Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 463 - 479)



  Chairman: Could we welcome our second panel this morning: Professor Chris Kennard, the Chair of Neurosciences and Mental Health Board at the Medical Research Council; Dr Kevin Fong from the Centre for Aviation, Space and Extreme Environment Medicine at University College Hospital; and Michael Gourlay, the Quality Control Consultant at Marchbanks Measurement Systems. Welcome, gentlemen, to the Science and Technology Select Committee this morning and our inquiry into space policy.

  Q463  Dr Spink: It might be prudent for me to start by declaring an interest because Professor Kennard is a consultant neurologist at Charing Cross and he may recognise my name because my son is a neurosurgeon there, so I declare that as an interest. I want to consider the usefulness of space medicine, particularly to terrestrial medicine. Does the impact of microgravity on the human body offer potentially greater understanding of medical problems that might in some way assist us in terms of terrestrial medicine, not just space medicine?

  Professor Kennard: I think that the Medical Research Council looked at this very carefully, as I think was mentioned in the evidence from the MRC, in a workshop in 2002. I think that there are a number of areas that are potentially of relevance. One is in relation to what happens when you go into space, that you lose muscle bulk and the stresses on the bones change so that potentially there could be a model there for ageing and osteoporosis in relation to bone function. In cardiovascular disease, we considered the possibilities of seeing whether space research could actually give information about heart failure, a very common, major problem for terrestrial mankind. From the brain point of view, of course for the balancing of organs, the vestibular system is crucially important and there are a number of opportunities potentially there for looking at the way that the brain adapts to change and the vestibular system adapts to change. Again it is something that is relevant to ageing where the different inputs to the brain are changing at different rates, getting older, so the brain has to adapt, so it is a question of whether space travel can actually inform on this. After bringing all the experts together, there was a general view that there were not any specific areas that at that time, this is 2002, could be seen to really definitely offer benefits that could not be obtained by work in laboratories around the world rather than having to go up into space.

  Q464  Dr Spink: Dr Fong, do you have any views on this?

  Dr Fong: I was at that workshop and I think the areas that are highlighted are the relevant ones. I think there is science that can be done and microgravity is a unique environment for many organ systems in which I think some useful science might be done. I agree with the findings of the MRC's overall report, that there was no single area that justified the programmatic expenses, however, I think that medical science is just a small part of the benefits from engaging in programmes of space flight. I think that microgravity does represent a unique tool for the investigation of human physiology, but I think unfortunately it comes wrapped in programmatic costs and one needs to find an alternative way really if we are going to engage in those programmes.[2]

  Q465  Dr Spink: Michael, you are interested in the implementation of equipment. Do you think there is any crossover of equipment that is developed for space which might have terrestrial uses or any spin-offs from that?

  Mr Gourlay: Undoubtedly. We have got a piece of kit that measures variations in intercranial pressure, ICP, which was selected to go up into space to check the variations in ICP in the astronauts to try and find a pin or a holder as to what causes space sickness and then we can take remedial action either through drugs or whatever. This product is so close to being up in space, but it was just knocked back in March/April time last year by American cutbacks on space because their equipment is kind of old and so on and so forth. Now, the product has been selected to go to Mars in 2035. As a result of all that work that we have done on space, we have found applications in the UK and one of the prime ones is that, during an anaesthetic procedure, if it is a long one, ICP can go up and that does lead to problems with cognitive powering or cognitive reasoning and also, if it is a very long one, it can lead to permanent deafness, so there are a lot of applications in the UK on the deck, as it were, rather than on the space which we believe needs funding, needs exploiting and I think yes, it will happen.

  Q466  Chairman: But you could have found that out without going into space. You could have developed that technology without going into space.

  Mr Gourlay: We are trying to resolve that just now.

  Q467  Dr Spink: But you did not, so you would all agree, I guess, that there are many reasons to go to space. One is the pure scientific, one is the inspirational and one is the spin-off, all of these should be considered, and perhaps the decision as to whether manned space flight is feasible or not should be a political one, bearing in mind all of those and not focused on just one of them. Would you all agree with that as a summary?

  Mr Gourlay: With this product, yes.

  Q468  Dr Spink: Do you agree?

  Dr Fong: Yes, wholeheartedly. I think the problem with human space flight is that we try and dissect it out and look at individual arguments and wonder whether or not the whole programme is worth it on the basis of that single argument alone. Human space flight is something in which the whole is much greater than the sum of the parts and I think we should look at it in those terms.

  Dr Spink: Let me throw a negative at you. Do you see any problems from the possible development of space tourism?

  Chairman: No, we will move to that later.

  Q469  Adam Afriyie: Dr Fong, funding is always the key issue, naturally. What level of funding do you consider is required in the United Kingdom to undertake research into specifically space medicine? Do you have a range of numbers which you think would facilitate that?

  Dr Fong: I do. I think that we cannot engage in programmes in space medicine and space physiology really realistically without being part of the human space flight programme; one goes hand in hand with the other. You heard earlier that the costs were as modest as £150 million per year. I think that the programmatic costs will be something like that. I think actually, as a first investment, as a seedcorn investment, it can be done much more cheaply. Actually I have just returned from Houston where I am working with Johnson Space Center at this time and I think that, between now and thinking about programmatic engagement,[3]7 there needs to be something to help us evaluate the real benefits of these programmes and I think you need to make a seedcorn investment, and I think that could be as little as £50-100 million over five years.

  Q470  Adam Afriyie: Mere loose change!

  Dr Fong: Well, not my loose change, but somebody else's.

  Q471  Mr Newmark: You are a taxpayer?

  Dr Fong: Yes, I am! I think that a programme like that would help us evaluate the true benefits of human space flight as a whole and it would allow us to do some space medicine in a targeted, bilateral and strategic way.

  Adam Afriyie: But you state categorically that you think that the UK needs to take part in international human space flight programmes. Can you see any other way of undertaking this medical research in the absence of joining a space flight programme?

  Q472  Mr Newmark: Specifically in a simulated environment. Could you create a simulated environment on Earth to do exactly what is going on in space? Why do we need to spend £150 million to fly into space to do this?

  Dr Fong: You can use simulated environments, but they are simulated, so they are things that do not represent what is really happening in space, it is not perfect. The simulated environments on Earth are generally part of a wider human space flight programme with other agencies. All of the simulated facilities like that are ESA or NASA facilities or Russian facilities, so again we need to be part of the programme.

  Q473  Adam Afriyie: Of course we all want a good return on investments, so, if we spend £150 million or even if we spend £1 million, one wants a good return on that. Is there any evidence that spending money in medical research in space gives a better or more cost-effective return on that investment than spending the same money in a terrestrial laboratory, in particular reference to terrestrial medical research?

  Dr Fong: I do not think you can talk in general terms. There are some specific elements of science that can best, and only, be done with a microgravity laboratory. Generically, you cannot talk about space versus ground, I do not think. There are other benefits to medical science, and again we have talked about inspiration already, but you have heard earlier that biological sciences are not in trouble. Well, they are, and I presented at the Department of Health's Chief Scientific Officer's conference this year, the leading lecture of which was that there is a poor supply of biological scientists to our medical research base and we are importing them as well. Again I think that the benefits of programmatic engagement in programmes of human space flight go across the boundaries of science, education and research to the supply and demand of scientists as well.

  Q474  Adam Afriyie: We have had quite a lot of evidence given from the Case for Space team on the reason for government funding or providing seedcorn funding for manned space flight and other research in space. I do not think they made a very good case because they did not bring together all of the elements that you are talking about. You are saying you cannot necessarily justify it on one particular strand of research or one particular aspect of the return. Do you have anything in addition or would you suggest anything additional we should be looking at other than the Case for Space information which maybe would convince some of us a little bit more that there was an overall case?

  Dr Fong: I would like to pick up the Case for Space. I would say as well that the decision is not sooner or later, it is now or never because again, having just come back from Houston, if you look at time-lines for launch scheduling, we either decide to get involved in the next couple of years or the next time is in about 20 years' time. Now, coming back to Case for Space and the educational argument, we have closed 24 physics departments in the last 10 years, we have 48 left and, in 20 years' time at that rate of decline, we will have none. Now we turn to the Case for Space document and there was a lot in that document about the ability of space to inspire the young. But it highlighted the fact that there was very little that was objective. There are three elements in there which, they say, they have some objective evidence for. They were Space Camp Alabama, the Challenger Learning Experience in Leicester and Scottish Space School. Now, it did not say what the details of those programmes were. Space Camp Alabama is a camp for children that has people walking around in blue suits pretending to be astronauts or who are actually astronauts. The Challenger Learning Experience is a simulated space station mission.

  Q475  Chairman: We have been there.

  Dr Fong: It is predicated on human space flight as the point of interest. Scottish Space School use a dozen NASA astronauts through that programme every year and it has been extremely successful. Therefore, implicit in the Case for Space document is, I think, fairly convincing evidence that human space flight is useful.

  Chairman: Clearly MRC is not convinced and they are the funders of medical research, so what we are very anxious to get from you this morning is the hard evidence which shows that, as part of a manned space mission, actually putting resources into medical research in space is really going to be worthwhile, that we can only do it in space and we cannot do it in a simulated situation. You have not said that to us this morning.

  Q476  Mr Newmark: Specifically, as a supplement to that, we have heard that, with regard to topics such as signalling in cells, bone growth and muscle and fluid behaviour, you can only do that by going out into space and not doing it necessarily in a simulated environment on Earth.

  Dr Fong: I am trying to think of the best way of illustrating it. Science is all about taking a system and introducing a perturbation and looking at the response of that system to that perturbation: in the case of physiological systems in which gravitational loading is a big perturbation, muscle and bone in particular, but also the cardiovascular system and the neurovestibular system, removing entirely the stimulus of gravity, which you cannot simulate on the earth, or you can if you get in a lift and cut the cord but it does not last very long and it is not very pleasant.

  Q477  Chairman: It is a lot cheaper.

  Dr Fong: Temporarily. In the absence of that, you have the opportunity to use a tool which has square wave perturbation which allows you to perturb these systems and look at them and the fundamental properties. We do not really understand at cellular level how bone works and how muscle works. The focus in medical science has gone away from whole body integrated systems physiology towards molecular, and understandably, but these are areas which would benefit.[4]

  Q478  Adam Afriyie: In general terms you are saying there is benefit for medical research in space. We acknowledge there are benefits but at the moment you do not necessarily have any quantifiable way of establishing what the returns in the long term would be to somebody investing today.

  Dr Fong: With the line that MRC take, that they should not top slice their own budget to fund this, I think that is correct. They have agreed that funding in responsive mode is good and I think that is right. We need to have a different funding source for medical science because it is part of the human space flight programme.

  Dr Spink: Do you think there is ever any solid way of estimating the financial benefits from medical research, whether it is terrestrial or space, or is research, by its nature, problematic and variable in terms of output?

  Q479  Chairman: First I would like a response to Bob's question very briefly but also I would like your response to what Dr Fong is saying.

  Professor Kennard: It is one of the big dilemmas that the MRC has had: how to put a figure on the benefit the research that it funds delivers to mankind. There are lots of different mechanisms that have been looked at but none of them have been shown to be really valid in all situations. It is a very difficult task but one which the MRC still continue to try and fight. It is crucially important that the benefit is seen not only in terms of lives saved but also in material benefit for the money that is put in. What I was going to say was that the MRC does not just exclude and say we are not going to have anything to do with space flight. As Dr Fong said, we do consider applications that come on response mode so there are a number of individuals who link up with space programmes elsewhere who want to do experiments and come to the MRC and they are judged along with all the other applications that come through. We have not actually, for reasons that I have given, decided to top slice. The other thing that is important to differentiate, what Dr Fong was talking about, is aspects of normal physiology. You can get information about how normal man works from microgravity. From the pathophysiology, when you actually have disease that is influencing the normal physiology, then that is where it is very questionable as to whether there is any benefit from microgravity.

2   Note by the witness: "Programmtic costs" and "programmatic expenses" refer to the full subscription costs required for UK participation in an international programme of human space exploration through the European Space Agency. These are estimated to run at around £150 million per year. Back

3   Note by the witness: "Programmatic engagement" refers to participation in an international programme of human space exploration through the European Space Agency at a cost of £150 million per year over a timescale of between 10 and 20 years. Back

4   Note by the witness: ie "In the absence of gravity". Back

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