Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 220 - 230)



  Q220  Mr Newmark: So the taxpayers' funding of expenditure on research ultimately will have a benefit to society but maybe shifting the financial benefits to the private sector. That is what it looks like is going on here. Is that right? We are putting in money as taxpayers and society is benefiting, but the financial benefits are not being seen by the taxpayer but by the private sector.

  Professor Holdaway: The financial benefits come through to the taxpayer and to industry in 10, 20 years' time. That is the real crux of it; we need the investment now.

  Professor Mason: It contributes to our GDP which benefits the taxpayer.

  Q221  Adam Afriyie: It seems to me from what I have been reading that PPARC—Keith, yourself and your team—are energetic, talented, hardworking and you have played a key role in the negotiations—

  Professor Mason: What is coming next?

  Q222  Adam Afriyie: You have played a key role in the discussions in Edinburgh over the last couple of days. To what extent would you say PPARC is managing the UK's relationship with the European Space Agency as opposed to the BNSC?

  Professor Mason: First of all, BNSC co-ordinates everything, so everything we do works through the BNSC. Our director of space science is also a director in the BNSC. Where PPARC takes a lead through BNSC is in the mandatory space programme, because that is entirely paid for by PPARC without subscription to that, and also now in the Aurora programme. So our director, Dave Parker, is seconded to the BNSC and that is the way the partnership works; he takes the lead for PPARC but he is also a BNSC person.

  Q223  Adam Afriyie: What are the main outcomes of discussions over the last few days?

  Professor Mason: On what?

  Q224  Adam Afriyie: On the discussions with the European Space Agency. You had a stakeholder consultation over the last few days.

  Professor Mason: Are you referring to the conference in Edinburgh?

  Q225  Adam Afriyie: Yes.

  Professor Mason: This is part of an ongoing series which is aimed at putting together this global exploration strategy we have talked about. This was primarily European focused but it also involved space agencies from around the world and is increasingly becoming a worldwide effort. There are no concrete outcomes; this is part of a planning process for putting the process together that will deliver a global space exploration strategy. So it is one cog in that chain, but I think it is very gratifying to see the enthusiasm with which our partners are approaching this and, indeed, the enthusiasm with which they are seeing our efforts to play our full role in that exploration strategy.

  Q226  Adam Afriyie: You mentioned that you are instrumental in the discussions of the Aurora programme. £75 million was given towards the project to 2009 because that was mainly to do with robotics and the mechanical exploration of space. It seems—is there something sneaky going on—that the next stage may be manned space flight, in which case part of our investment may be undermined. What is your view of the situation?

  Professor Mason: No, I think that is not the case. If you recall, the history of the Aurora programme is originally as a bright idea started off very much with a man focus. Largely due to the efforts of the UK, it was diverted into the short to medium term, into robotic exploration. As I said before, I think we do need to take a sensible, grown-up look at the role of humans in space for the future, and I think we are entirely singing from the same hymn sheet as most of our European partners, in that there are no current efforts in that direction but we are looking at the options. This is part of the strategy construction, part of the consultation we are doing to decide how we should position ourselves for that in looking at the 15, 20-year horizon.

  Q227  Adam Afriyie: My final question is really about the UK's return on its investment in the European Space Agency. It would appear that we are not achieving a proportionate return for the investment we are making in ESA. I think we are supposed to get a return of about 0.9 of our subscription fee of £60 million and we have achieved 0.79, so we have, approximately, a £7 million deficit on what we put in to what we get out. Do you think that situation will continue? Is it a temporary blip and how did the situation develop in the first place?

  Professor Mason: David Williams, in the previous session, gave you a more detailed answer on the underlying causes, and there is no single cause—a change in the GDP of the UK, the fact that our funding is doing well, etc—but I think it does also play into the concerns we have about technology development, because in order to win contracts we have to be prepared, we have to be competitive with our international partners. Certainly if we move into a situation where the ESA rules on juste retour are forced to change because of enlargement we will have no protection against not getting a contract. Right now we do have the protection of juste retour. The only way we are going to achieve that in the future, if the rules change, is to be competitive. So we have to really consciously make sure that we put in the R&D in order to ensure that we are competitive.

  Q228  Chairman: Finally, Keith, there is a huge amount of interest in NASA's $100 billion programme, and particularly the invitation to the UK Government to be part of that. I think that has fuelled a lot of the interest at the moment in terms of human space flight, so I think that is understandable. You have talked today about ESA and we have mentioned NASA briefly, and certainly the special relationship we have with the US in terms of satellite surveillance. Where do we stand with other nations, like China and India, perhaps even Nigeria, who are going into space policy in a much bigger way? Where do we stand on that?

  Professor Mason: I will refer to Richard in a minute because he has been directly involved in this, but we have an ongoing dialogue with both the Chinese and the Indians, and some real hard collaborations, through ESA, in those areas. I found it very gratifying that in this global exploration strategy now the Chinese are involved as well, which is a new development (as of a year ago they were not); the opportunities are certainly there and if we need to capitalise on them we need to invest. This comes back to the idea that we do need a resource in order to enable some of these, frankly, huge opportunities that are appearing over the horizon. Richard has been directly involved in these activities.

  Professor Holdaway: It is a very interesting issue. Of course, the UK already works with China and we have one operational science programme with them, although the interface is through the European Space Agency. We are two years away from the launch of an Indian mission that will carry UK scientific instruments on board, and we are just about to start negotiations with the Brazilians. With the Chinese the issue is really interesting because the Government, as you know very well, has a strategy for doing business with China, and although we have been doing scientific business with China for many, many years we are only now just beginning to work with them on the technology side, on the spacecraft instrumentation side. What we have missing in this country, however—we have the funding to go and talk to the Chinese—is we have no money to start initial programme developments with the Chinese, and that would be part of the CSR bid. Certainly the Chinese now are offering a lot of support to our programme; they are offering technology that we do not have access to; we are offering to share unclassified technology with them, and those discussions, led by the previous Minister (and I am sure the current Minister will take over) have gone extremely well, and we are just about to have a second set of joint meetings with the Chinese. It is looking, I must say, extremely promising.

  Q229  Chairman: So we are not putting off those avenues.

  Professor Holdaway: No, absolutely not. Nor with the Indians, nor, in fact, with any other country. We currently work in my own laboratory with 34 different countries.

  Q230  Chairman: It would be very useful to have a note on what negotiations you have with which countries, so we can include it in our overall report.

  Professor Holdaway: Yes, we will provide that.

  Chairman: On that note, can I thank Professor Mason, Professor Holdaway and Air Vice-Marshal Moran very much indeed for the session. I am sorry we have gone through it at a pace but we are very grateful to you, and thanks to the Committee for being so patient.

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