Written Evidence Submitted by Dr Thomas Cheney
Personal Intro: I am a Lecturer in Space Governance within the AstrobiologyOU research group at the Open University. We work to understand how, and where, life might be found and to address the scientific, legal and ethical challenges faced by astrobiology. My research focuses on space governance, with specific focuses on planetary protection, space environmentalism and resources. I have a strong, and long standing, interest in the UK’s space strategy, particularly as a legal scholar working in a science faculty.
The 2010 Space Innovation and Growth Strategy produced as a result of a joint government, industry, and academic initiative, set an ambitious goal for the UK space sector (which the government embraced) to capture 10% of the global space market by 2030. The 2021 Integrated Review boldly declares that the UK aims to be a “Science and Technology Superpower” by 2030 defining that as remaining at least third in the world in relevant performance measures for scientific research and innovation as well as ensuring the UK has a dynamic space programme. The 2021 Integrated Review also elevates science and technology to the highest importance as a component of national security.
Ambition is good, and I share the government’s enthusiasm for space, science, and technology. However, unsupported ambition is merely rhetoric. The ambition laid out in the Integrated Review was quickly followed by cuts to the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme. Additionally, UK space ambitions, are perhaps too broad or at least unfocused, and decisions are seemingly taken haphazardly as evidenced by the OneWeb purchase.
UK space policy needs focusing. The UK government has laid out a clear ambition. However, as with Artificial Intelligence, the UK cannot compete with the likes of the US or China at least in terms of raw investment. Therefore UK space policy needs to be focused. The UK government should identify areas of existing strength and develop those. The UK is a leader in space sciences, as well as communications and earth observation. These should get focus and attention particularly now that the UK has exited the European Union.
A focus on ‘sovereign’ launch capability has defined government focus for the past decade; it is worth reconsidering the continued focus on this capability. The UK Space Industry Act of 2018 and its associated secondary legislation has provided an excellent foundation for a UK launch sector. However, the UK was beat to market by New Zealand and given the UK’s location the market for launches from the UK is only ever going to be limited. Further, there is a strong case for a broader update of UK regulations to cover emerging development such as ‘on orbit servicing’ and ‘active debris removal’. Despite the name, ‘Space Industry Act’ (and its length), the 2018 legislation is quite narrowly focused on launch.
That said, the UK does need to take care about what it focuses on. There may be calls for the UK to follow the lead of the US, Luxembourg, the UAE, and Japan and pursue a space resources industry. However, this would be a mistake. At least for the foreseeable future the market for space resources will be limited and the sector is already potentially over saturated. Further, international norms still need considerable development regarding space resource activities. It is not in the UK’s interest to expend the time, money, or effort needed to develop these. The UK is better served focusing on its existing strengths. Space resources may be ‘cool’ but that does not necessarily make a good basis for a policy. In the event that a viable UK based space resources company emerges then it may be worthwhile considering developing relevant legislation (indeed under Article VI of the Outer Space Treaty 1967 the UK would potentially have an obligation to do so, barring an outright prohibition of such activity by UK nationals and corporations) but it is unlikely to be worth pursuing on a speculative basis.
The cuts to the UK Space Agency’s IPP programme should be reversed, especially for projects that had already started such as the DETECT project. In addition, the negative practical and reputational damages done in the countries these projects were operating they have impacted companies and researchers working in the space sector in the UK.
Within the defence sphere, similarly, government space policy seems somewhat directionless. The decision to pursue a ‘sovereign’ GNSS especially through the purchase of OneWeb was quite frankly misguided. More spending on space defence is not unwelcome but it should be in line with strategic objectives. For example, a gap in UK space capabilities is ‘sovereign’ ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance) capability. The UK benefits enormously from the ‘Five Eyes’ connections however the limitation of that is an limit on what can be shared with non ‘Five Eyes’ countries such as France. The money spent on OneWeb would have been better invested in a ‘sovereign’ ISR capability, which would facilitate better cooperation with non-’five eyes’ partners as well as boosting the UK’s contribution to five eyes. It would also have the added bonus of generating work for British satellite manufacturers.
Finally, the space sector cannot be seen in isolation. As the 2010 Growth Strategy stated UK ambitions in science and technology will require an expansion of the workforce. This requires increased support for students and universities. It also requires increased support for those who may wish to change careers, which will require more training. Part time and mature students need more support. It also necessitates retaining the talent that we already have, and this in part involves increasing the retention of women working in STEM fields. Issues of childcare, parental leave, flexible working, sexual harassment and discrimination need to be addressed in the space sector as well as society at large.
If the UK government is serious about the UK being a ‘science superpower’, and a ‘meaningful actor’ in space then that is great. However, as highlighted, there are a broad range of actions the UK government needs to take in order to demonstrate that this ambition is more than simply rhetoric. The UK certainly has the capacity to be a world leader in space. Indeed, the UK has many world leading academics, universities, companies and talented people working in the space sector; the government needs to enhance, support, and develop them.
A Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2010-2030 (Space IGS, 2010), 34
Global Britain in a Competitive Age: The Integrated Review of Security, Defence, Development and Foreign Policy, March 2021 (CP 403), 7
Jonathan Amos 'Space Projects Scrubbed in UK Overseas Aid Cut' 17 March 2021 BBC News. Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-56431346
Alex Hern ‘'We've Bought the Wrong Satellites': UK Tech Gamble Baffles Experts’ 26 June 2020 The Guardian Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/science/2020/jun/26/satellite-experts-oneweb-investment-uk-galileo-brexit
House of Lords Select Committee on Artificial Intelligence AI in the UK: Ready, Willing and Able? April 2018 (HL Paper 100), para 132
New Zealand Space Launch is First from a Private Site’ 15 May 2017 BBC News Available at: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-asia-39971843
Alice Pannier Rivals in Arms: The Rise of UK-France Defence Relations in the Twenty-First Century (McGill-Queen’s University Press 2020), 91