Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440
WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007
Q440 Dr Spink: But the Royal Society,
in its report of 2005, said that there were things that should
be done on Mars and that it would be approximately £150 million
per year for 20 to 25 years.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: This
would allow you to have a real geologist firstly on the Moon and
then later on Mars. I think that the goals that we identified
are much grander goals which would require a very substantially
enhanced programme. We were concerned about the way our commission
was being quoted, for example, by NASA as, "RAS endorses
human space exploration", which you, to be fair, are also
Q441 Dr Spink: Yes.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: So we
did recently poll our membership with a carefully worded statement,
saying that we strongly endorse the benefits of space, we think
that missions should be selected on science grounds and we recognise
there are some goals which may require human space flight, but
that they are only feasible within a greatly expanded programme,
and we also recognise that it is an attractor for students into
stem subjects and so on. This was supported by our membership
in a poll the other week very strongly where 96% favoured this
kind of stance.
Q442 Dr Spink: I am sort of disappointed,
Professor Rowan-Robinson, that you appear to be now rowing back
on what is a clear costing and a clear conclusion of the 2005
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Not
at all. The report says that there are some science goals that
require human space flight which is a different thing from saying
that the UK should now double its budget and go into human space
programmes. What you will get for that is a
Q443 Dr Spink: You did not just say
"some science goals", you said that some science goals
are of profound interest to humankind.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Absolutely.
Q444 Chairman: We really would like
to get some idea as to what would be the cost, the minimum cost,
of us actually committing in our report, saying to the Government,
"You need to go into manned space flight and you need to
commit at least this amount of money to it". What would be
Professor Rowan-Robinson: As I
say, it depends what you are asking and what you are trying to
achieve. As I say, if you are trying to achieve a UK involvement
in the next phase of lunar explorations, so there would be a UK
geologist with a British passport as part of that team, then I
think the estimate of roughly doubling the budget is about right
and we would have to negotiate with NASA because it would be heavily
subsidised by NASA.
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Just to emphasise
that, we would be minor partners in an American-led project if
we were to get involved.
Q445 Dr Spink: No change there then!
Lord Rees of Ludlow: The question
would be what they would charge and what would be the pro-rata
share. We could have astronauts going around the Earth in a shuttle
for a sum we could, in principle, afford, but I do not think that
inspires anyone. I think the key thing is whether we are part
of the next phase of manned exploration involving returns to the
Moon and then going on to Mars, and that is an American vision
spread over 20 or 30 years. Whether it will be realised, we do
not know, and the question is to what extent we or ESA should
get formally on board as minor partners in an American-led collaboration.
Q446 Dr Spink: Professor Rowan-Robinson,
what are the areas of profound interest to humankind that we could
be doing with manned space? What are the specific projects? Are
we looking at understanding climate change by going to Mars or
Professor Rowan-Robinson: No,
it is very specific. The real thing that we identified is deep
drilling, and deep drilling on the Moon would be of interest.
Q447 Dr Spink: What would that give
Professor Rowan-Robinson: The
two science goals of this type of mission are: one, to understand
the origin of life; and the other is to understand the formation
of the solar system, so those are the big goals.
Q448 Dr Spink: Pretty profound.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Profound,
absolutely, but which can be explored in other ways. You mentioned
climate change and there is a good example of something where
human space flight is not really helpful. What really contributes
to monitoring climate change and the Earth are robotic missions,
and that should be strongly supported.
Dr Spink: We have taken evidence here
that Mars is a model for what might happen in terms of climate
change on the Earth if we do not tackle it properly, but whether
human flight is necessary to understand that, I do not know.
Q449 Chris Mole: We have touched
on some of the training and skills issues so far. How do the panel
think they would describe the current status of the space science
community in the UKis it healthy?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: I think we
should see the issue of training people for aerospace as part
of a general question. I think there are some green shoots in
that some of the negative trends in the numbers taking A level
and enrolling in undergraduate courses in physics and maths are
now being reversed, some of the effective programmes have started
to have some effect, so, from a low base, things are improving.
More broadly, the important thing is to ensure that young people
are well taught in the sixth form and that they at least have
a chance to meet someone with a degree in physics during their
school career, which is a goal which is hard to achieve at the
moment. Also I think it is very important to ensure that the careers
which are perceived to be on offer, not just in academia but in
industry, are attractive to people. In my own university, even
many of those who are graduating in engineering are then going
on to work in the City or management consulting. There is not
a demand pull, as it were. It is not perceived that careers in
industry are attractive and I think it is bad news for the UK
if that trend cannot be reversed and if the allure of the City
overwhelms the allure of manufacturing industry. It seems to me
that the reason why this particular set of hearings is important
is that the aerospace industry is clearly one with a potentially
high profile. It is a really high-tech manufacturing industry
and it does link together not only science, but also issues like
climate change, communications, et cetera, which are important
for the UK and for the future of the world in the 21st Century.
It will be good for enrolment in physics and related technologies
if we do have a higher profile and effort in aerospace generally.
Q450 Chris Mole: Could I perhaps
broaden it out to your colleague. Lord Rees, you have touched
on the number of A level students doing physics, but what about
the actual number of students studying space science? Has that
declined, increased or remained stable? Are there actually enough
coming through to create a sustainable pool of scientists to do
research in those areas?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Professor
Culhane can probably answer that.
Professor Culhane: I would think
it is marginal, perhaps improving, but rather delicately poised
and the higher profile would most certainly enhance the attractiveness,
but, above all, I think, both from an industry standpoint and
the academic science standpoint, the existence of a healthy and
functioning space science enterprise is an essential prerequisite
to having the courses which will then attract the students. My
comments earlier about the national programme are directed at
enhancing at a comparatively cost the ability of the instrumentation
academic groups to function. They are the ones that offer the
courses, and many of them presently do, they need a higher profile,
I agree, and there need to be more academics who are devoted to
Q451 Chris Mole: What about moving
into industry, Professor Rowan-Robinson? Do you think there that
the concerns are justified, that students are going elsewhere,
having studied engineering or space science?
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Well,
I am not sure I have anything to add on that, but it seems to
me that the degree in physics is the key to space science and
of course many other areas of industry. There are a few universities
which have these specialised courses involving space science and
space technology, but most other universities with physics departments
will have options on space science within the physics degree,
so basically all physics students will get some taste of space
science in their degree. I think that the UK Space group have
made a very eloquent case for expanding support for the space
industry. They demonstrated in their submission, which I am sure
you have read, that modest investment in the space industry has
a tremendous multiplying effect in the economy, so I think it
is very important. It would be a very valuable conclusion to "carriage"
that kind of stimulation, and the universities would be ready
to respond if demand increased.
Q452 Chris Mole: So it is basically
that investment in space science generally will pull through for
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Absolutely,
Q453 Chairman: It is good to hear
you say that, but it was very worrying when we heard from Avanti
who said that 70 to 80% of their postgrads working with the company
were now recruited from India and China because we could not get
them from the UK. I am sorry, it is for me to ask you the questions
and for you to reply, but would you agree that that is a very
Lord Rees of Ludlow: A leading
Professor Rowan-Robinson: I am
surprised about it, but yes, I would be worried. There is a lot
of international mobility of highly skilled people. For example,
for people who train in astrophysics and space science, it is
very common, if they continue a career in that, for them to spend
time abroad, and we are continually bringing in researchers from
all around the world.
Q454 Chairman: But 70% is fairly
high, is it not?
Professor Rowan-Robinson: That
is a bit high, yes.
Q455 Dr Iddon: Lord Rees, there has
been an astonishing increase in the number of students studying
astronomy in our universities; I think the number of courses is
around 45 now. Is astronomy a good route into space science or
would you advise a student who wants to go into space science
to study physics instead?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Well, I think
you are right in implying, Dr Iddon, that the introduction of
astronomy as part of physics courses has been very beneficial
for physics enrollers generally. If you can call your department
a "department of physics and astronomy", you get more
applicants than if you call it just "physics", so this
has been beneficial and has been one of the causes, I believe,
of the turnaround in the number of people studying physics. Most
of the students will be doing astronomy as a sort of option, as
an enrichment of the physics curriculum where it does have a role
to play. Astronomy depends on space and astronomy uses high technology,
much of which is space technology, so I think it is very important
to emphasise that physics is important for all these advanced
technologies. More generally, I am concerned in this country about
the physical sciences as compared to the biomedical sciences.
Biomedical sciences have support from a strong pharmaceutical
industry, from the Wellcome Trust and from the cancer charities,
complementing government funds. In the physical sciences generally,
we do not have those complementary sources of funds and, for that
reason, our strengths are more precarious. Therefore, we should
try very hard to raise the profile of the sciences and the technologies
which are attractive to young people.
Q456 Dr Turner: Lord Rees, you have
already made reference to the BNSC and it is quite clear, from
written evidence submitted by yourselves on behalf of all your
respective bodies, that there is something of a feeling of a lack
of a clear lead, an effective leadership in the space field in
the UK and that BNSC, to use your words, I think, Lord Rees, "does
not have the clout to do it effectively". What would you
like to be seen to be done in promoting good, clear, co-ordinated
and effective leadership here? Would you wish to see, for instance,
as some people have advocated, a full-blown British space agency?
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Well, it
would be presumptuous of me to offer a firm recipe because clearly
we know that the input comes from many departments and many interests,
et cetera, but, if we look at what the weaknesses are now, I think
there is a problem that, if you ask the average person in the
UK, "What is the BNSC?", they will not have heard of
it. They will have heard of NASA, they might even have heard of
ESA, but they certainly will not have heard of BNSC. I think that
is to the UK's detriment, so to raise its profile among the public
would be good. Also, to offer a more co-ordinated interface with
ESA and other foreign agencies would also be to our advantage
in negotiations. As to how this is done and how much of an independent
budget the beefed-up agency would need to have, I would not want
to comment. I know that there was a suggestion in the industrial
input that £20 million a year of free money might be of help
to BNSC, but I would not want to comment on it in detail.
Professor Culhane: I think the
key issue, as Lord Rees has touched on, is the constitution. BNSC
is a loose association of some 11 or more distinct government
departments and research councils, and I believe that, with a
budget, however modest, and with a remit to co-ordinate in a more
proactive way the national engagement in space, a lot of good
would flow from that. Again I hesitate with the details or to
recommend a full-blown space agency on the NASA model, we avoided
this shamelessly in our report because we were focusing primarily
on science. However, even in the kind of science vision which
we offered in our submission, a space agency funded and with constitutional
powers to run a coherent national programme would be of enormous
benefit and I believe that is absolutely lacking at present.
Q457 Dr Turner: Do you think it would
have more pull on the Treasury?
Professor Culhane: Well, that
would depend on how effectively it presented its case. I believe
a very effective case could be made.
Professor Rowan-Robinson: Currently
the BNSC is advised by the Space Board and the Space Advisory
Council which consists of members of the 11 partner bodies, so
it is ruled by committee, and you just cannot get leadership,
co-ordination and strategy when ruled by committee, so basically
we say that, as a minimum, there should be an independent space
council which advises the Director General of BNSC, reports directly
to the Minister, is responsible for space policy and co-ordination,
technology co-ordination, education and represents academia, the
partner bodies, government and so on, but an independent body
that runs BNSC is a key.
Q458 Dr Turner: Which minister would
you have it report to?
Professor Rowan-Robinson: I suppose
the Minister for Science. I am not trying to design the structure,
but I think that, at the very minimum, that is a change that needs
to be made. An agency would go beyond that because it would then
control the budget presumably of these 11 partners.
Lord Rees of Ludlow: Of course
as to which minister is involved, there are so many. There is
the DTI obviously, there is Defra, there is the MoD and there
are others and this is one of the problems.
Dr Turner: The Government works in silos
still. Anyway, we are now seeing the formation of the new Swindon
Town Football Club. How do you think that is going to fit into
the structure and what kind of role do you think it can play in
the future in space science?
Chairman: This is the Science and Technology
Q459 Dr Turner: It is known as the
Swindon Town Football Club.
Lord Rees of Ludlow: I would have
thought this would facilitate some of the aims that we have articulated
this morning because obviously PPARC is the body which has been
concerned with space science I would hope very much that the reorganisation
that is now taking place will leave the internal structure of
PPARC as unchanged as possible, but nonetheless provide a more
effective way of setting priorities across the whole field of