Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 120 - 139)



  Q120  Dr Iddon: Helen Sharman is the only British citizen to have flown as a British citizen and unfortunately the rest of the British astronauts, the latest being Piers Sellers, had to fly under another national flag. Do you think that is right? Why can we not get some collaboration worldwide so that the British-born astronauts can fly as British-born astronauts?

  Dr Williams: Whether that will emerge in the future is to be seen. At the present time, there are four capabilities in manned space, the Russian, the American, the Chinese and the European Space Agency. The UK decided not to join the European Space Agency's manned programme in 1986 and successively nobody has challenged that in government and changed that decision. There are lots of reasons why we did not join it, but one of them was because you would have to be involved in everything associated with it. If, in 40 years' time, things change or in 20 years' time the system changes and there is a global astronaut corps, then it could be looked at at that time.

  Q121  Dr Iddon: Can you see that Britain might return to funding launchers?

  Dr Williams: Although we are not funding launch work, we do find some money for launches and we do support a share of the Kourou site in French Guiana which is the area on the launch site which is part of the general facility of the European Space Agency. We also have a very small stake in the Ariane 5 programme. I do not see at this stage why the UK would return to that market area and I think the market for launches has opened up enormously since the UK decided not to go major into launches because Ariane 5 was originally a man-operated launcher, but it is not anymore because we now have the Russian market opening up, the Chinese launchers, the Japanese, Indian launchers and the American launchers as well as the European, so the launcher market has a large market available. At the present time, I would say we can buy off the market rather than go back into development.

  Q122  Dr Iddon: Some other people would say that we have missed out.

  Dr Williams: Some other people would say that we have missed out and I would accept that. I think what you have to look at is, when you decide how much money you spend on science in general and how much money you spend on space, you have to be selective about what you do, so you do what you do well. The UK has been very, very good at being selective. Some people have lost out because it has not been their area, but other people have benefited enormously and we have been very good over the last 20 years at choosing areas and moving into them and being very successful at doing them. I do have to accept that that has not satisfied every area, but there are a lot of areas of science and innovation in the UK that would benefit from more money, but priorities have to be set.

  Q123  Dr Iddon: Can I just examine how wide your consultation is going to be and whether indeed your new 2007-10 policy will be a really national UK space policy. Are you engaging with all the players in the field or just the partners within your existing partnership for consultation?

  Dr Williams: No, the consultation is absolutely open. It is on the website and anybody can respond to it. We have taken the precaution of identifying all the industries, all the universities, all the departments whom we know have an interest and sent it directly to them so that they do not miss it en passant, as it were. It is completely open and anybody who is attracted to the website and picks it up from anywhere in the world in fact can respond to it.

  Q124  Dr Iddon: So you are open to new ideas?

  Dr Williams: We are open to new ideas, we are open to any ideas and then we will set up a little project group to take those through, working across the partnership effectively, to look at what comes in and to try and change it and convert it into a strategy.

  Q125  Dr Iddon: Can I turn to something quite different now which is the Outer Space Act 1985. Things have moved on a lot since then, have they not?

  Dr Williams: Yes.

  Q126  Dr Iddon: I am just wondering whether you might be recommending at some time in the future that that Act is looked at again with a view to bringing in a completely different Act or even renewing the older Act. There are a lot of things which I might loosely describe as "junk" up there. Do we regulate space adequately, do you think?

  Dr Williams: There is a lot of junk up there because junk tends to stay a long time and a lot of the junk is very old, but we do regulate very well. Now, for any satellite that is launched into an earth orbit, and this has been so for a number of years, part of the launch philosophy has got to be what we call a "staged de-orbit mode" so that, as the satellite reaches the end of its life, you have to have the mechanism which allows you to send it off into deep space for eventual disappearance or to bring it back to earth in a controlled way which will not cause damage in order to minimise the amount of debris that is left in space. That is an important part of the Outer Space Act and one that everybody abides by and which we really need to keep, so I do not see that changing, although it is not stopping all debris because you cannot stop—

  Q127  Dr Iddon: Who is policing that?

  Dr Williams: It is a United Nations Act and it is policed by individual Member States and, on launch, a requirement of launch is that the launch company cannot launch the satellite unless it is satisfied that the satellite itself meets those requirements.

  Q128  Dr Iddon: Are there any bandits ignoring the legislation?

  Dr Williams: No, because there are not many bandits with a launch capability, so that is reasonable.

  Q129  Dr Turner: Dr Williams, both you and Miss Freedman expressed some satisfaction with your current lobbying access and you thought it was pretty satisfactory, but, if you set this in the context of the UK investment in space research as a percentage of its gross national income, we spend very little on space research, 0.02% for the UK when the ESA average is 0.048%. It is much less than Germany, much less than France and infinitely less than the States, so the lobbying process is not producing much in terms of funding for UK space activity, so do you think it is acceptable that we should be such poor players in financial terms?

  Dr Williams: The headlines give those figures. If you look at where we focus and the fact that we do not do launchers and we do not do manned space, in the area where we focus we are up there with the rest of Europe which is behind the USA, so the headline figure masks the way that the UK is selective about what it does.

  Q130  Dr Turner: Does this not put you at a disadvantage because the rest of Europe see you as piggy-backing on their efforts? Do they not see you as weaker than everybody else?

  Dr Williams: I would like to think that at a European level, and it will become more and more so as Europe expands, it will be impossible for every nation to be involved in every mission and Europe will need to be more collegiate about how it approaches satellite and satellite systems and space systems. Therefore, the concept of subsets of Europe being involved in one area and subsets in another area will have to become more and more the vogue as you move to 27 countries because you cannot split a programme up 27 ways sensibly and efficiently. I think this idea that we do not do launchers, it is not seen as us piggy-backing, it is just seen as the way that Europe partitions the work and the strategic input at a European level.

  Q131  Dr Turner: How do you think the Government views investment in space? Why does it not appear to have been viewed by the UK Government as strategically important, especially bearing in mind, I seem to remember from the earlier evidence we have taken, that small though our investment in space is, the returns are highly significant?

  Dr Williams: It is simply, in my view, a matter of priority-setting. There is on the science side a budget for science and within that it is for the science community to determine how much should be spent on astronomy science and how much on earth science and, within that, the community has to decide the best way of doing it. Therefore, by defining the science budget and looking at the priorities within that, you define what is done in science. On the societal side, in weather-forecasting, for example, satellites are indispensable and the budget has gone up enormously over the last 15 years. On the transport side, transport is funding, along with DTI and the European Union, a scheme that in 10 years' time may allow for a more intelligent way of managing traffic as well as doing other things, and I have already mentioned the GMES, so it is about priorities. On the commercial side, I think the past investment by the UK, as the Case for Space has shown, is reaping enormous economic benefit to the UK and I think we need to recognise that and see that space is now there in everyday life in a large number of ways and that we need to keep that moving and keep helping industry stay in that business.

  Q132  Dr Turner: Do you not feel, given there are considerable economic benefits to be had, that greater investment might lever yet more economic benefit and would you, as the BNSC, like to be in control of a single, unified national space budget?

  Dr Williams: In terms of improving the economic return, again we have to look at it. If you look at the telecoms area, for example, space systems are a major contributor to telecoms in traffic, but a lot of the main businesses, what I call "new economic services", the Vodafones of the world, they build on the basic infrastructure and the basic infrastructure is there as, if you like, an underpinning infrastructure technology to allow these service industries to flourish and blossom. In satellite television, the UK is one of the biggest countries in terms of managing that. In what we do, a lot of the benefit is in that secondary, downstream industry, and in the upstream industry, we do very well at in the areas we are focused on. Whether by putting more money into that and whether significantly more money would increase the market is something that we have to ask industry to answer and we have to work with industry in making sure that that is the case before we fund it.

  Q133  Dr Turner: Well, you have a central co-ordinating role in preparing the current CSR bid. Would you like to tell us something about the headline parts of that bid.

  Dr Williams: The main areas that we are looking at in terms of space are the national programme, which I have already mentioned, and PPARC will be looking at the Aurora programme which is continuing the Mars mission and looking at what we might do on going to the moon in the interim. On the societal side, the Global Monitoring initiative is one of the areas we will be putting a bid in, on the transport side this time we are doing no more because Galileo is in place, and on the commercial side we will be looking to work with industry to identify opportunities to do more underpinning technology and more early market support for communications and broadcast areas.

  Q134  Dr Turner: To what extent are you able to ensure that, where long-term funding is needed for projects, it actually happens and that programmes do not suffer from changes in the funding levels which actually undermine the effectiveness of those programmes? To what extent are you able to do that?

  Dr Williams: In the European Space Agency there is almost an inbuilt safeguard there. Once you join a programme in the European Space Agency, you are legally committed to continue it until the end of the programme, so, if you start a programme today, an eight-year programme, you cannot pull out half-way through. You have to negotiate annually for the budgets you contribute within a bandwidth, but you cannot leave the programme, so one of the benefits of the European Space Agency is that, whilst it may take a long time and be quite difficult to get agreement to join a programme, once you have joined it you are in it for its life. The sort of problem you are talking about is at a national level where funding can fluctuate annually and there we are working very hard to show that the UK 10-year R&D strategy is an area that space is important for and that we should be recognised in that and, therefore, in the 10-year strategy space should have a baseline activity.

  Q135  Dr Turner: I come back to your lobbying capacity. You have already given evidence that there are problems with national programmes because of annual fluctuations, so you really do need to beef up, do you not, the lobbying clout of the BNSC?

  Dr Williams: I think I come back to the point that it is not just about lobbying loudly and in the newspaper, it is about working in the system. I am in the line management of the Office of Science and Innovation working for Sir Keith O'Nions and it is in that process and the interaction with the Department of Trade and Industry on the research R&D budget for OSI and the Treasury where the decisions are made at the end of the day with ministers. It is working in that system on a day-to-day basis at official level that I see one of the strengths of the current mechanism. It is not perfect, let us not argue that it is perfect, but I am not sure I would be better off standing outside shouting.

  Q136  Dr Turner: It is not at all transparent, is it, this mechanism?

  Dr Williams: It is to the Minister and to the officials and the people involved in defining budgets.

  Dr Turner: That is not what we simple politicians call "transparency" though.

  Q137  Adam Afriyie: Why do you think the UK spend proportionately less on space investment than the rest of the world?

  Dr Williams: Because it is selective, full stop. It does not do launchers, it does not do manned space, it does not do the space station.

  Q138  Adam Afriyie: So proportionately, if you take those activities out, we are on a par?

  Dr Williams: We are, yes.

  Q139  Adam Afriyie: What is the aim of the Joint Space Technology Programme?

  Dr Williams: The aim of it is to ensure that over a period of years we maintain a basic capability in the UK so that we can exploit science space systems to the commercial and public good and that we can engage at the European Space Agency level because, in going to the European Space Agency with a proposal, you have got to have done some homework, you have got to have shown it is viable and that is where the national technology programme will come in.

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