Parliament and the Stars. (the Physics of the Universe)

By O'Neill, Martin | New Statesman (1996), May 20, 2002 | Go to article overview
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Parliament and the Stars. (the Physics of the Universe)


O'Neill, Martin, New Statesman (1996)


The modesty of the UK's ambitions in space is reflected in the amount of time politicians devote to it. The Trade and Industry Select Committee produced its first Space Policy Report (HC355) in July 2000, the first since 1988. and time was found to debate it the following February.

The apparent indifference of parliamentarians suggests that nothing much was happening. It is certainly true that spending of 0.028% of GDP compares unfavourably with the United States at 0.187%, France at 0.157% and Italy and Japan at 0.048%. On the other hand, successive British governments have sought with some success to match state spending with private sector commitment.

David Sainsbury, Labour's Science Minister in the Lords, has had responsibility for space matters since 1997. He has done well to bring at least some cohesion to policy-making in this area. As an exercise in "joined-up government", the British National Space Centre (BNSC) bears all the hallmarks of the Heath Robinson school of public administration. Formed in 1971 as an ad hoc interdepartmental working arrangement staffed by civil servants from the DTI, Ministry of Defence and Foreign Office, the National Environment Research Council and the Science and Engineering Research Council, it does not have its own budget and has to take its chances with crumbs from those of the contributing organisations. Needless to say, such allocations are no one's highest priority. In the past, it has not enjoyed the confidence of those who have looked at it and is probably not regarded as the best career move for the ambitious civil servant.

Sainsbury and his Tory predecessor Ian Taylor have sought to pull together the threads of a space policy. While it has not received much comment from outside the technical and scientific communities, it is fair to say that there will be more resources, greater decisiveness and a higher profile. The public is intrigued by the prospect of space exploration, and would like UK participation. The industry, in its varying forms, would like to meet that need. Some programmes, such as Galileo, have at long last been promised funding of up to [pounds sterling]86m, a quarter of the cost of the programme to be run by the European Space Agency (ESA).

This global navigation system will involve about 30 satellites in medium Earth orbit assisting traffic control at airports and harbours.

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