Written Evidence Submitted by the University of Leicester
- This response is submitted by the University of Leicester, prepared by the principal schools and centres engaged in space research. The University has a 61-year track record of space research, encompassing space astronomy, space plasma physics, planetary exploration, Earth observation and space engineering, coupled to innovative teaching, business engagement, outreach and application of technology and techniques to other fields e.g., medicine. It hosts the NERC National Centre for Earth Observation (NCEO) and was the creator and founding partner of the National Space Centre education facility and visitor attraction.
- The University has conceived and developed the £100M Space Park Leicester (SPL) project, designed to grow its research and contribute to growth of the UK space and local economy. Located in the Leicester Waterside Enterprise Zone, SPL is nearly complete and will open in two stages in July and November 2021. It has been supported by £25M capital from the University, £35M capital from external funders (including Research England, Leicester and Leicestershire LEP, NERC, Wolfson) with in-kind support from a range of industrial collaborators and partners.
- The aim of SPL is to transform the relationships between business and academia by co-locating them in shared facilities enabling seamless day-to-day interactions and joint activities. NCEO will relocate to SPL, which will also host an ESA Business Incubation Centre and part of the Space Catapult’s Commercialisation Engine. We also lead the Space Research and Innovation Network for Technology (SPRINT), supported by £7M from the Research England Connecting Capabilities Fund, to grow and sustain space SMEs by providing access to HEI IP, expertise and facilities.
- SPL has a strong skills agenda to address the needs of the space economy. This is linked to the National Space Centre (NSC) and includes space-related STEM education in schools, Further Education (FE) and Higher Education (HE) and Continuous Professional Development (CPD) for those working in the industry or who wish to move from another sector. Leicester is leading a consortium bidding for a digital and engineering skills Institute of Technology that will include training for Space industry apprenticeships at level 4 and 6.
- Compared to many other countries, the UK is unique in that much of the fundamental work (both research and applications) takes place in academic research groups, within higher education institutions. This includes research and technology developments in partnership with industry. The largest academic groups include Leicester, UCL’s Mullard Space Science Laboratory, each of which have over 60-years of experience in space-based instrumentation and science, and the Open University. There are smaller groups in several other institutions.
- Alongside the academic groups are organisations such as RAL Space (based on the Harwell Campus) and the Astronomy Technology Centre (ATC) in Edinburgh. Academic groups with a more space-engineering focus also exist - Surrey Space Centre, University of Strathclyde, and Cranfield University.
- UK groups support the gamut of space activity (including impact) from instrument design, development, build, test and flight to science and data exploitation as well as engineering developments in the fields of Astronomy, Planetary Science, Earth Observation, Applications (Communication, Position Navigation and Timing (PNT) etc.) and Space Security (Space Situational Awareness, Space Debris, and Weather).
- There are a number of regional University groupings emerging to support economic growth. Leicester is a part of Midlands Innovation. There is significant critical mass in space research expertise across these partners which has coalesced into the Midlands Innovation Space Group. Such regional collaborations can be important engines to deliver the Government “Levelling-Up” agenda if supported appropriately.
- Increasingly what was thought of as non-space academic groups, and research organisations are becoming involved for example in applications of advanced engineering, and other techniques to Space, examples include High Value Manufacturing Catapult, TWI.
What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships?
- The UK is already world-leading in space science, space technologies and downstream applications. Strong partnerships between industry and academia already exist, but need to be maintained and grown to cement this position. The realisation of the importance of space to the UK economy and for security has led to welcome, strong UK Government support for space activity in the UK.
- Growth of the space budget is required to compete with the investment that peer space-nations (e.g., France, Germany, Italy) make in their space programmes and for the UK to fully reap the economic and research aspects of Space and meet its objective of 10% of the global Space economy by 2030. UK market share fraction has stalled in global percentage terms in the last 2 years.
- The UK benefits substantially from membership of the European Space Agency (ESA), allowing participation in world-leading science and great opportunity for applications. The UK could not carry out such research and development and these large missions on its own. Stronger positioning of the UK within the ESA’s optional programmes, would give the UK a more strategically advantageous position. Examples include the exploration envelope programme, Earth observation and telecommunications.
- There are important opportunities for the UK to support some of its space science programme through the European Union Horizon Europe programme. The Government’s intent to participate in this programme is welcome, but there is concern that access might be restricted to some aspects of space activities. It is important that the UK should have full access.
- Nevertheless, there is a need for a parallel National Space Programme to place the UK at a strategic advantage in key technology areas and develop the UK’s own missions, instruments and payloads. These technologies are enablers for the UK to maintain and grow its position as a science leader. This will enable growth by itself but will also aid participation in ESA and allow the UK to gain leading roles in the ESA science and applications programme and for UK industry to gain development contracts from the ESA programme. This is particularly important for small companies that are often “frozen-out” of the system.
- In the past, UK science and technology has benefited from being able to work outside ESA in partnership with individual or small groups of nations building upon the UK’s own novel and innovative technologies. Unfortunately, there has been insufficient and sustained funding to take advantage of such opportunities in recent years. It is essential that there is enough funding capacity to allow bi- and multi-lateral project opportunities for the UK to be a World Science Superpower and develop key political links with other countries.
- Therefore, the UK needs a balanced programme, which combines UK-only, bi-/multi-lateral and ESA projects in its portfolio. This should include activities with international agencies beyond ESA/Europe when suitable opportunities arise. Funding should be sized to have a meaningful impact.
- An important element of international positioning has been the UK Space Agency’s International Partnership Programme, establishing important international links to partnerships in Space and facilitating access to new international markets for UK space industry. Global opportunities for the UK space sector to participate in academic/industrial collaborative project opportunities to take advantage of new emerging markets requires a continuation of this programme.
- For the UK to continue as a leading space nation, it needs to grow activity to maintain and improve its relative position. We have some advantages, with a world-leading academic and industry community, the prospect of space launch from the UK in the near future and the development of vibrant space clusters distributed across the UK, including the Harwell Campus and Space Park Leicester.
- However, worldwide, the space economy is enormously competitive and without substantial, timely and sustained intervention, opportunities will be lost and the planned growth will stall and may even decrease in global percentage terms.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base?
- A strength of the UK space sector is its innovative capacity and its strong research base in universities. A further strength is the high level of linkages between industry and universities, as well as the strength of the industrial sector as a whole.
- A fundamental weakness of the UK space sector is its funding portfolio, which is often inconsistent, too little and not joined up very well. The UK has the opportunity to be a more effective ESA member state and grow its position within ESA, leveraging the shared cost and risk that ESA membership provides. Growth of the ESA contribution in key areas particularly in optional programmes will give the UK the opportunity to more clearly shape ESA policy. This approach is commonly adopted by other ESA member states.
- A national space programme must move away from the following: no/limited funding for research outside the ESA programme; intermittent and subcritical support for technology development; bid and funding timescales that are too short to achieve significant results.
- Late arrival of Government budgets, as much as 6 months into the financial year in recent years, and the limited funding period available (one year or less typically) is completely incompatible with the needs of multi-year space programmes, damaging projects, collaborations and investments already made. It is a disincentive for early career workers in Space. The recent removal of ODA funding has impacted both industrial and academic space related projects as well as UK involvement with certain ESA projects.
- UK space activities need a funding strategy that is consistent and committed over a long period of time, not altered at short notice. A clear plan for funding on 5-15-year timescales is required to allow the sector to invest, develop the relevant technologies and grow the market. Funding strategy needs to be linked (where possible and relevant) to the 3-year cycle of ESA Ministerial subscription planning.
What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries?
- Past strategy has at best been piecemeal, lacked focus and attempted to deliver multiple objectives with insufficient resources to enable real UK leadership. Strategy development cycles are too frequent and have lacked ambition. Strategy needs to be matched by coherent, timely and joined up planning coupled, to appropriate budgetary support.
- The UK has tried to deliver programmes with insufficient resources. Future UK strategy needs to be mission (i.e., objective) focused and outcome driven. The strategy should place more missions in space, deliver technology to enable that and exploit the results.
What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy?
- A National Space Programme that supports science, technology and skills development will enable the UK to work with national partners and support and feed into the ESA programme. This should use the combined efforts and expertise of industry and academia.
- This programme should be structured around a mission (objective)-driven strategy to put UK technology into space and allow the UK to compete for leading roles in future satellites; including greater opportunities for university-led experimental hardware to be deployed in space.
- Technical capability in the agency will need to be enhanced or, alternatively, the agency needs to be supported by a space advisory committee or group that is linked into the National Space Council and UK Space Command.
- There is a need to provide more flight opportunities to get experience of space missions, their management and operations, and to drive required growth in technical capability.
- Space strategy development activity should utilise the opportunity to clearly define ambitious missions (objective)-led projects for the UK with long-term commitment that transcends current spending review cycles.
- There is a lack of resource for low TRL, next generation development. Technology funding sits in a gap. EPSRC do not see space as within their remit unless it is related to fundamental engineering challenges, STFC does not have the funding capacity and UKSA has intermittent and limited funding in its National Space Technology Programme (NSTP). This limits capability to develop unique selling points (USPs) for the future.
- Additional funding for NSTP and from UKRI plus growth in contributions to both mandatory and optional ESA technology programmes (e.g., Science Core Technology Programme; Technology Development Element; ESA General Support Technology Programme; ESA E3P Exploration Programme and SciSpacE) would deliver sustained, meaningful, resilient, multifaceted and leading capability. Proposals for Technology Hubs, supported as a concept by academia and industry, with dedicated funding could be part of the solution.
- The strategy needs to engage with the Levelling-Up agenda, with a spread of facilities incubated, developed and funded across the UK, to build resilience and capacity. These need to be open access to enable small companies and new starters to access the market, encourage and promote growth.
- Development of downstream applications of Earth observations benefits strongly from academic strengths in physical and mathematical investigations of EO data, and highly skilled, agile practitioners in industry with project and business skills. Making full use of AI and machine learning is key to exploring the growing deluge of EO data. Leadership in scientific and commercial worlds will also depend very much on UK data infrastructures and incentives for digital techniques co-developed between industry and researchers.
- High quality data products, through trusted and tested scientific algorithms, are required for climate change mitigations including progress towards net zero. Long-term operational data production needs government support as well as dedicated resource. Development of low-cost access to space, focused on manufacturing as well as launch capability should be also included as a focal point to ensure growth.
What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications?
- A strong, continued and growing commitment to the European Space Agency.
- UK space success is derived from its long integration and cooperation with ESA. The economy disproportionately benefits from its contribution to ESA and enjoys significant ‘geo-return’ benefits within ESA’s funding and work allocation frameworks. For every £1 invested in ESA, up to £10 is returned to the UK economy. At present the UK remains the 4th largest state contributor to ESA, behind France, Germany, and Italy.
- In a welcome move in 2019, Government increased Britain’s ESA contribution, demonstrating a serious commitment to cooperation as ESA embarked on the projects agreed in the 2019 Ministerial Council. Within ESA the principle of fair returns on investments applies, the benefits of which the UK space sector demonstrates. Outside ESA there is no guarantee of similar economic and technological returns.
- Beyond the economic calculations, Britain’s significant and reliable participation in ESA allows the national space sector to maintain high levels of ambition in space research and technology development projects as it can rely on European partners to cooperate and ‘plug in’ expertise from elsewhere, leading to joint space programmes and investments that are far beyond the sum of their parts.
- The UK only stands to improve on its already successful performance at ESA if it were to continue with its strong and constructive involvement within ESA, especially with increased investments. By cooperating with others, ESA can also facilitate the growth of expertise within the British space sector in areas it currently may be lacking such capability. This can provide more opportunities for potential UK or bi-lateral space projects in future, in addition to continued ESA participation.
- Without such cooperation, the UK space sector will find it harder to ‘leapfrog’ in technology areas in which it does not have particular strengths. Ambitious space projects would become more costly and time-consuming. Significant UK participation in ESA ensures a seat at the table among the top ranks of the space powers in pushing the envelope in space technology innovation.
- This influence would only increase with additional UK activity through ESA. A desire for increased activity and investment in UK space should not be seen as a zero-sum discussion between ‘British’ versus ‘ESA’ programme funding. Decision-makers must sustain and increase investment in both areas given their complementary nature.
- A competitive national programme focused on ambitious technologies and missions for the UK.
- A recognition and commitment to working with European partners and programmes such as Copernicus in parallel with growing relationships overseas.
- Improved support for young researchers to stay in or enter the industry. The temptation is increasingly for skilled people, e.g., in Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, to move to other industries for increased pay.
- Support for business development activities such as SPRINT, facilitating transfer of academic research into the industry-led space economy.
- Space industry needs a strategy for the move towards net zero, including the environmental impact of everyday operations, the infrastructure constructed, the materials and processes used, the data processed and the travel that incurred in developing solutions. This is a required contribution to the UK target of 78% reduction on 1990 levels by 2035. This can be encouraged with appropriate funding mechanisms and research.
- UK space industry has started to develop a more distributed model, with more opportunities in the regions. However, growth requires further support for localised hotspots around the country, tapping into local expertise and knowledge and growing regional economies. This is particularly important in a post-pandemic world, where office location may be less of a concern that previously, and where remote working is an increasingly realistic choice.
- Long-term commitment to the National Centre for Earth Observation, funded by NERC.
Submission by (in alphabetical order)
Prof Richard Ambrosi – School of Physics & Astronomy/Space Park Leicester
Prof Martin Barstow – School of Physics & Astronomy/Space Park Leicester
Prof Heiko Balzter – Director Centre for Landscape and Climate Change Research
Dr Bleddyn Bowen – School of History, Politics, and International Relations
Prof Paul O’Brien – Head of Astrophysics, School of Physics & Astronomy
Prof John Remedios – School of Physics & Astronomy/Director, National Centre for Earth Observation
Prof Mark Sims – Director, Space Research Centre/Space Park Leicester