Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480
WEDNESDAY 21 FEBRUARY 2007
Q480 Adam Afriyie: In January 2003
the Wakeham Review recommended that the government should definitely
invest in microgravity in space. Has MRC made any assessments
since then of that conclusion and the viability of funding microgravity
research since that was declined?
Professor Kennard: My reading
of Bill Wakeham's report was that there were marginal benefits
in a number of different areas but if you put it together it then
made the case. We feel there are potentially marginal benefits
in certain areas, particularly physiology, but overall there is
not justification for changing the view.
Q481 Adam Afriyie: You mentioned
response modes. Applications come in and you sift them and then
you do not discriminate against space medical research. Have you
some statistics to hand as to how many applications you have had
and how many have been successful vis-a"-vis other types
Professor Kennard: I do not have
that information to hand but I can get it for you.
Q482 Adam Afriyie: Is it hundreds?
Professor Kennard: No, it is a
Q483 Mr Newmark: Given there may
be commercial benefits spilling out of space medicine, by not
participating are we losing out or is it wrong to even think in
those terms of when we have return on capital employed? Should
we be thinking more about blue sky thinking, that this is much
more a long-term project and we should not be always thinking
for every pound we put in we have to get X return today?
Professor Kennard: What you are
saying is to what extent should funding be strategically driven
as opposed to response mode. Again, there is a big debate going
Q484 Mr Newmark: Specifically with
Professor Kennard: Should there
be a strategic push to work in that area? The view of the MRC
is that the funding we have is very limited, 500 million a year,
for all the different diseases we try to tackle and we cannot
see any real benefit, even long-term, from identifying a small
amount of money to put into this that would generate a real benefit.
Q485 Mr Newmark: A small amount of
money is what in your terms?
Professor Kennard: Some of the
pushes that we have had had £5 million or $10 million for
specific funding streams.
Mr Gourlay: The basic problem,
as I see it, is if you are putting somebody up in space and they
become ill, which is a very high percentageI am not sure
of the exact figurethat puts them out of the game for 24
to 48 hours. With our kit we can find out what is causing it.
Is it ICP, intracranial pressure, variations or whatever? If we
can solve that, we have astronauts, human beings, up there doing
work virtually from day one. That is why we are using this kit,
or we want to use it. NASA has funded it to the tune of something
like $400,000. It is unfortunate because it should have been up
in the last Shuttle and we cannot help that but it will definitely
be going to Mars to find out what is going on. We are talking
with Virgin Galactic as well to see if we can screen passengers
before they go up because we do not want them ill up there although
they are only six or seven minutes in outer space. The spin-off
we have seen, since we started working on this, is this anaesthetic
correlation with ICP. There is a raft of other applications that
we just have not had the time or the funding to do. Yes, it is
absolutely key, we believe, to get up into space.
Q486 Chairman: Apart from that one
device where you have given an obvious spin-off in terms of what
would happen in terms of long-term operations under anaesthesia,
what other spin-offs have you seen in terms of medical advances
that come out of the manned space flight?
Mr Gourlay: This is the only one
that is scheduled or designed to go up in space. That is the limit
of my experience on that.
Q487 Chairman: Could I just ask you,
before I move on to Des Turner, are you happy with the current
funding mechanism, ie the response mode mechanism which obviously
Chris Kennard talked about, or is there some better way in which
to actually fund some of this medicine in space?
Dr Fong: I understand MRC's position
on this. Am I happy with it? No, but that is because the problem
we face as a community of people who are interested in space life
sciences and physiology is that we are a nascent community who
are easily killed off. You cannot develop capacity without some
seed corn funding. The response mode funding, where we go toe
to toe with people who have had years and years of infrastructure
building, does not leave us in a good position. I believe to develop
our community that seed corn funding will have to come from some
other process. I have given it some fairly careful thought through
the last decade of engagement on my part and the space life and
medical science community will not be developed unless we engage
in human space flight programmes which is why I keep pushing that
point. As a next stage we need to do it soon and we need to do
it for the costs that I outlined of about £100 million over
Q488 Dr Turner: I have a question
following up what you just said, Dr Fong. Do you think it would
be fair to say that the UK government is waiting for other countries
to demonstrate the viability of space research in medicine before
dipping a toe in the water, by which time it may be too late?
Dr Fong: I think that is entirely
true. It is interesting to see the way that human space flight
and space science is treated compared to other sciences and how
closely it comes under that sort of microscope. You can kill any
nascent project of research by saying we will wait and see what
everybody else does. We are now on our own in the G8 nations,
beyond the G8 nations, we are the only developed country that
does not have national astronauts at this time and with that the
accompanying programmes on physiology and medicine. I think that
is a poor position. By the time we decide it is good, it is just
like the stock-markets, it will have gone past us and we will
not be able to catch up.
Q489 Dr Turner: Obviously you are
in a position to speak from personal experience. What does the
situation do for the relationship between UK scientists and NASA?
Do you find yourselves as poor relations?
Dr Fong: Extremely poor relations.
I am fortunate enough to have arranged a bilateral agreement at
the level of laboratory to laboratory to allow me to go out there
and continue to look at what they do. I have spent the last decade
doing this. We used to engage with ESA and NASA but ESA have pulled
out their support for any programmes I run in this country because
they do not see that we will ever engage with them at programmatic
level. NASA are our remaining hope on this front as far as I see
it. Yes, all of the countries we engage with recognise potential,
they are just wondering how we are ever going to manifest that.
Q490 Dr Turner: We need a certain
amount of specific funding for this and you think that would plug
Dr Fong: I think you need what
essentially amounts to a governmental version of venture capital
to be invested in this project to allow you to see where you may
gain. The point is we have had multiple independent reviews over
the last 10 years which have provided reasonable evidence there
may be something to gain from further engagement in programmes
of human space flight. We cannot spend the next 10 years doing
further reviews of this kind because we will learn nothing extra.
At this point we need to speculate to accumulate. At this point
we need to make some small investment so that in 20 years time
if we are doing first-class fundamental science on the surface
of the moon and beyond, that we have understood fully what our
position should be in that. We will not do that by sitting around
tables and talking about it. We need to have something to start
Q491 Dr Turner: Presumably you are
not in a position then to attract and provide opportunities for
UK students in the field. Are they having to go abroad in order
to pursue their interests?
Dr Fong: They are. Spin-offs and
brain drains are overused words when we talk about space flights
but the brain drain is real. I can name three people, Piers Sellers,
Mike Foale and Nick Patrick, all of whom were formerly citizens
of the United Kingdom who are now American citizens. I also know
of dozens of people around Johnson Space Centre who did not pass
the astronaut selection, and one particular individual who is
studying at MIT who will likely not be a British citizen for much
longer. Yes, they are going abroad. We have a community at the
moment in the UK who we support but we cannot support them indefinitely.
After that their option will be to turn away from space science,
and therefore not be part of your capacity building, or go abroad.
Q492 Dr Turner: You have made an
eloquent case for the problems in your field. Can you make an
equally eloquent case for the benefits of making it happen, the
benefits to the UK and the UK economy?
Dr Fong: Yes. As my witness statement
suggests, the benefits of engagement in human space flight go
across the traditional boundaries between scientific disciplines
to education and to culture. All of those are interrelated. Unfortunately,
under the modes of funding we have, we are usually unable to appreciate
that. We talk about the excellence of our science programmes at
the moment and yet the supply is under threat. We do not know
how to address that threat of supply although we have something
here that might help with it but it is suddenly somebody else's
problem. It is DfES's problem or it is Culture's problem but it
is not RCUK. We fall on that sword. We fall between the stools
on those things. If you are asking me what is my argument, my
argument is that a small early investment now, and a little bit
of vision in five years time, may deliver us what is the greatest
benefit of the human space flight, the next generation of scientists
to deliver our economy. There is a lot out there to suggest our
economy is in trouble because of the lack of supply of scientists.
Q493 Chairman: On that rather depressing
note, if I may say, although I must admit the idea of long lift
shafts is a very attractive one for other ideas, if I could thank
Professor Chris Kennard, Dr Kevin Fong and Michael Gourlay very
much for being our witnesses this morning.