Written Evidence Submitted by Dr Peter Shaw, Senior Lecturer in Astronautics, Kingston University London
I am writing to you in my capacity as a Senior Lecturer in Astronautics at Kingston University London. I have 15 years’ experience within the UK Space sector having had extensive involvement with the manufacturing and commissioning of four currently orbiting spacecraft. I also have extensive experience with research and development having held positions at;
- The Surrey Space Centre, University of Surrey - Involved with advanced space propulsion research.
- Surrey Satellite Technology Limited – Involved in small satellite manufacturing and testing (specifically Assembly Integration and Testing and propulsion engineering-based activities).
- Kingston University London – Involved with academic teaching and research in Space Technology with a focus on small launch systems and advanced machine learning optimisation.
I am involved with several committees and working groups including the Space Academics Network, the Space Universities Network and the UK Propulsion Working Group. I am a Co-proposer of the Rocketry, Research, Teaching and Training Initiative which has the intention of raising funds to support 100 PhD’s over the next 10 years in Rocketry and Spaceflight research and innovation.
From my reasonable experience of both UK academia and industry in the space technology and satellite sector, I can see there is a growing skills gap between the needs of industry, the capabilities of academia and the intentions of Government. If these are not highlighted there is a real possibility that the actions required to drive growth in the UK Space sector will be missed and I hope my views, opinions and experience can help make positive change to the decision-making process. I would appreciate if you would consider my below response for the UK space strategy and UK satellite infrastructure consultation on the following topic;
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base;
The UK Space Agency has been tasked to help meet the target of 10% goal of the global space market and 100,000 employees within the UK sector by 2030. With less than 9 years to go to hit this target a step change is required to double current employment figures, where current growth is 2.3% and to meet targets it is required to be 8.4%. The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has run several important projects and initiatives, each meeting strategic goals, but the reality is that the growth these are producing is not on par with current government goals and ambitions.
One might presume that a growing Space Industry would automatically mean there is a growing academic base feeding new diverse confident talent with Higher Education qualifications with the right skills into the sector. However, from my perspective this is not the case. Kingston University London has a proud heritage of a large BAME community. In 2019/20 the BAME population was 63% of the total 16570 student population. On the Meng/BEng Aerospace, Astronautics and Space Technology course we currently have around 80 students total and on average 20 graduate each year. Currently of those graduating 10% will seek post graduate education (MSc or PhD) in a Space related topic and a further 10-15% will enter the Space industry. The remaining 75-80% will opt for jobs in the aviation or other sectors. When trying to understand the lack of uptake in students pursuing a Space career, the real issue that needed to be understood was that of personal confidence. When informally interviewing the students, who did not enter the Space sector, the underlying theme that kept appearing, is a lack of self confidence in applying for jobs in the Space sector. Although they had been taught the subject to a level expected from a graduate, a significant proportion did not believe they possessed the skills that the Space industry required. The issues and solutions are explored below.
- Perceived lack of job availability – The Space skills Alliance discussed that the job vacancies advertised by the UK Space sector are not aimed at graduates and do not use diverse language graduates identify with. Many job vacancy notices are aimed at those with mid-term level of career experience, which there is a shortage off. Industry (especially SME’s) wants new highly skilled graduates and postgraduates to thrive but struggles with the resources and risk profile to develop talent themselves. This has led to a sector that unintentionally cannibalises itself by poaching mid-term career staff from other space sector companies then spend the time and resources building up and establishing internal graduate schemes.
- Solution 1: Job Advertisements - Encourage industry to focus on the language they use in job vacancy advertisements, is it inclusive? Is it diverse? Does it encourage graduates to apply for the position?
- Solution 2: Subsidised Graduate Employment Scheme - Establish a national UK Space sector graduate employment scheme, where government funding helps to subsidise the salary of graduates for a defined period. This would remove some of the risk and barriers some companies may have in taking on fresh talent with no industrial experience.
- Lack of practical skill development – Universities are on tight budgets and the average spend for a final year Undergraduate project (the most prominent piece of work that is talked about in future job interviews) is in the region of £50 - £150. For subjects covering Space Technology and engineering, this is woefully small. The quality of projects that can be supported on this budget is poor. Students are not getting practical experience with the right kit, equipment, and facilities to which they would be expected to use in industry.
- Solution 3 – Support Space Projects – Recently UKSEDS trialled an interesting concept of matching Space industry with Undergraduates final year projects. This should be fully supported and possibly taken over by the Space Catapult to run alongside the existing SPIN internship program.
- Solution 4 – Placement Years – As an extension to the SPIN summer Internship program, a parallel program run by the Satellite Catapult should be run that offers 9–12-month work placements in industry. With costs subsidised to incentivise industry uptake.
- Solution 5 - Industry Mentors - As an extension to the SPIN summer Internship program, a parallel program run by the Satellite Catapult should be run that offers industry mentorship to student projects and University courses, where experienced engineers offer 1-2 hours a week to answer questions from University staff and students.
- Solution 6 – Link funding to industry to academic support – Change the current funding policy by either;
- considering a company’s involvement in mentoring, supporting internships, supporting projects or offering placements and having a dedicated ‘score’ in funding proposals to reflect this, or
- make it a requirement that when industry receives funding, that they must make a commitment to supporting one or more of the above-mentioned academic support activities.
- Solution 7 – National Test Campaign Fund – Have a dedicated fund that would subsidise and pay for undergraduate students to test their projects using industrial facilities and equipment i.e. Thermal Vacuum Testing, Vibration testing etc. Giving students real world testing experience is vital in lifting their confidence.
- Solution 8 – Student Competitions and Extracurricular support – Student competitions are fantastic opportunities to push talent and support innovation. There should be financial support for Rocket, Rover, CanSAT and other competitions to run these events and assist in participation. These events can also be merged with a career fair and allow companies to talent scout promising students. Having prizes both aimed at the students participating but also at the supporting institutions the students originate from will help drive the competitions success.
- Difficulties with Funding - In 2019-2020 approximately £17M was spent on academic grants by the UKSA, the largest proportion of spend in the National Programme. In contrast research councils, notably the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC) had, in 2015/16, spent around £415M for research grants and an additional £184M in Studentships (i.e., PhD programs), albeit over a broader range of engineering programs. Due to the funding stream available and offered by the UKSA, EPSRC does not (in the main) fund Space related activities, unless they have an impact on terrestrial engineering. UKSA on the other hand does not (in the main) offer multi-year funding activities, this precludes the ability to directly fund PhD programs and run multi-year innovative projects. The net effect is that high level skills (i.e., PhDs) generation has been stifled leading to a crisis and lack of early career researchers in the Space domain.
- Solution 9 – EPSRC Funding Clarity - EPSRC and the UKSA funding relationship needs to be investigated and resolved, either increasing the funding available to the UKSA or in contrast returning the Space Technology portfolio back to EPSRC and allowing institutions to bid into EPSRC programs following the usual mechanisms.
- Solution 10 – R&D Tax Credits - A new business led method of funding is required to support R&D, to drive innovation without the red tape of government or funding bodies. Especially useful for low Technology Readiness Level (TRL) projects. The UK government runs the R&D Tax credit scheme in which 33p in every £1 can be claimed as a reduction in corporation tax for SME’s. When you dive into the small fine print however if the R&D is subcontracted out (i.e. to a research establishment or University) the amount that can be claimed is drastically reduced. SME’s are usually agile and can be flexible, but not many are actually geared up to do expensive R&D activities. With every £1 being invested into the Space sector yielding a £7-£24 return to the exchequer, there is a real case, to lobby HMRC to get this altered for the Space sector. Removing this penalty for working with subcontractors and seeking better rates in returns, would incentivise SME’s to work with Universities and research institutions, encouraging directly funded Industry-Academia projects, without the direct involvement of third party funding bodies.
- Solution 11 - Space Technology PhD Funding – Either through creation of Doctoral Training Centres or a PhD Space Technology Studentship program, there must be an effective mechanism introduced for funding PhD Space Technology studentships. The complete lack of an established funding route is choking growth in the industry. Currently at Kingston University London in Space Technology we have no funded PhD studentships, 2 self-funded PhDs and a further two self-funded PhDs in mid application. This year I have a further 3 students who would have been willing to do a PhD but cannot afford to self-fund. Graduates have the ability and passion but are being let down by the current state of available funding in the sector!
- Solution 12 – UK Space Technology X Prize – In a similar theme of an X-Prize, innovation could be encouraged by competitions with a significant cash reward. Running competitions based around the X Prize concept could encourage innovation in key strategic areas whilst minimising administrative overheads.
- Quality of tutelage – Academics need to meet the changing demands of industry. Academics in general tend to stick with what they know and as such the skills being taught to students may not reflect the current needs of Industry. Take for example the identified need in programming and software (including Machine Learning/AI) skills required by Industry from aerospace engineering graduates. Skills not usually taught on that associated course. Space Technology is an ever-increasing multi-disciplinary field and traditional Space education does not meet current demands. To be able to adapt, academics (and hence Universities) need to understand the requirements of industry and be given the momentum to change.
- Solution 13 – UK Space Agency becoming an accrediting body – At the heart of the curriculum for most University courses are the Learning outcomes of an accrediting body. Most “Space Technology” courses will fall under the Royal Aeronautical Society, Institute of Mechanical Engineers, Institute of Electrical Engineers, or Institute of Physics. Each body has their own flavour which caters for the style of engineer or scientist they primarily produce. The issue is that rarely do the skills required by the Space Industry fit within the framework of a single accrediting body, leading ultimately to skill deficiencies in Space Technology graduates. There is a need for an institution like the UK Space Agency to take on the role of an accrediting body, so a new ‘curriculum’ and learning outcomes can be supported. This would allow for graduates with software, electronics, and engineering skills to be produced within a single framework.
- Solution 14 – Engagement with academia senior management – Engagement with academia seems to focus on the lowest tier academics, these are the practitioners teaching the subjects or conducting the research. There is not much perceived engagement with the Office of Students, University Vice Chancellors or Faculty leadership teams. If the UK Government is serious about growing talent, then it needs to shift and change perspectives in the UK Universities at the senior management level. To do that effectively there needs to be some sort of hearts and mind campaign targeted at this level. As low tier academics (may have the passion for Space) they do not have the influence to enact change quickly within these organisations.
- Solution 15 – Joint Chairs – A fundamental issue is that many academics have either no industrial experience or outdated industrial experience. Conferences and networking opportunities help academics keep up to date with the news and general direction of the Space Industry, but they do not help academics fundamentally understand the working practices that go on within industry. If academics do not truly understand the industrial workplace, how are they expected to teach the right skills needed for Industry? A scheme is required where academics can either be seconded into industry for a period, or on a more permanent basis split their working role so they work for industry part of the time and for academia the rest of the time.
- Solution 16 – Promotion of Diversity - To promote BAME and gender equality goals, scoring for funding should have an element that is linked to business or academic governance. For example, a funding proposal should be marked higher if the institution has a minimal gender pay gap or is signed to a good ethics charter like the Athena Swan Charter. Linking diversity and equality goals specifically to scores in funding proposals will add much required pressure, to enact positive change within the sector.
I hope the above commentary and potential solutions offer some valuable independent insight into the current issues and possible solutions that could be addressed in a future Space Strategy document. Please do not hesitate to contact me should you require any further information.
 Size and Health of the UK Space Industry 2018 (Report)
 UKSEDS Space Projects
 UK Space Agency Annual Report and Accounts 2019-20
 EPSRC Budget s and Finances
 Research and Development Tax Relief
 Skills demand for early career space jobs – Space Skills Alliance