Today is the start of a 12 week consultation to help decide whether or not the UK should start a British Space Agency. Currently British space interest are overseen by the British National Space Council (BNSC) . The BNSC does not currently have much power and it appears that much of the UK’s involvement in space is somewhat disjointed and disorganised. If the goal is to create a single agency that will oversee and directly manage all of the UK’s involvement in space in a coherent and sensible way, this may well be a good thing. My impression, however, is that the goal is somewhat more than simply coordinating current activities.
The UK is already has a reasonably active space sector involved in building satellites or parts of satellites. According to the Department of Business Innovations and Skills’ press release, this sector employs 68000 people and generates 6.5bn for the UK economy. I have no idea where these numbers come from, but my initial impression is that they may have defined the space sector somewhat broadly. The creation of a British Space Agency suggests (and this is backed up by some of the wording in the BIS press relese) that there is a desire to spend more on the space sector. One rather selfish concern I have is that rather than this being new money (which seems unlikely in the current financial climate) this will simply be a redistribution of existing money, probably coming out of the existing research council’s budget. In theory the government has every right to reprioritise how it spends it’s money. What concerns me is that they will badge this as something that will benefit fundamental science and that all of us involved in anything related to space should be thankful that the government is committed to developing a vibrant space sector. Although fundamental science may well benefit from some space activities, it is my opinion that space activities should really be badged as technology development (i.e., essentially applied science). Of course if the government were to openly acknowledge that they were intending to cut funding for fundamental science in order to fund space activities because they regarded the resulting technology development as of more value than the results of fundamental science, I may well be disappointed, but at least I wouldn’t be able to accuse the government of being devious.
One of the arguments for increased spending in the space sector is that it will be of benefit to the UK economy through potential spin-offs and because this sector could engage in civil space activities that could generate income for the UK. There is, however, a view (a somewhat cynical one to be honest) that in fact the UK space industry is not actually viable and that the only way it can survive is to try and get some of the public money that is currently being spent on other research activities. If this is the case, then it is likely that the pressure to increase the UK’s involvement in space is coming from the industry itself, rather than from the scientific community. In 2007 the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology decided that a UK Space Agency was only worth considering if there was a significant increase in civil spending in this sector. According to a recent BBC article Paul Drayson, the current Minister of Science believes, on the other hand, that increased UK involvement is worthwhile even if there is no increased commitment from the civil sector (or at least that’s how I have interpreted what he is quoted as saying). If the potential economic benefits are so great, why is the civil sector not clamoring to increase it’s investment in this area.
Well, what about the European Space Agency (ESA). Currently we spend about £250M a year to belong to ESA. Personally I happen to be in favour of the UK being more involved and embedded in Europe. The European Union (EU) may have issues to sort out, but in the long term we will be better off in the EU than not. Rather than investing additional money in a British Space Agency, why not simply become more engaged with ESA. ESA probably has some issues of its own, but if we engage more with it, we can play a role in redefining how it operates. Eventually (and this may take time) we can take pride – as Europeans – in a successful European Space Agency, rather than potentially being embarrassed that we tried and failed to operate a successful British Space Agency (maybe we won’t fail but space is so expensive that it seems unlikely that any countries other than China, Russia, the USA and maybe India can have viable, independent Space Agencies).
What do I think will happen? At the moment we seem to have a science minister (Paul Drayson) and a CEO of the Science and Technology Facilities Council (Keith Mason) who both appear to be in favour of more UK involvement in the space sector, so I think there will be a lot of pressure for this to go ahead. Do I think it’s a good idea? If ultimately a British Space Agency is formed that essentially optimises our existing involvement in ESA, then probably yes. If, on the other hand, Britain decides to carry out space activities independently of ESA, or in addition to what it does within ESA, then I suspect that we will regret this in the long run.