Examination of Witnesses (Questions 463
WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007
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.
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Note by the witness: ie "In the absence of gravity". Back