Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 523- 539)



  Q523  Chairman: Could I welcome particularly to this oral evidence session of the science and technology committee's investigation into space policy the director general of the European Space Agency, Jean-Jacques Dordain, and can I welcome too David Southwood, the director of science at ESA. Director General, currently there are 17 Member States that are involved in the ESA club. What happens when every one of the states in the enlarged Europe wants to be a member?

  Mr Dordain: I am convinced that in five years from now there will be between 22 and 25 Member States. We already have two countries officially requesting to become a member of ESA, Hungary and the Czech Republic and there are more to come. I am taking the enlargement of ESA as a fact. I am taking that as recognition of the importance of space for European countries and as a threat to ESA in its operation. We have proposed to the current Member States a change to some of the operations of ESA, starting with the decision making process. I think there were 11 Member States when the Convention of ESA was created. We went from 11 to 17 without changing anything in the operation of ESA.

  Q524  Chairman: What do you expect to change? What is your vision for that?

  Mr Dordain: There are two major points. Certainly the most important one is the decision making process because at ESA. We have several areas where decisions must be made by unanimity. Unanimity at 17 is more difficult than unanimity at 11 and I am sure that unanimity at 22 will be even more difficult. What I wish is not to decrease the efficiency of ESA because it is a very important European organisation making products. What I wish is to decrease the number of decisions by unanimity. Secondly, there is no weighting factor in the decision making process at ESA meaning that it is one country, one vote. When you take today the situation of ESA in terms of budget, three contributing states already represent today two-thirds of the budget. 14 Member States represent only one third. When we are 22, with all respect to the new members to come, I am sure they will not bring a lot of budget, meaning that when we are 22 three or four Member States will still represent two-thirds of the budget and almost 20 will represent only one-third. What I wish is to keep the big contributors because what I would like to avoid is becoming the agency of the small contributors, with the French, the Germans and the Italians, who are the biggest contributors to space in Europe, playing in their field and leaving the small contributors in ESA.

  Q525  Chairman: Does that mean you will be looking for majority votes on the programmes?

  Mr Dordain: What I would like to do is to introduce some weighting factors for decisions concerning budgets and procurement. Today the budgets are voted by a two-thirds majority, meaning that two-thirds of the small contributors can overrule the biggest contributors which, in my view, is not the best way to keep the motivation of the big contributors. What I would like is to introduce what we call a double, two-thirds majority for the budget which is two-thirds of the Member States but also two-thirds of the budget. I consider that we are just starting to work on what could be a much better decision making process but clearly we have to change.

  Q526  Dr Iddon: You mentioned one of the new countries, the Czech Republic. Do you see any of these new countries building up a sufficient budget input to become major players in the future?

  Mr Dordain: We have the experience of new Member States at ESA. We have just welcomed Greece and Luxembourg two years ago. There is always a period during which these new countries are contributing only to the mandatory programmes. For contributing to the mandatory programmes the rule is very clear. They contribute according to their GNP so they have no choice but to give their GNP proportion to the mandatory programmes. It is only step by step that they could be interested in contributing to optional programmes because obviously to be happy being a Member State of ESA you must have the scientific communities and have the industrial capabilities that make you a happy Member State. My goal is to make all Member States happy.

  Q527  Chairman: Would this not lead possibly to a country with a very small GDP, by becoming a member, paying very little in terms of its mandatory contribution but, in terms of the optional programmes, making a significant contribution into an optional programme and therefore buying under juste retour a very large element? Is that possible?

  Mr Dordain: It is possible but it does not happen because if you wish to have an industrial return by contributing to optional programmes you must already have a lot of industrial capabilities. All these new Member States when they arrive as ESA members do not have the industrial capabilities to justify a contribution to optional programmes. This is the reason why they start by contributing to the mandatory programmes and then, step by step, they move to optional programmes. Maybe the only exception is Luxembourg because it has a very small GDP because the population is small—not because they are poor but because they are few. They have very big industrial companies with SES Global, the telecom operator. Luxembourg is contributing to the optional programmes in telecommunications because of the presence of SES Global.

  Q528  Chairman: In terms of the role that the UK will play in these discussions to frame the new organisational framework, how significant will the UK's part be in framing the new regulations?

  Mr Dordain: I am expecting a lot from the UK. When I met the previous minister, Lord Sainsbury—and I have a plan to meet the new minister—Lord Sainsbury was even going to a point where he was telling me that changing the decision making process should be a condition for enlargement, meaning no enlargement before changing the decision making process.

  Q529  Chairman: Do you support that view?

  Mr Dordain: I think it will be difficult to put that on a purely political standpoint because it is always going to be difficult to say that we have accepted up to the 17th Member State and from the 18th this is forbidden. I am not a politician but, in my view, it would be very difficult to sustain that in purely political terms. I prefer to say, "Okay, let's change. Instead of making conditions, let us put all new thoughts into change". I am spending a lot of my energy on that. What I wish is the full support of the UK in helping me to change the decision making process. Unfortunately, the change of the decision making process will be decided by unanimity. We can make it as early as next year. I wish to do that next year before new Member States arrive.

  Q530  Chairman: Could I ask you whether you feel that the UK is an enthusiastic member of ESA? Nobody else is listening, so you can be blunt.

  Mr Dordain: I am always open.

  Q531  Chairman: You are not a politician.

  Mr Dordain: No, but I like ESA and I think ESA is very important for Europe and all the Member States. The UK is a very enthusiastic supporter of our activities on some selected topics, not on all space activities. You know that. The UK has always been a strong supporter of science except in the mid-1990s when the UK was driving the decrease of the science programme. In 2005 it was the UK pushing for at least stopping the decrease of the science programme. The UK is a very important actor in science and, because of your GDP, you are contributor number two to the science programme. There is UK support in the telecommunications area and in the earth science field. I would like much more UK support in the applications of earth observation, for global monitoring and environmental security. Environmental security is a very important topic. The UK is not at its place there when I compare the capabilities of the UK. On average, the UK is an anomaly in ESA because the UK is number two in terms of the GDP and is only number five or even maybe number six in terms of contributions to ESA activities. When I compare the different countries, the UK is not on average at this position, at least in terms of budget. That is a question of choice for the British government.

  Q532  Adam Afriyie: I would like to examine the role of the UK's position within the ESA a little further. You said that the United Kingdom was enthusiastic on selected topics. In the break-out sessions and during the meetings that you have, what would you say is the UK's reputation? When other members are talking about the UK and you look at the UK, what is our reputation?

  Mr Dordain: The UK is a friend of ESA. There is no feeling whatsoever among the other Member States to take the UK as reluctant. That is number one. Number two, the UK has a very specific position. Sometimes the UK is reluctant in the way they look at space. For example, the UK is not present in launchers or in manned space flights, which makes the UK a very specific Member State with 14 Member States contributing to launchers and 12 or 13 Member States contributing to manned space flights. On some topics the UK is all right. The UK is bringing leadership in terms of value for money and economic return. ESA could not exist without the UK because of what I said and also because of what British industry is bringing to ESA. Without British industry, we would not have Giove A in orbit and we would not have kept the frequency allocation that we need for Galileo. What I wish is to have more UK in ESA.

  Q533  Adam Afriyie: To what extent does the UK play a leadership role? Obviously there are certain selected projects in which we are involved but in a more general sense to what extent does the UK take a leadership role in ESA?

  Mr Dordain: The UK is one of the two leaders in space science which is the science of the universe and one of the leaders in earth science because science is not only the science of the universe; it is also science of the earth. There is a connection between space science and earth science.

  Q534  Adam Afriyie: I wonder whether David could give a couple of examples of where we are taking a leadership role in the science itself?

  Professor Southwood: In my programme, the UK leadership role is just about everything. The programmes tend to reflect the UK interest partly because the UK has such a strong space science community. If you want me to prioritise, I would say the UK in space astronomy has always been extremely strong. The big change is in the last five or six years in planetary exploration where, for a very long time—although I am not a planetary scientist myself—it was the exception rather than the rule. The way that the UK has picked up on the exploration initiative, on pushing forward its views as to what exploration should be, is a very definite leadership role but it is relatively new in the last five or six years.

  Mr Dordain: David has spoken of space science but I would like to come back to earth science because there the UK has taken a leading role. Three weeks ago we celebrated five years of operation of Envisat, which is the biggest satellite ever built in the world for the environment. One of the major instruments of Envisat is the advanced radar which is made in the UK. There is a leading role for the UK in earth science. We all know much more about the earth, the environment and so on. This is the reason why I am disappointed today by the role of the UK in terms of applications of that science. The services and applications of GMES are all coming from scientific progress. It is always disappointing to have one country leading the scientific part and not being present in the applications part, because this would be much more consistent.

  Q535  Adam Afriyie: You have already said that the UK is unusual. I guess you are referring to the fact that we have a voluntary partnership of 11 government departments and research councils. Is that a unique position among the 17 members of ESA?

  Mr Dordain: You are speaking of how BNSC is working in the UK?

  Q536  Adam Afriyie: Yes.

  Mr Dordain: BNSC is the image of your political position. It is not the agency which drives the policy; it is the policy which drives the agency or whatever organisation. I have never in my life seen an agency replacing a lack of political willingness. Any country is building the agency that they need consistently with their policy. You cannot compare, for example, with the fact that there is an agency in France because the French policy is very different from the British policy. The agency is more a result of the political willingness than the other way round. BNSC today is consistent with the policy that the British government has. This is more user driven, so you have to collect the user requirements and so on. In my view, it works.

  Q537  Adam Afriyie: Can you see any way in which the BNSC could be improved? You seem to be saying we are doing well. Is there some way that the BNSC could be improved to make matters better?

  Mr Dordain: I think BNSC works well according to the policy of the British government. One of the major problems that I have not only in the UK but in most of my Member States and even more at European level, is that we are always starting with the how rather than the what. BNSC is more the result of policy than the other way round. You should first define what you want to do and then shape the agency that you need according to what you want to do. BNSC works well in accordance with what you want to do.

  Q538  Adam Afriyie: Does BNSC's user driven approach where the 11 departments and various bodies say, "This is our priority" conflict or create tensions within ESA in terms of the way that the UK is approaching the work that is done?

  Mr Dordain: I do not think so because the programmes where the UK is contributing at ESA are user driven. You are contributing to science and science is a typical user driven programme. It is not the director general or the director of science who decides which mission we should do. It is the scientists. This is true for space science and earth science. GMES, also, is a typical user driven programme. Galileo is a user driven programme. Even telecommunications is a user driven programme, even if the user is industry. Your approach is consistent with the approach of the other agencies, on those user-driven programmes. The difference is that some programmes are not user driven: launchers, access to space, manned space flight, meaning that, for example, the French agency are dealing with user driven programmes and non-user driven programmes. BNSC for the time being does not need that because you are not involved in these programmes.

  Q539  Adam Afriyie: We should be going round enthusiastically evangelising about the BNSC to other ESA members, I assume. You also said that the UK's level of investment in ESA is an anomaly. Why did you use that word?

  Mr Dordain: Compared to GNP. As usual, we are all comparing the investment in space according to GNP. We always say Europe is investing seven times less than the United States while the GNP of Europe is larger than the GNP of the United States. This is a political willingness because the budget is only a result of political willingness. Within Europe, France and Belgium are investing two times their GNP, if I am normalising everything to the GNP. Germany and Italy are investing their GNP and the UK half of their GNP on average. It does not mean half your GNP everywhere. This is the reason why—I am sorry—I have called that an anomaly.

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