this stage going into manned space because of the costs involved, but I do see us being part of the global endeavours to do exploitation and exploration in the widest sense.

  Dr Iddon: You surprise me because the new Science Minister is putting it about that Britain is thinking about returning to manned space and certainly, when we meet astronauts, they are very keen on Britain getting engaged in manned space again. Why, for example, was the Science Minister on television only last night suggesting that Britain might get back into manned space?

  Q119  Chairman: Advised by you.

  Dr Williams: I listened to what the Minister said last night and saw the article on television. He talked about the UK doing a lunar probe to understand the surface of the moon and the subsurface of the moon as the basis for people going to the moon. What he did not say was who was going to go to the moon. In the new global exploration and exploitation programme which is being developed by all the nations in the world with an interest in space, the UK is taking an active part. The way that that is going to emerge is that, unlike the previous round of exploration where you shared all the business and you had a little bit of this and a little bit of that, the new exploration programme is going to look at the collective of what needs to be done in the long term, how it can be done and what are the goals, and then it will be up to each country and, in the case of Europe, the European Space Agency as well to look at what it can contribute to that whole, doing something that is useful and important to meet this global exploration. The UK, in working in that, is looking at what novel science can do and what technology can bring into it, so we have seen robotics and communications in going to the moon as something where we have a skill and a skill which will contribute to the whole. It does not necessarily mean that we move to a man in space, but if you look forward 30 or 40 years, and there was a study of whether the UK should go back into manned space last year with some eminent scientists, some of whom are very sceptical, they concurred that in the short term there is probably no need to put man in space for the sort of objectives of the UK. In the long term, if exploration is really to take off, then man will go there, so at some point the UK will have to decide whether to return to that programme, but that does not mean to say it has to happen in the next year or in the next five years, but it is probably a long way in the future before that needs to be reconsidered.

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