UK space spending up, but at the expense of science?

A UK government pledge to increase spending on space technology from by £60m (€75m) per year over the next two years will be welcome news in the British aerospace industry, but space and other scientists may have cause for concern.

The new money will increase Britain’s contribution to the European Space Agency at a time when other member states are struggling to maintain their subscriptions. Unlike the American space agency NASA, which does a huge amount of research and development work in its own facilities, ESA acts largely as an intergovernmental coordination body for commercial engineering concerns operating in and across member states, funnelling public money into an internationally agreed programme of satellite missions and space infrastructure projects.

The return for each ESA member state is in direct proportion to its subscription, such that the big players – of which the UK is fourth, after France, Germany and Italy, currently contributing €240m per year, or 6% of the ESA budget – get the lion’s share of industrial contracts. In boosting UK payments to ESA the expectation is that British aerospace industry will increase its competitiveness in the global market, not just in Europe.

Industrial growth at home is the driver here, and while that is certainly desirable, the research community which does the work once ESA spacecraft are in orbit does not necessarily benefit from the funding increase. The worry of space scientists working in universities and state-funded research laboratories, whose funding comes from the research councils rather than some big pot of money labelled “Space”, is that their resources are shrinking, and that means fewer experienced scientists employed to actually do science. That in turn results in less research output and fewer scientific papers published in learned journals, leading to further reduced funding once the academic bean counters have done their work.

What we are seeing here is an increased politicisation of science and technology investment which favours projects that are particularly newsworthy and catch the eye of the government ministers. It also violates the old Haldane Principle, which dictates that science and engineering experts are those best qualified to decide on how the research pot is divided.

As the BBC science correspondent Pallab Ghosh says, the Conservative-led UK government appears to be resurrecting the old Labour science policy of the 1970s, in which unqualified and often ill-informed politicians took it upon themselves to “pick winners”, ignoring expert advice.

The reaction today from shadow science minister Chi Onwurah is that sense ironic, and almost entirely vacuous. Labour in 2012 does not have a science policy worthy of mention, and in this area the opposition is failing to hold the government to account.