Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 440 - 459)

WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007

PROFESSOR LEN CULHANE, LORD REES OF LUDLOW AND PROFESSOR MICHAEL ROWAN-ROBINSON

  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 doing.

  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 report.

  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 your estimate?

  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 what?

  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 us?

  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 UK—is 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 this.

  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 the industry?

  Professor Rowan-Robinson: Absolutely, yes.

  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 worrying trend?

  Lord Rees of Ludlow: A leading question!

  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 Facilities Council.

  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 space.


 
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