Work of the European and UK Space Agencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

3  ESA and the UK

UK funding for ESA

20.  ESA's total budget for 2013 was €4.2 billion. The graph below illustrates the UK's contributions to this budget.[67]

Figure 1 Member State contributions to the European Space Agency (in M€)

21.  In November 2012, following a high-level ministerial meeting at ESA (the 'ministerial council'), the Government announced it was increasing the UK's contributions by £60 million a year.[68] This would bring the UK's total annual contribution to ESA to £240 million.[69] The Minister assured us that this was extra funding, which would not detract from the overall science budget.[70] He outlined the case for this spending increase as follows:

    I bought the argument that there was an important industrial return for Britain. Secondly, a lot of space science cannot be done on your own; it is a collaborative activity, and there are worthwhile research projects in space that we can do via ESA. Thirdly—this was partly dependent on how the negotiations panned out—we were able, through our membership of ESA, to get a role in the international space station, hence the value of Tim Peake's flight, setting aside all the scientific and technical benefits, in signalling to younger people the excitement of science.[71]

This funding increase was set for five years from 2013-14.[72]

22.  There was consensus that the UK's contributions to ESA provide good value for money.[73] Furthermore, the recent increase in funding has been welcomed as "very good news"[74] that had produced "shockwaves across Europe". [75] As a result, the UK's credibility in the European space sector had increased and the UK had a "stronger voice" in ESA.[76] David Parker, Chief Executive, UK Space Agency, told us that the UK was "a growing and much more prominent player in ESA" as a result of this increased funding commitment.[77] Jean-Jacques Dordain, Director General, European Space Agency, also welcomed the investment, saying that it was "the most important news" from the 2012 ministerial meeting.[78]

Return on UK investment

23.  Whilst Major Tim Peake's mission to the International Space Station might have been the most high profile outcome of the recent investment increase, other tangible results also appear to have been secured, particularly at the Harwell site in Oxfordshire, where ESA has announced its intention to expand its operations. ESA's European Centre for Space Applications and Telecommunications (ECSAT) was first opened in 2009, but "will be developed by ESA following agreements reached between the UK and ESA in November 2012" in order to reflect "the increased importance given to space by the UK".[79] ECSAT "will support activities related to telecommunications, integrated applications, climate change, technology and science".[80] This will sit alongside ESA's existing business incubation centre at the site.

24.  David Parker told us that the expansion of ESA's operations at Harwell was "an example of the much stronger influence that the UK now has in the European space community".[81] He said the development "anchors the UK in ESA and ESA in the UK. It gives access to the know-how and capability of ESA, and ESA is able to take advantage of everything that is already happening in the campus at Harwell".[82] Jean-Jacques Dordain outlined his vision for Harwell as follows:

    Harwell, for me, is not only a new centre of ESA in the UK but it is a new type of ESA centre. For me it is a pilot for what I would like to have as ESA centres in the future, which are open centres, and not any more ESA centres with a wall around, a fence. The beauty of Harwell is that we are putting ESA facilities in a campus where there is already a lot of competence and expertise. That makes a difference. That is Harwell. Innovation is coming from connecting different expertise. Innovation does not come from a closed circle. It is only by connecting different expertise that you raise innovation.[83]

The UK has secured a demonstrable return on its investment in the European Space Agency. This should encourage the Government to make similar commitments in future.

The UK's position in ESA

25.  The 2012 funding changes firmly establish the UK amongst the top four players in ESA in terms of financial commitment. However, unlike France, Italy and Germany, the UK has relatively few nationals working in senior positions within ESA. The absence of a UK national at director level has been highlighted to us as particularly problematic. We heard that having a UK director was important for "industry", "the national perspective" and "changing some of the cultures in ESA".[84]

26.  Jean-Jacques Dordain argued that a lack of sufficiently qualified UK candidates was the most significant reason for the absence of a UK director. At the last round of recruitment, he stated, "8% of the total of candidates were British candidates" and this was less than half the number of candidates fielded by France, Germany or Italy. Whilst he hoped that a UK director would eventually be found, he cautioned that:

    The influence of a country is more related to the contribution of that country. The more you contribute, the more influence you have. We have more and more weighted votes at ESA. The influence is much more to have a competitive industry, because they are making the proposals, and to have competitive scientists.[85]

27.  Richard Peckham, UKspace, offered a slightly different explanation for the absence of a UK director:

    There are two factors. Certainly, one issue is that we have not put forward enough good candidates. The other is about the will to do it and then prosecuting your case. Germany, France and Italy each has three directors. For them, clearly this was a national priority; they were going to have three directors, and they pushed it at all levels politically, making sure there were good candidates and encouraging people to apply. We just did not do that. We put in the application. We had probably a couple of quite good candidates, but the rest of the push did not come with it. [...] You really need to push; it is part of the overall negotiation when you are negotiating how much subscription you put in. You just have to make clear that this is part of the deal.[86]

28.  The Minister told us that he "would rather we did have a director" but that "it is hard to judge exactly how important it is".[87] David Parker appeared to partially concede that more could be done to support future applicants as he told us that:

    Maybe we have to do more work on the UK side to get good candidates going forward. There will be opportunities when the next round happens in a couple of years' time, but do we need to have a director just to have influence? No. Would it be a good thing? Yes, of course.[88]

There is likely to be a reshuffle within ESA in 2015, which could provide an opportunity for a UK national to secure a director-level position.[89]

29.  The UK's presence in ESA could be further strengthened by the appointment of a UK national in post as director. Simply hoping that UK candidates will apply and be successful is insufficient. We recommend that the Government take steps to put in place support mechanisms for potential candidates alongside a concerted drive to increase the UK's representation amongst ESA's senior staff.

67   Ev 72 appendix 1 Back

68 Back

69   Q 161 [David Parker] Back

70   Q 160 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP] Back

71   Q 160 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP] Back

72   Q 162 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP] Back

73   Q12 [Professor Holdaway]; Q 12 [Professor Smith]; Q 15 [Professor Holdaway]; Q 38 [John Auburn]; Q 97 [Jean-Jacques Dordain]; Q 147 [David Parker]; Ev w2, para 12; Ev 49, para 19; Ev w5, para 18; Ev 63, para 20-22 Back

74   Q 100 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

75   Q 33 [John Auburn] Back

76   Q2 [Professor Holdaway] Back

77   Q 122 [David Parker] Back

78   Q 101 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

79 Back

80 Back

81   Q 139 [David Parker] Back

82   Q 137 [David Parker] Back

83   Q 115 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

84   Q 35 [Richard Peckham] Back

85   Q 111 [Jean-Jacques Dordain] Back

86   Q 34 [Richard Peckham] Back

87   Q 165 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP] Back

88   Q 144 [David Parker] Back

89   Q 165 [Rt Hon David Willetts MP] Back

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Prepared 28 October 2013