Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 300 - 307)



  Q300  Chairman: That is all right. Julie, do you want to add anything?

  Ms Bramman: The only thing that I would really love to add is that there is a lot of synergy between the recommendations in Martin Barstow's report and what we are doing as part of the STEM mapping programme and that is why I said earlier (and probably gave the impression it is two different things going on) that we need as a department to get the whole of that infrastructure right and then put space within the wider STEM spectrum. The department's attention and energies, I think quite rightly, have been put into getting the wider infrastructure and support right.

  Chairman: Thank you for that clarification because we have got different things pointing in different directions.

  Q301  Dr Turner: There are serious careers to be made in space but how aware are young people of the opportunities? Are you satisfied with the awareness? Can you make any suggestions for improving it?

  Professor Wells: I think we have to improve the awareness and one of the things in the programme that we are pushing here is improving the links with the industrial sector. In that capacity I consider the whole high-tech industry not just the space industry as the people we need to talk to. We are running a programme here of annual careers fairs around the space theme to bring a contact between students, newly emerging graduates and the industry and the academic sector. We have had a pilot of that careers fair towards the end of last year to see how that went. We ran that in conjunction with the UK (SEDS) support organisation and that was pretty successful. We had 130 people come to it and we had 10 presenters in the careers area and we will be building on that over the next two or three years as part of the current development programme.

  Q302  Dr Turner: Some of the evidence which we have had so far suggests that there may be something of a skills shortage in the space sector, notably that an awful lot of work being done in some areas in some companies is being done by Indian and Chinese graduates. They of course will eventually go back to India and China and take the skills with them. Do you have any comments on that? Do you agree that there is a skills shortage?

  Professor Wells: I think there is personally. I drew attention to the graduate output in physics and astronomy and I apologise I am really just focusing on the physics sector because I have not had time to look at comparable studies in the engineering or the computer technology area, but you can see a trend there of fairly steady output of physics-based graduates where an increasing proportion of those have got space-related experience and probably in that output of graduates with a space background about half of those are going on to do PhDs and the other half are going out into the general workforce. I have no statistics on their career choices but we do know from keeping contact with our own graduates that some of them go into the City, several of them come and start careers in this place in science communication, and there is a general outflow, but the numbers are small compared with the numbers you see quoted of graduates in, say, computer technology coming out of India.

  Q303  Dr Turner: So are these numbers one of the reasons that has prompted the National Space Centre to develop the careers pathway and workforce development programme?

  Professor Wells: Yes.

  Q304  Dr Turner: Can you tell us briefly what it offers.

  Professor Wells: Our view there was that we saw measures of success and involvement of young people in the Key Stage 2 and 3 areas and the numbers were fairly significant—5,000 to 50,000 kids a year involved in some way or another—and then there is almost a precipice of falling off the cliff beyond that and the carry through into the GCSE and A level looked to us to be very sparse. We decided to try to address that question by developing similar programmes for the Key Stage 4 and Key Stage 5 and we have spoken and got support for that programme from PPARC and from the East Midlands Development Agency. Our aim is to have a continuum of these outreach informal education programmes with teacher involvement as a supplement to what goes on in the schools, so again it is an entrepreneurial initiative that we have taken and we are one-third of the way through developing the programme with a lot of support, I have to say, from the sixth form colleges and colleges of further education with whom we have consulted so far.

  Q305  Dr Turner: Do you think there is sufficient public awareness of the amount of space activity there is in Britain and how much there is that is worthy of promotion? Do you think that more could be done to publicise the space industry because that in itself would be quite productive, would it not?

  Professor Wells: Within the industry I think it is quite hard to do. One feature of space science and space research is that the real big events only come along relatively infrequently so keeping up a sustained programme of public awareness is actually rather hard whereas you can have a large promotional event when something big happens like a new mission is started and endorsed and people can talk about what it is going to do. I think that does generate public interest as it does when the event actually occurs such as the launch or the landing of Huygens on Titan and so on which were big events, so I think you have to build around the big picture to keep public interest.

  Q306  Dr Turner: But most of the turnover in financial terms is in on-going things like environmental observations, earth observations, all of that stuff which is vitally important but the public do not know is happening, do they?

  Professor Wells: No, I think that is a story that does need to be told more. Space makes a very big contribution to that monitoring process.

  Q307  Dr Turner: Given the increasing public awareness of climate change if that link were to be used, could that help?

  Professor Wells: Yes undoubtedly. I think in the evidence that Chas Bishop has given you is pointing out that it is an objective of the National Space Centre to renovate its Planet Earth gallery to actually address the question of what space does in climate change, but we will need funding for that.

  Dr Clegg: Could I just add briefly, I am sure you are right that the public awareness side is important. Teachers and pupils will get information from radio, television, magazines, podcasts and so on. I am reminded of the conclusions from the Demos think-tank report Black Sky Thinking which said: "Space in the UK, which should be seen as one of the most creative industries in the UK, is largely invisible" and that is a call to action, I think. So I think it means we all have to work a lot harder because our utilitarian approach to space in the UK means that we may end up hiding it and therefore we must act 10 times more than otherwise. To be frank, I think the one thing that would greatly help public funding agencies, which have many, many calls on their funds, would be an increased political mandate, a stronger political support. I am just echoing the words of Professor Keith Mason the Chairman of the Space Board who spoke to you earlier about that. I think that would help this a lot.

  Dr Turner: Point taken.

  Chairman: We do take the point and I think the Demos quote is one that is well worth hanging in the report somewhere. I am sure the words will have been heard but whether they appear in the report will be a different kettle of fish. Can I thank you very much indeed, Dr Robin Clegg, Julie Bramman, Professor Alan Wells and Paul Spencer.

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