The science minister on whether Britain will go it alone after Brexitby Sam Gyimah / June 13, 2018 / Leave a comment
For as long as humanity has looked up to the stars, space has inspired a sense of awe and wonder. The Cold War space race encouraged competition and led to inventions and new technology never previously thought about and even in today’s advanced world, there is a huge amount left to discover.
Humanity’s experiences in space have given us great examples of what can be achieved when we work together across borders, bringing together new ideas, expertise, and investment to achieve common goals.
The International Space Station is a powerful symbol of this co-operation that you can see for yourself when you look up at the stars on a clear night. When Tim Peake became the first British astronaut to visit the station in 2015 he inspired millions of people across the UK and the rest of the world. Astronauts like Peake spend most of their time conducting experiments and making scientific discoveries that benefit us here on Earth— satellite navigation, for example, has become second nature to most of us.
One of the things I’ve been most impressed with since becoming Science Minister is the innovative use of satellite technology, not just to improve everyday life but to help tackle global challenges. From monitoring the impacts of climate change to managing the spread of tropical diseases, Britain is leading the world in using space technology for sustainable development. I had the privilege of announcing one of these new projects during the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting in April, which aims to use satellites and UK innovation to improve disaster response in Kenya.
Countries like France and Japan are developing expertise in the space industry, but right here in the UK we are already world leading. From companies like Surrey Satellites to CGI, the UK hosts some of the greatest space companies on earth. We now build one in four of the world’s commercial telecoms satellites, and there are around 40,000 jobs in the sector, supporting around £250bn of the wider economy. This is incredible and something I am incredibly proud of.
As with every industry, there are opportunities and challenges connected to Brexit. The government has been clear that the UK wants to continue playing a leading role in the EU space programmes, as we look to secure strong future partnerships covering co-operation in science, innovation and security for our mutual benefit. I have been disappointed by the reaction of the European Commission to this, especially
in relation to the Galileo satellite navigation programme, where political dogma seems to be trumping pragmatism. The reality is that if UK companies are no longer able to participate fully in the programme, it will set things back years and cost billions—a bill that will have to be footed by other member states. I’m working very hard to make the case for continued collaboration but am also prepared for a future outside of Galileo. The UK has the capability to deliver our own satellite navigation system, and it is right that a taskforce led by the UK Space Agency is developing these plans alongside our efforts to fight for full participation in Galileo. Irrespective of these discussions, UK scientists and businesses will continue to play a leading role in the European Space Agency, which is independent of the EU.
The government is supporting the UK’s space activity through its modern Industrial Strategy which sets out its vision for a knowledge-led economy, underpinned by world-leading research, first-class facilities and international collaborations that push scientific frontiers and deliver commercial returns. We are driving the biggest increase in public investment in research and development in our history, committing to reach 2.4 per cent of GDP by 2027.
The UK Space Agency is working with industry and academia to ensure continued growth in the UK’s space sector, push the boundaries of our knowledge and ensure that the benefits of space are felt here on Earth. We want to build on the £150m committed in the Industrial Strategy to establish UK spaceports and to set up the UK’s National Satellite Test Facility in Harwell, Oxfordshire. We have a strong history of supporting space projects that have the power to inspire, while also delivering commercial returns. This will serve us well as we look to thrive in the new commercial space age—today’s equivalent of yesterday’s space race.
And there are many reasons to be confident in the continued growth of the sector. I still look up at the stars with a sense of awe and wonder, but also now with a great sense of excitement for what we can achieve in the future.
Read more from Prospect‘s space supplement