Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 259)

TUESDAY 30 JANUARY 2007

MS JULIE BRAMMAN, DR ROBIN CLEGG, PAUL SPENCER AND PROFESSOR ALAN WELLS

  Q240  Chris Mole: Given the Government's current commitment to the personalisation agenda is it not quite important that it gets this sort of evidence for these sorts of programmes?

  Ms Bramman: I think all evidence that we have about what motivates young people and what turns them on to science and other STEM subjects where we know we need a skilled workforce in the future is good evidence.

  Q241  Chairman: Dr Clegg, perhaps PPARC should be doing this then if it is not the DfES.

  Dr Clegg: We have certainly done some work in this area and we would be very glad to work with the DfES. Can I just mention a couple of other reports that helped to form the evidence base. First of all, the report that we commissioned by Professor Martin Barstow included a rather small survey of teachers who gave evidence on the inspirational value of space and the effect on their children. Secondly, there was the document The Education and Skills Case for Space by my colleague Paul Spencer and Graham Hulbert which was jointly commissioned by PPARC and three other agencies. Thirdly, I could point to a report published by the Nestlé Social Research Foundation by Professor Helen Haste who investigated young people's views of science and technology and that did distinguish between boys' and girls' responses. Between the three of them that does contribute to the evidence base, including some quantitative information from Scotland where the organisation Careers Scotland is running a very large volume of space camps and space schools, and the quantitative data that is in Paul Spencer's report which I believe the Committee has. The survey by Professor Barstow was jointly commissioned by PPARC and the DfES and the British National Space Centre and so that perhaps was an example of us working together.

  Q242  Chairman: I needed to put that on the record. Paul, could I come to you and indeed your report here; do you believe that UK manned space flight or human space flight would really be the inspiration and the lever which turns the tap on for young people being interested in studying physics and going on to post-16 to do A2 and AS and then on to university?

  Paul Spencer: It is a difficult question to answer whether UK manned space flight would do that but certainly when you ask young people what jobs are available in the space industry, the predominant answer is that of an astronaut. In fact, a lot of people think that is the only job there is in the space industry and therefore that would rule out most members of the UK as you suggest. There certainly is a lack of awareness among not only young people but among the populous in general, even highly educated people, about the nature of the UK space industry. Because we are involved largely in the utilitarian end of things in terms of satellites and communication, all vitally essential for those other things but—

  Q243  Chairman: I will come back to that but in terms of human space flight but do you think if the UK Government supported it in the next Comprehensive Spending Review that it would be a big turn-on in terms of solving that?

  Paul Spencer: Yes, it would.

  Q244  Chairman: Would you all agree on that? Can I just get an answer. I only want a yes or no. You said no Professor Wells.

  Ms Bramman: No.

  Dr Clegg: PPARC believes it would be a turn-on but of course there are many wider considerations.

  Q245  Dr Turner: But in the States people have had the opportunity to be astronauts continuously now for about 20 years and the "Apollo effect" of promoting interest in science and engineering has tailed off, so why is that then? Why given the United States' experience do those of you who believe it would be positive in Britain think that there would be a difference?

  Paul Spencer: Because the human space endeavours are the ones that grab the imagination rather than launching satellites and so on.

  Q246  Chairman: But they have not with Apollo. The Apollo effect has tailed off and there is the same effect in the States as is what is happening here that fewer students are doing the physical sciences, particularly physics and mathematics in high schools and universities. I will leave that.

  Professor Wells: Perhaps I could qualify my dissent if I may. I do take the view that the UK non-involvement in present human space flight with the International Space Station is a correct position. It is a correct position because—

  Q247  Chairman: I am not asking that question. The question I am asking is really would manned space flight inspire young people and you said no.

  Professor Wells: Then I would say that if the UK were to be involved for other reasons in exploration to the moon and beyond, there would be a positive effect but I do not believe it is a silver bullet.

  Q248  Dr Turner: And you do not think that robotic exploration will capture the public imagination in the same way, remembering the Beagle story when I seem to remember people getting quite excited even if they were let down with a bit of bump (as was Beagle).

  Professor Wells: It was a very big bump. I was there on Christmas morning waiting and waiting. We found for example there was a 15% uplift in visitor numbers here. We put the Beagle 2 operation here in the public visitor centre and it was the first time it had ever been done. There was an inspirational aspect too which we have seen, and I think that the continuation of that interest into planetary science with the UK taking a prominent position in robotic exploration of the solar system is a direct consequence of the public interest in Beagle 2 so there is a big inspirational aspect.

  Q249  Chairman: In response to this do you accept that robotics is a turn-on to young people, this idea of developing sophisticated robotics running around on the moon or Mars or whatever?

  Dr Clegg: Yes I do. We saw, as Professor Wells said, very large public interest in the Mars Express mission with the Beagle 2 lander and we have the press cuttings and the statistics to prove that and stories from Professor Pillinger of children getting up on Christmas morning and asking first, "What happened to Beagle?" before they asked, "Where are my presents?"

  Q250  Chairman: Or "Where is Santa?"

  Dr Clegg: Similarly, with the Cassini-Huygens mission and the landing of Huygens on Titan where there was strong public interest the following Christmas, so, absolutely, robotic exploration can be very inspirational particularly the specific events and incidents, landings and so on. While manned space flight is inspirational, and of course I would agree, it is not a magic bullet, and robotics has a very strong inspirational value too, and there are many wider considerations including the cost and other things that need to be borne in mind.

  Q251  Dr Turner: In terms of the cost it is quite obvious that even if the UK were to go back into manned space flight there is no way that we could afford to do it on our own and we would only be a minority partner in a joint enterprise. Do you think that this would still capture the public imagination, especially as even that sort of extra investment could count against some of the robotic work that is already being done, so there would be a price to pay for that as well?

  Dr Clegg: That is the crunch. PPARC would not be in favour of investing in this manned work if it harmed what I will call the UK space science programme, the robotics and so on. PPARC would be very concerned about that. The human programme would come at an extra cost. I think costs are coming down actually. There is the concept now of taking taxi missions on a Russian spacecraft up to the space station and so on, and that is not that expensive, one could have a programme for under about £10 million a year, but we would be most concerned not to harm the current UK space programme where the UK is very strong in designing and building instruments for doing space science and is a world leader on that.

  Q252  Dr Turner: Do you think there would still be a benefit in public interest if we were able to get a foothold back in manned space, assuming that we could do it without damaging the rest of the work?

  Dr Clegg: I think there would be some inspirational value but it is definitely not a silver bullet and there is a limited scientific case, as has recently been annunciated by a report from the Royal Astronomical Society, and I think great scientific progress can and should be made through the robotic programmes.

  Q253  Dr Turner: Paul, a last word from you on this before we move on. Human space flight is not the silver bullet to turn young people on.

  Paul Spencer: There are so many different aspects of space. The value of space to education is not just about humans in space, that is the tip of the iceberg. There are an awful lot of other aspects of space which make it a very attractive proposition to a lot of people and, as Julie says, there are different aspects of space applying across different genders and age groups and so on.

  Q254  Chris Mole: Dr Clegg said the price is coming down for a manned entry on a Russian vehicle of some sort; what are we talking about?

  Dr Clegg: I am not an expert on this but I understand from colleagues that there is a concept of a taxi mission on a spacecraft up to the space station and things like that with costs of £10 million to £15 million a year so there could be a programme over five years. I am not an advocate of it, I am just commenting.

  Chairman: We did know that but it would be useful to have a little note on that from PPARC in terms of those costs and that alternative way of getting people into space.

  Q255  Dr Spink: On that point is there though a negative side to that coin as well? I am an enthusiast of that but should we not consider the negative impact if anything ever went wrong in the setting back of space and the public perception of space exploration?

  Dr Clegg: Yes, space is a risky business.

  Dr Spink: I just wanted that on the record.

  Chairman: Adam, you have been very patient.

  Q256  Adam Afriyie: I would like to return briefly just to examine a bit more the educational aspect of the space industry. It is quite clear that there is a systemic lack of science, technology, engineering and mathematics students and they are obviously feeders into the space industry if you like. If do not have the students or the graduates you do not have your raw material for the space industry. David Williams, the British National Space Centre Director General, gave evidence and he told us that "we could do more" on space education. Do you agree that the British National Space Centre could do more and do you agree that more needs to be done in the area of STEM subject encouragement? It might be better if Professor Wells and Robin Clegg answer I think and then we can move to the DfES.

  Professor Wells: I think the answer is yes to both. Certainly one of the difficulties that we encounter both in linking together the education programmes coming out of the universities and the education programmes here is the very disparate nature of funding to support these programmes, so we have a little bit here from ECSITE, a little bit here from PPARC (we can always have more!) and EMDA and our own internal investments to keep these education programmes going whereas a joined-up approach would be very beneficial. In my recommendation to you in my written paper I tried to develop that theme and I did not develop it simply as a regional objective but as an objective to roll out as a pilot on a national basis. We would look to BNSC as the agency with the space expertise as an organisation that could help us to consolidate these different activities because they do cut across different departments and the partnership that BNSC embraces is the partners that have an interest in this, they look after the interests of the industry. There is a DfES involvement with the Communications Group of BNSC and we do bring together the important academic blue skies aspect of space in the universities and the applications programmes in organisations like NERC so there are the means to bring it all together. What we need is the motivation to join all these pieces up.

  Q257  Adam Afriyie: And from your perspective, Dr Clegg, you clearly fund certain parts of research and education but do you think the BNSC could do more?

  Dr Clegg: Can I mention my three hats: firstly as a personal champion for space education; secondly as a PPARC representative; and thirdly as a partner in the BNSC partnership. Can I also correct something I said earlier because when I gave a PPARC view on this that was my personal view as a champion. PPARC does not really have a policy on this since our remit is space science. Turning to your question, PPARC the research council supports the use of the inspirational value of space to engage young people and try and attract the next generation of scientists. We have a budget of £1.25 million a year for our Science and Society programme and perhaps roughly half of that goes on projects related to astronomy and space with a selection of small, medium and large investments, so we work hard at that. Our remit is limited to space science. Speaking as a partner organisation in the BNSC partnership we are very keen to facilitate better arrangements in the United Kingdom. There is a wealth of small and medium-sized regional and local initiatives providing support in what is called the STEM area—science, technology, engineering and maths—for schools formally and informally and there is a perceived need to co-ordinate this better and to provide a better linkage to the European Space Agency and the education programmes and resources it has.

  Q258  Adam Afriyie: If there is a need who should perform that function?

  Dr Clegg: I was just coming on to that because we have given a green light and political endorsement to a new arrangement which is for a Space Education Office which will provide strategic leadership, be a co-ordinating centre, and will provide a better relationship with the European Space Agency.

  Q259  Adam Afriyie: And would you see that as sitting within the Department for Education and Skills which I think most people would assume to have responsibility for the STEM subjects?

  Dr Clegg: I see it as being supported and funded by one of the regional development agencies, Yorkshire Forward, and very much with a management board that comprises the BNSC partners, and I hope the DfES would join us and some other key stakeholders.


 
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