Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 169 - 179)



  Q169  Chairman: We move straight on, and welcome—and a Happy New Year to you as well—Professor 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 before—in 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 then?

  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 not—and I do not think it ever has been—a 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 partnership—five of them—and they are all independent—the research councils, MoD, the Met Office, for example—and 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 Holdaway?

  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 it.

  Q176  Chairman: Would you support that, Keith?

  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 arena.

  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, technical—but also commercial—opportunities 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.

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