Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169
WEDNESDAY 10 JANUARY 2007
Q169 Chairman: We move straight on,
and welcomeand a Happy New Year to you as wellProfessor
Keith Mason, the Chief Executive of the Particle Physics and Astronomy
Research Council (PPARC), Professor Richard Holdaway, the Head
of Science Programmes for the Council for the Central Laboratory
of the Research Councils (CCLRC) and Air Vice-Marshal Chris Moran,
the Assistant Chief of the Air Staff of the Ministry of Defence.
Welcome to all of you, particularly to those we have never seen
beforein this particular setting. I wonder if I could start
with you, Keith. How effective is the BNSC in co-ordinating and
promoting the UK space programme? We have had a glowing tale earlier
today. It cannot be as perfect as that, surely?
Professor Mason: Things are rarely
as perfect as you would like them to be but I think the BNSC does
a very good job within the constraints of its set-up and make-up.
Q170 Chairman: How could it be improved
Professor Mason: There are a number
of areas in which one could seek to improve. Firstly, I think,
the underlying issue is: what is the Government's and the UK's
appetite for getting and maintaining its involvement in space,
and does it recognise the opportunities? The key thing that is
needed for that is a strong political mandate, and probably also
earmarked funding for what I think is absolutely crucial, which
is early stage technology development. I think the BNSC is already
doing a good job in that regard but with better tools it could
do a better job. Those are probably the areas where we could see
the most improvement.
Q171 Chairman: What we are finding
difficulty with as a Committee is this lobbying, co-ordinating
and direction role, and we do not know whether this organisation
is a child of the DTI or is it a child of all the partners? We
cannot get a handle on that, really. What is your view?
Professor Mason: I think we have
evolved the BNSC over the last couple of years in a very positive
direction, and I think it was perceived (I am not sure it actually
was) as a child of the DTI in some quarters, and we have taken
some steps to explicitly demonstrate that that is not the case.
It is now run by the UK Space Board, which I chair, and that provides
a buy-in from the whole of the partnership, essentially, to the
programme. So it certainly is notand I do not think it
ever has beena child of the DTI, but it is a partnership
and it is an agency that has no funding of its own and therefore
it has to work by cajoling its partners.
Q172 Chairman: It just seems there
are so many different organisations involved. You mentioned the
UK Space Board and there is now the Space Advisory Council, both
of which came out of the NAO report in many ways, to be fair.
You have got the DTI involvement, you have got the departmental
involvement, because they are the host of many of the programmes.
Which body has, if you like, the independent oversight of the
BNSC so that there is that area of independence?
Professor Mason: It is the Space
Board that has the independent oversight, and the members of the
Space Board are the major funders of the BNSC partnershipfive
of themand they are all independentthe research
councils, MoD, the Met Office, for exampleand they have
the independence, they are the independent voice, if you like,
which sets the strategy for the BNSC.
Q173 Chairman: Professor Holdaway,
do you believe that the co-ordinating role and the independent
scrutiny role are all sorted now?
Professor Mason: There is still
work to do. We are in an evolving situation, and it is absolutely
right that we should be because we need to be looking to the future
and adapting our systems to best serve the UK in the future.
Q174 Chairman: Are you happy, Professor
Professor Holdaway: CCLRC has
always been very supportive of what BNSC does but recognises that
the way BNSC was constituted it has a major problem
Q175 Chairman: You are fairly critical
in your written evidence.
Professor Holdaway: It has one
hand tied behind its back and it has to work within its constitution.
As we heard in the earlier session, it is a voluntary partnership,
it does have difficulty with its ability to lobby. It can do it
through, as David Williams said, the line management route directly
to the Minister, but it cannot lobby as widely as a space agency
can do. In the CCLRC submission, although we recognise the weaknesses
of BNSC, we do not actually say it should become an agency; what
we say is that the debate should be held. There are a number of
advantages to agency status and there are a number of disadvantages.
We have not had that debate and I think now is the time to have
Q176 Chairman: Would you support
Professor Mason: I certainly support
a debate and, like I say, the underlying issue though is not whether
it is an agency or a partnership but is where is the political
mandate to actually go ahead and compete in the world in the space
Q177 Chairman: Do you feel there
is sufficient lobbying strength at the moment through the BNSC
to be able to achieve that? I was not convinced terribly about
these quiet negotiations that go on, with ministerial confidence
(?). Are you?
Professor Mason: I think they
can be very effective. Of course, that is not lobbying per se,
it is a balance. As Richard says, if one went to agency status
there would be pluses and minuses, and it would depend on exactly
how the details of how that agency was set up, what access it
had to the Minister, etc, whether it was more or less effective
than the current arrangements. It is well worth having the debate
and looking at it very closely because it is a crucially important
thing for the future. We have to be competitive in this area;
it is the sort of high-tech environment where the UK has to compete
in order to stay ahead in the world. So we should develop sufficient
resources to examine how we can best do that.
Q178 Chairman: In terms of developing
its full potential, what one key thing would you say is essential
as we move forward for the BNSC? What is the key thing you would
like to see happen?
Professor Mason: I would like
to see it have a budget which it can control for technology development.
I think that is absolutely crucial for the UK. We need to look
at the skills set within BNSC, particularly the technical skills
which it has to deploy in marshalling the arguments and controlling
the programmes that are under its remit.
Q179 Dr Iddon: I know we are now
in the consultation on the next written strategy, but what would
you like, any of the three of you, to see implanted in the strategy?
How is the strategy going to change?
Professor Mason: I am repeating
slightly what I have just said but I think the key thing is to
have a sustainable development of the space effort. It is a business
where the timescales are quite long in terms of developing capability
for the next generation, and we have to recognise that there has
to be a central role for government funding in doing that, not
only because of the long timescales and, therefore, the large
risks but, also, in order to be competitive with the rest of the
world because of the way the rest of the world works. We have
to make sure that the UK is on a level playing field. I would
like to see more ambition in the space agenda. As I have said,
it is clear to everybody now that the space arena is going to
be incredibly important to all of our futures, and if the UK is
to be seen as an attractive place to invest generally then it
has to have ambition, including the space arena. I am convinced
that we should be examining very closely opportunities for extending
our sphere of influence within the solar system, for instance,
so participating in the exploration agenda. There are huge scientific,
technicalbut also commercialopportunities in that
area, and we should not be shy about facing up to them and saying:
"Where do we want to be in 20 years' time?" That is
the sort of timescale we have to think about. We have to ingrain
that in government and in society as a whole; that is the sort
of thinking that we need to put in place.