2007: A Space Policy

The House of Commons Science and Technology Select Committee has published its investigation into UK space policy...


This week the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology published their report into UK Space Policy. After consultation with Fellows, Professor Michael Rowan-Robinson, RAS President, submitted written and oral evidence on behalf of the Society. The report refers to RAS evidence 19 times.

The Committee concentrated their investigation on civil rather than military space activity. In the financial year 2005-2006 Government space expenditure amounted to £207.61 million or 0.038% of GDP. The commercial space industry has a turnover of £4.8 billion or 0.2% of GDP. MPs thus recognised the very high economic return that results from a small level of public investment.

Committee MPs acknowledge that space is becoming an increasingly important sector for the UK. However, the lack of Government support for the early stages of technology development is placing our scientists and engineers at a disadvantage. MPs are also worried about a skills shortage and that potential space scientists and engineers are moving into other sectors.

MPs also examined a variety of other areas including knowledge transfer, Earth observation programmes, Satellite navigation, education and outreach, space medicine, human space exploration and space tourism.

Committee Chair Phil Willis commented: "Space should be an arena in which today's fantastic ideas are assessed seriously because they could be tomorrow's reality. It is crucial that the Government increases funding for space programmes now in order to benefit future generations."

Some of the RAS contributions are set out below, together with the reaction of the Committee's MPs:

MPs noted the report of the RAS commission on the value of human space exploration and the strong endorsement of our subsequent policy paper (96% of Fellows voted to support this). Professor Rowan-Robinson clarified the RAS position, acknowledging that some science goals (e.g. deep drilling on Mars in a search for life) require human involvement but that this should not compromise the funding of other space and astronomy activity. Involvement would only be possible within a greatly expanded science programme.

The report criticises the Government's outright rejection of human space exploration. MPs want the option for such missions to be left open and to be judged on the basis of the best science.

  • The RAS argued that BNSC has not served the space community well and that it should be transformed into a free-standing national agency with greater powers

MPs agreed that BNSC should be strengthened but that the current level of expenditure did not justify moving to an agency model.

  • The RAS made the case for an independent Space Board with representatives nominated by Academia, Industry, Research Councils, Government and relevant Learned Societies. This would be an independent body that would be able to celebrate success and point out bad practice, reporting independently to ministers

The Committee were attracted by this idea and recommend that a Space Forum is established that operates along these lines.

  • When giving oral evidence, Professor Rowan-Robinson considered the role of bilateral cooperation on space missions (e.g. between the UK and China). He argued that science rather than cost should be the driving force for these ventures

There was a full endorsement of this position by the Committee. MPs supported collaboration, but not at the expense of scientific quality.

  • In its written evidence, the Society argued that there should be a better alignment between industrial aspirations and scientific objectives

MPs agreed with this statement and suggested that BNSC should work to accomplish this more effectively.

  • Along with other organisations, the RAS highlighted the lack of coordination of space education initiatives

The Committee recommend that the newly created Department for Children, Schools and Families should engage properly with the space community, working closely with the new Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and take a lead through the BNSC partnership.

Prof Rowan-Robinson and RAS Policy Officer Dr Robert Massey commented on the report in several media outlets including Radio 4's Today programme, Radio 5 Live and BBC News 24. The Telegraph cited the RAS contribution to the final report.