Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 200 - 219)

WEDNESDAY 10 JANUARY 2007

PROFESSOR KEITH MASON, PROFESSOR RICHARD HOLDAWAY AND AIR VICE-MARSHAL CHRIS MORAN

  Q200  Chairman: I find it really quite strange—and you commented on this—that you have a privileged relationship with the US in the exploitation of US space capability (and I understand that, and that is fair comment), but on 9/11 when there was a major incident in America, the US military blacked out most of the satellite capability and you did not have access to a lot of that satellite activity because they control it. Is that acceptable?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: I cannot comment specifically on whether we did or did not have denied access.

  Q201  Chairman: Hypothetically, if that occurred, would you be happy?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: At the moment, I think, we are comfortable with the relationship we have that would guarantee our secured access to data. Of course, we have our own communications satellites by the SKYNET 4 and 5 system, so that is secure, and, as I say, our relationship has been very sound for a number of decades now on ensuring access to other space-based products. However, we do see, when there are shocks occurring in the world, a need to potentially have a responsive space-based capability, and that drives our interest primarily in the small satellite capability. So we are looking to see how that might be developed in an economical way such that we could respond to events that happen in the world where we may have to insert a satellite capability that is not there. That is what is driving our interest in TOPSAT and, potentially, any follow-on, small satellite technology that will develop.

  Q202  Adam Afriyie: My final question is: I am sure you have a wonderful relationship with the BNSC but are there any ways that you could suggest—one or two quick ways—in which that relationship could be improved?

  Air Vice-Marshal Moran: We are working closely together, and the important thing is as partners we are developing a dialogue to see where there are opportunities to work together, and small satellites is one area. I am also working as carefully as I can to develop an MoD strategy which we can weave into the wider UK space strategy so that when there are potential opportunities on the horizon, on a global basis, we can help make a judgment as to whether the MoD can make a contribution to that.

  Q203  Dr Turner: Keith, you are about to head up the new Science and Technology Facilities Council. What impact do you think that is going to have on the development of the UK space programme?

  Professor Mason: This is an opportunity. You know the Science and Technology Facilities Council will primarily be a merger between PPARC and CCLRC. PPARC is already the largest funder of civil space activities in the UK, and CCLRC has the largest infrastructure in terms of non-industrial, international space capability. So I think putting the two together clearly creates an opportunity for a better unit and a more complete unit for taking the space agenda forward. To be specific, we have already discussed earlier today the possibility of an ESA centre coming to the UK, and one of the things that makes that possible is the infrastructure we already have in place. As has already been discussed, a prime site of that might well be the Harwell Science and Technology Campus. The other thing that this merger provides is a core technical expertise which will allow us to be more effective, through the BNSC, in terms of both horizon scanning and in running the programmes that we currently have.

  Q204  Dr Turner: Do you want to make a comment, Richard?

  Professor Holdaway: Maybe I should preface my comments by saying that Keith is about to become my boss! Having said that, I think it is a tremendous opportunity with the creation of the Science and Technology Facilities Council. It provides, as Keith said, already a huge investment in terms of infrastructure, and actually not just for space science and technology but for science and technology in general, much of which still underpins the space programme, through IT, through advanced micro-technology and so on. There are huge opportunities there. In terms of the possibility of a European Space Agency centre in the UK, following the announcement by the Chancellor in the Budget in March last year, with the Harwell Science and Technology Campus, it is a clear and obvious place—not the only one—to put such an ESA centre. One of the key opportunities there is on the development of what I referred to earlier on, which is the really early stage technology. We piloted a programme with the Space Agency two years ago, called the Star Tiger Programme and it tried to do what had never been done before anywhere round the world, let alone in the European Space Agency, which was to develop a piece of technology in four or five months that would traditionally take four or five years. We did that by bringing in the right experts from around Europe, by providing the infrastructure, by providing the space engineering capability, and that programme not only was successful but it developed the world's first terahertz camera for imaging, but it has now spun out a high-tech company employing 36 people which is developing hardware outside of the space industry. So it is developing stuff now which has been trialled in a number of airports round the world, doing things that no other camera can do; it can detect metals and explosives remotely. There is no system in the world that can do that. That is technology that all span out of the space programme and all came from the Harwell campus, and I think STFC is a great opportunity to build on that.

  Q205  Dr Turner: What impact do you think the new council will have on the British National Space Centre?

  Professor Mason: It will be an even stronger partner of BNSC. We are certainly looking, as part of the evolution of the BNSC, as I described earlier, to see how the creation of the STFC can support that and take the agenda forward in a coherent way.

  Q206  Dr Turner: How would you resolve the obvious tension in the new council between funding large facilities which gobble up many tens of millions of pounds, and funding basic science?

  Professor Mason: I think there is no conflict, frankly, because large facilities rely on basic science and basic science relies on large facilities. I am comfortable that we already have mechanisms in place that can handle this transparently and achieve an appropriate balance, and that is what we need; there is no point having facilities if we cannot exploit them and there is no point being able to exploit them if you do not have the facilities, so you have got to have that balance. We are putting in place mechanisms through peer review and strategy teams which will be capable of looking across the whole patch and making sure that balance is achieved.

  Q207  Dr Turner: Presumably it will continue to fund the sort of science programmes that PPARC is already funding, like the solar system—

  Professor Mason: Absolutely. Solar system research, as can be deduced from my comments earlier, is a high priority within PPARC, and will be within STFC. It is a growth area for various reasons, not least of which is scientific.

  Q208  Dr Turner: Do you want to risk a comment on the likely budget of the new council? Is it going to be 2007-10? Is it likely to be simply the sum of the two current budgets or two separate councils, or do you think you may manage to achieve an increase?

  Professor Mason: Of course, the decision is out of my hands, but if we are to make a success of this new council and realise its full potential we need to resource it appropriately, and that requires some increase—a modest increase.

  Q209  Dr Turner: Presumably, there is a risk that the Treasury might see an opportunity for economy by combining both in a smaller budget.

  Professor Mason: In setting up the new council I think the Treasury and OSI have both been very clear that the aim is not to save money; the aim is to make the UK more effective in the scientific arena, and to allow us to compete. That implies that we need to invest, and certainly that is the assumption we are making. We are putting together an infrastructure that will allow us to back the UK more effectively.

  Q210  Dr Turner: So you are optimistic?

  Professor Mason: Yes, of course I am optimistic.

  Chairman: We are optimistic too.

  Q211  Mr Newmark: Chairman, I am going to have to declare an interest and draw Members' attention to my Register of Interests. Prior to coming to the House I was a partner at Apollo Management, which was the largest investor in satellite technology. How well do academics and industrialists work together within the UK space community?

  Professor Mason: Extremely well and improving. We talk about knowledge transfer being enabled by the movement of people, and there has always been a very strong tie in both directions between the UK space industry and academia; they speak the same language and they understand each other. They have always worked well together, but certainly within PPARC and in CCLRC as well we have been very proactive in encouraging that sort of working, and putting in place mechanisms and funding streams that allow that to happen more easily. For example, our CREST programme for technology development related to Aurora, where we have involved industry right from the outset in defining the mission and not as an add-on once we have got it all sewn up.

  Q212  Mr Newmark: Maybe, Professor, you could flesh this out a little more. Just looking at the process whereby you take ideas, projects and R&D to market, how can this process be accelerated, and, again, what role do you see the commercial sector, private equity sector, venture capitalists playing in this?

  Professor Holdaway: First of all, I agree with Keith that the community does work together pretty effectively. However, as with everything in life, it can do a lot better—and actually in the case of space it must do a lot better. That is one of the reasons why there is very low public perception of what the UK actually does in space. Now, with the formation of the STFC and the changes going on within BNSC, is the time to make a real push on public awareness, not just on how exciting space is but what space does for the public. In terms of the practicalities of industry and academia working together, the BNSC council, which I chair, has on it not only the funding partners within BNSC but all the other partners as well, and also now incorporates industry, representatives of the universities and representatives of the investment community. That is becoming increasingly important, as you have heard in your session before Christmas, with the HYLAS programme, which is led by the other David Williams. There is a very good example now of private money coming into the space programme, and that has to be good for all of us, not just for technologists but scientists as well. In relation to the example I mentioned earlier on, of the terahertz imaging camera, actually the initial funding for that was seed-corn funding from the research councils; the next stage funding was from the Rainbow Seed Fund, which was set up by government, and the third stage of funding actually was with venture capital from outside the UK shores, from the venture capitalists Porton Capital based in Hong Kong, who are seeing opportunities for investment in the UK space programme. So I think things are beginning to move in exactly the right way, but we need to do more of it and do it in a more co-ordinated way.

  Q213  Mr Newmark: You talk about the long-term nature of all this. Is there some concept where you think about what you are doing, a return of equity and the transferring of risk from the taxpayer to the private sector, or does that not really come into it?

  Professor Holdaway: For telecoms and navigation that is fairly straightforward and is beginning to happen quite radically. It is a little bit more difficult, of course, for space science, for which the UK is second only to the US in the world. We have absolutely outstanding space scientists in this country in a number of areas—more PIs and more co-investigators than any other country other than the US—but their ability to do their science is generated by the technology, by the instruments, and so we need to work much more closely than we do even now between scientists and technologists to develop those instruments so that, not in two years' time but in 10 and 20 years' time, we still have world-leading scientists capable of producing the sort of data—whether it is data on answering some fundamental questions like: "Are we alone in the universe?" or more localised questions, like: "What is the real effect of solar activity and human activity on climate change?"

  Q214  Mr Newmark: That is the practical side of things. Just focusing back on how we do with other countries and, specifically, how do other European countries support R&D and prime their industries to prepare them to be competitive, I draw Professor Mason's attention to a comment he made exactly a year ago, where he said: "We need to seriously look as to what sort of R&D and underpinning investment goes into these areas in industry in order to prepare them to be competitive, because we have a different way of doing things in the UK compared to many other European countries. It is not a level playing field, so we have to look and see what is out there."

  Professor Mason: This refers back to comments I made earlier, but, essentially, every other major European country, in addition to supporting space through ESA, has a large domestic programme, which feeds ESA programmes and also develops capabilities that the ESA programme does not. The UK is alone in not having such a domestic programme, and that is what puts us at a disadvantage because it is that sort of early stage investment nationally that positions us to win international contracts.

  Q215  Mr Newmark: Therefore, your conclusion is what?

  Professor Mason: We need a dedicated funding stream for technology development, which is what we said earlier, which is essentially a national space programme.

  Q216  Chairman: The previous panel did not actually support that. You think they did?

  Professor Mason: Yes. You mean today's? Yes, I think David was quite—

  Q217  Chairman: We want a central budget for R&D.

  Professor Mason: Yes, a central budget for R&D which supports technology.

  Professor Holdaway: That is the basis of the joint space technology programme, as far as the CCLRC—

  Q218  Mr Newmark: That is the basis of it. That is my final question.

  Professor Holdaway: The key issue there, of course, is that the benefits we are reaping now—

  Q219  Mr Newmark: How do you measure its effectiveness then?

  Professor Holdaway: By the science it will generate and the wealth creation it will generate, not in five years' time but in 10 and 20 years' time, because the benefits we are reaping now are as a result of investments 20 years ago. What has happened in the last 20 years is that the funding for the very primordial research and technology in science, and technology in particular, has fallen, and part of it is because we have next-to-no national space programme.


 
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