Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 425 - 439)



  Q425  Chairman: Good morning, and can I offer a special welcome to our three guests this morning, our first panel, and a particularly warm welcome to Lord Rees of Ludlow, the President of the Royal Society, Professor Len Culhane, the Chairman of the UK Space Academic Network, and Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, the President of the Royal Astronomical Society. Good morning to you, you are all very, very welcome, and welcome also to guests in the gallery and to members of the press. I wonder if I could ask you, Lord Rees, if you would chair your panel, if you wish to deflect questions to your colleagues, so that, if there is a problem, then you will be responsible for it. Lord Rees, we are very interested in this whole sort of food chain which goes on in terms of space and its importance in terms of this inquiry and I wonder if you could talk us through that food chain really from developing the funding for a space mission right through to it actually taking place. Could you just give us a quick view of what is involved?

  Lord Rees of Ludlow: Thank you, Chairman. Let me first say that it is a great privilege to be in front of this Committee and also to be here with two longstanding friends and colleagues; we have worked together on many scientific activities. I am here for the Royal Society, but of course we have many common interests with those two other bodies represented. I would like to emphasise the interconnectedness of all aspects of space. Even the purer science depends on technology and has often been used to pioneer technology which has led to applications, so there is an interlinking between the industrial side, the scientific side and also the public outreach side which is important for stimulating the flow of able people into the field, in our evidence we try to emphasise those links. I would also like to emphasise that it is an inherently international activity because, although we in the UK can do some things for ourselves, we are very much plugged into international collaborations and, in particular, in science, and in many applications we work through ESA. Perhaps I could just say a word about the perspective of ESA from the UK. If we look at Europe as a whole, Europe is clearly a match for the United States in its intellectual capital and in its level of economic activity, but space overall is one of the few areas of economic life where Europe as a whole does not match the United States. The reasons for that are straightforward. Essentially, the United States ramped up its effort through superpower rivalry. That is why it has a far larger aerospace industry and that is why NASA has a budget which is three or four times that of ESA. For that reason, it seems to me that in ESA there has to be a focus on some subset of the activities which NASA engages in. We, as a member of ESA, want, as in all international organisations, to maximise our leverage to try and get, if we can, more than our pro-rata share of the action, so those should be the goals. As to how we do this, I think the important point is to stimulate excellence in students going into the aerospace area, excellence in research projects, maximising our impact on the decisions made by the European Space Agency and maximising our collaboration between the science and the applications. In that context, one point which we made in our Royal Society evidence, which was echoed by the evidence given by a number of other groups, was that BNSC, although functioning effectively within its limits, has too low a profile. There should be some effort given to somehow enhancing its profile because there would thereby be two benefits. First, there would be some UK organisation which is perceived by UK citizens, particularly young people, as being a flagship organisation for space which there is not now, and also it would provide a more effective interface between the UK and Europe.

  Q426  Chairman: I am actually going to return to that because clearly it is an important issue, but can I just pin you down on this basis: clearly you have described the interconnectivity, you say, between particularly academia and, for instance, industrialists in terms of being able to develop, and all three of you in your evidence have made that point, but how close is the interaction between the space science academics and the industrialists in the UK? We, quite frankly, have heard evidence that it is not as good as it should be, so, in your view and indeed the view of the rest of the panel, how good is it?

  Lord Rees of Ludlow: Well, if it is not, it is clearly important to improve it, but I would have thought it is crucial. Obviously the training of the people who go into the industrial sector of space in the UK depends on excellence in universities and strong research groups there and, even if we are building a space instrument or satellite for scientific purposes, then of course a lot of the work does involve industry, so there is the need for a genuine symbiosis in the personnel and in sharing the technology.

  Q427  Chairman: We would agree that there needs to be that, but the question is: is there, for instance, compared with France, where there seems to be a really close alignment between what happens in terms of French space industry and the academics working in the French universities? Professor Culhane, what is your view on that?

  Professor Culhane: Well, I certainly take the point that, of the order of a decade or more ago, the interaction was not effective. In my comparatively recent experience, it has become much more effective and there are a number of things driving this, one of which relates to your point about the food chain. ESA, in establishing large missions in particular, increasingly operates in the area of so-called `facility class instruments' and here, contrary to previous practice, an academic group which will become a niche player will not lead such a thing and there will be an industry prime, but the prime is absolutely dependent on the niche skills of the academics, so, for very pragmatic reasons, universities are allying with industry to make competitive winning, bids, for these major new facilities. I think this is a structural change in the way ESA procures some of its large instruments and that has, for simple pragmatic reasons, led to this outcome. I believe that is working very well. Certainly in our own institution, we have at least two major mission examples going through where this is happening and it is becoming more general.

  Q428  Chairman: Professor Rowan-Robinson, can you comment on that? Do you think it is working well?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Well, I think it works at the level of an academic group designing space instrumentation and then working with industrial contractors to develop the design and build it. I think what we felt was lacking was co-ordination by BNSC at the higher level of universities and the space industry and I think there were two areas where we thought there was a lack of co-ordination and leadership in BNSC. One was in the area of technology development in the industrial context and the other was in the level of training of young people which is sort of more or less left to the universities to do if they feel like it, but there is no real national plan for that.

  Q429  Chairman: Do you think that is BNSC's role? Is it their responsibility?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Well, it may not be defined as their role, but we feel it is needed. We feel that whatever organisation is leading space in the UK should be taking the lead in co-ordinating these areas.

  Q430  Chairman: Lord Rees, in terms of the sort of gestation period between a concept and actually putting a space mission into operation, what sort of timescale are we talking about?

  Lord Rees of Ludlow: That timescale is growing of course because of the scale of the operations and I think for some of these satellites it is 10 or even 15 years from the concept to the actual flight. The operational phase lasts longer still. This of course does have a negative impact on how we train students and involve PhDs, and we have to try and get the universities to fund distinctive PhD projects, but that is a problem we share with students in particle physics, et cetera. Just as a footnote to what my colleagues have said, I think we have got to bear in mind that the level of our expenditure overall is much lower than in France, I think we are all aware of that, and I note that the evidence from the industrial sector has emphasised this, but that of course does make the linkages less effective and lowers our profile.

  Q431  Chairman: So, in terms of the UK taking a leading role in ESA and bilateral missions, how could we improve that, other than just spending more money? Is it just a matter of money?

  Lord Rees of Ludlow: Obviously if we were involved in more of the so-called `optional' programmes, then clearly we would have a bigger stake overall, but, if we look at our involvement in the science programme where of course, as you know, our contribution is based on a firmer relationship with GNP, then I think our key strength comes from the high standing of our academic community and also from our effectiveness in the decision-making process. There is tremendous competition in deciding which particular mission actually flies among the many proposals made to ESA, and the more effective we are in our interface with ESA and in arguing our case, the more likely it is that the projects that ESA chooses will be the ones in which the UK has the maximum stake and for which the UK can get the greatest pay-off.

  Q432  Chairman: Could I suggest, Professor Culhane, that, in terms of bilateral missions with, for instance, Nigeria, with India, with China, we might be better and get more, if you like, bangs for our buck, if you will pardon the expression, by looking at that rather than putting all our eggs into one basket with ESA?

  Professor Culhane: Well, in general terms I would agree, although I would not pick up all of your examples, but rather be very pragmatic in selections. The key issue which is involved here is the comparatively small volume of our national programme as distinct from that which is directly related to ESA, and our evidence indeed emphasised that our ratio of non-ESA to ESA spend is significantly below that of the major European countries. I think were we to increase that conceptually rather than simply fiscally, that is to place more emphasis on a national programme, and here BNSC would obviously be a player, then we could very selectively and pragmatically pick partners with whom we are likely to win. We do this at the moment, but, in my view, not on an adequate scale and we could get much more bang for buck, so to speak, if we were able to choose from a broader spectrum of partners.

  Q433  Chairman: Professor Rowan-Robinson, would you agree with that analysis?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: I would agree, but I think the thing we would want to emphasise is that enrolment in missions should be decided on scientific grounds and you should go for the best scientific missions. Sometimes those will be ESA missions and sometimes there are very good opportunities with bilaterals, and I am involved in bilateral activities with NASA and with JAXA, the Japanese agency, and these are very effective where a real scientific opportunity arises. I am not so much in favour of saying, "Let's do a mission with Nigeria" just for the sake of it because it is cheap; it has got to be good science.

  Q434  Dr Iddon: Can we reach an agreement with NASA that, when a British scientist goes up on one of their missions, they fly with a British passport? Helen Sharman is the only person who appears to have flown while holding a British passport and Piers Sellers of course had to convert himself to being an American.

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: These were not really science missions, so I think the thing is that, if you are asking, "How important is it in the UK space programme that there be British astronauts with British passports?", I would say in itself it is not important. I think there are other reasons maybe for wanting to see British astronauts.

  Chairman: We will return to that later. That could take a whole morning!

  Q435  Dr Spink: Let me take that one by the horns right now because the Royal Astronomical Society report of 2005 concluded, "There is science of profound interest to humankind that can only be pursued on the Moon and Mars by direct involvement of humans in situ". Now, we also heard Lord Rees earlier very eloquently saying that BNSC should raise its profile, of course implying it would need help to do that. You all can guess of course that, if the UK Government funded manned flight in some way, this would engage and focus public excitement and interest and it may well be of scientific value, according to the Royal Astronomical Society, and in fact the Royal Society did say that it would cost around about only £150 million per year for quite a few years to engage in full international manned flights, so why are we not doing it? Do you think we should be?

  Lord Rees of Ludlow: I think I am on record in earlier contexts as saying that, as a scientist and practical man, I am sceptical about manned space flight, but, as a human being, I am strongly in favour. What I mean by that is that I really hope that some people now living will walk on Mars and I am an enthusiast about it, I fully realise the inspiration, but we have to realise that programmes of the kind carried out by NASA involve immense expense and very long time-frames.

  Q436  Dr Spink: Do you disagree with the £150 million a year that the Royal Astronomical Society predicted?

  Lord Rees of Ludlow: I think it depends how much you want to do and it depends what the ticket price is charged by NASA, because clearly in the short term NASA would be providing the launch. To go back to the general issue of the prestige of having people in space, there have been astronauts from many nations, even from Mongolia, and this has perhaps had some impact on the public opinion in those countries, but if we were to pay the full economic costs, then that would be far beyond us. It is good that the Minister, Malcolm Wicks, did make a statement that we were not, in principle, opposed to manned space flight. It is clearly an `own goal' if we say we would never do it, but we do have to ask how much are we prepared to pay. It is just a question of the price of the ticket and, if we can raise our profile by having UK astronauts, then that is great, but we have got to bear in mind that, if we paid anywhere near the full economic cost, it would overwhelm all we could do on unmanned. If I can comment on ESA generally—

  Q437  Dr Spink: Actually let us just stick to this, please. Professor Culhane, you have said in your evidence that we are living on past investment and perhaps suggested that the investment could be increased. Of course the £150 million per year for manned flight would be in addition to the £207 million for general space, but do you think it would be worth spending that to engage young people and the public in science more positively?

  Professor Culhane: I think it would be very difficult to justify on purely scientific functionality grounds and, whilst in the past there has been an excessively doctrinaire opposition to the use of humans in space, I think we should nevertheless, as Lord Rees has said, evaluate the situation on its scientific merits. Now, if there are issues of public appeal, if it is a national matter judged worthy of £150 million a year to induct a large pool of students, that is a totally different issue, but it is not doing science.

  Q438  Dr Spink: So it is political as well as scientific?

  Professor Culhane: I believe at this point the case would be largely political.[1]

  Q439  Dr Spink: Professor Rowan-Robinson, do you take a view on this?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: You have quoted the RAS report and it is absolutely true that the independent commission which we asked to look at this found examples of science programmes that probably at the moment could only be done involving astronauts. For example, deep drilling on Mars, it needs people to say where the drills should go and so on, so it is just not very likely that you could do it robotically at the moment. To achieve those kinds of science scores, the ones we identify as needing humans, we are talking about a huge programme and I do not think, within this modest programme of £150 million a year, you are going to get to that goal.

1   Note by the witness: Though we should continue to evaluate critically the role of humans in space for particular applications. Back

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