Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 480 - 493)



  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 of application?

  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 handful.

  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 on.

  Q484  Mr Newmark: Specifically with space medicine.

  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 percentage—I am not sure of the exact figure—that 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 five years.

  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 the gap?

  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 with.

  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.

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