Written Evidence Submitted by Midlands Innovation
Midlands Innovation is a strategic partnership of eight research-intensive universities in the Midlands. We deliver an economic impact of more than £10 billion to the regional and UK economy and support nearly 100,000 jobs. As well as the collaborative research our partners engage in, all institutions are committed to supporting the communities and businesses where they are based together with the Midlands region as a whole.
Building on the rich history of collaboration, our partners (Aston University, University of Birmingham, Cranfield University, Keele University, University of Leicester, Loughborough University, University of Nottingham and University of Warwick) are uniquely placed and ready to support the efforts to help the region, and indeed the country’s, economic recovery through undertaking cutting-edge research, supporting business innovation and regional productivity.
The research power of our partnership shows significant impact. Our partners register over 158,000 students across all levels of university study and disciplines. In space-related PhD registrations, our partners have nearly 350 students engaged in cutting-edge research.
The Midlands innovation Space Group (MISG) foster research collaboration across the Midlands and beyond. The MISG represents a consortia that is one of the largest collection of space expertise in the world; numbering over 900 research experts in eight universities that span the full capability of the UK in space; in upstream activities (involving the provision of technology, i.e. contract R&D, space component suppliers, and space subsystems), downstream activity (involving the exploitation of technologies, i.e. satellite broadcast services, Earth Observation (EO), financial services and satellite communications), satellite applications and space-enabled businesses. With expertise in space mission design, construction and operation through to data processing, analysis and application, our university partners offer a variety of training courses and host a wide range of complementary facilities that can support research and development in both industry and academia. Our brochure contains in-depth analysis of our space expertise: (https://midlandsinnovation.org.uk/write/MediaUploads/Networks/Space/MI_Space_Group_Expertise_Report_Final.pdf ).
As a university grouping based in the Midlands we see clearly the value of leveraging regional assets for the benefit of the nation. The £100M Space Park Leicester (https://www.space-park.co.uk/) is due to open imminently, acting as a space centre of excellence at the heart of the Midlands. Space Park Leicester offers multiple opportunities for university partners and businesses to access its services and develop joint programmes that integrate advanced manufacturing, AI and downstream data analysis for space and space-enabled sectors.
The University of Nottingham has world-class geospatial cross-disciplinary research and teaching facilities in the UK and China through its Nottingham Geospatial Institute (read the Institute’s expertise specialisms here https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/ngi/ ) which operates alongside the knowledge transfer and business engagement unit GRACE (https://www.nottingham.ac.uk/grace/index.aspx).
The University of Birmingham is leading on the UK Quantum Technology Hub Sensors and Timing (https://www.quantumsensors.org/). As one of four Hubs within the UK National Quantum Technologies Programme, the Hub is developing innovative, ground-breaking technology to develop sensors able to map tiny changes in the strength of gravity across the Earth’s surface. The University of Birmingham was also one of seven successful applicants funded by the UK Space Agency (UKSA) to support the development of a local space cluster in the West Midlands: https://www.birmingham.ac.uk/schools/business/research/research-projects/city-redi/local-space-cluster-development-support-programme.aspx.
The scope of space and space-related activity across the Midlands is considerable. With the strong Midlands advanced manufacturing base and expertise in modern manufacturing capabilities, this is particularly relevant to the UK Government’s ‘place’ and ‘levelling’ up agendas as well as the aspirations to drive-up R&D investment to 2.4% of GDP and for the UK to become a ‘science Superpower’.
The Midlands region is well placed to grow the UK’s research, enterprise and teaching activity in space and support economic regeneration, locally, regionally and nationally to become a significant part of the space economy. Examples of other research organisations that are showing an increased interest and relevance to the space sector include the High Value Manufacturing Catapult, and the Manufacturing Technology Centre (MTC).
I enlarge on these views in the topic responses below.
Topic 1. What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships?
The UK is already strongly positioned as a global space nation; in space applications, space operations, space manufacturing and space science. The Space Sector COVID Support Plan is welcomed as a mechanism for setting out how the UK Government will help to increase space exports and inward investment to aid the sector’s economic recovery
Partnerships between industry and academia have existed for many years, for example Cranfield University’s long-standing relationship with Airbus on space systems applications research. In the international space sector, those relationships will become increasingly important as growth opportunities increase and expansion ambitions are developed across multiple industries. Growth opportunities include sensor technologies (i.e. the use of bio-sensors in extreme environments and for life detection) and precision engineering (i.e. the manufacture of ultra-precise surfaces for satellites with high quality mirrors and telescopes).
With a UK space industry that contributes significant income to the UK economy (£16.4 billion in 2018-19), the forthcoming UK Government’s Space Strategy will be welcomed as an indicator of focus and positioning for all space-related organisations. As an important industry that supports direct employment of 45,000 jobs and supporting a total of over 126,000 jobs across the supply-chain, the prospects for further growth and development are viable but with investment needed to support space organisations (non-commercial and commercial) across all the UK regions. This is a challenge for the Midlands region as research shows that the region has historically been under-invested in in terms of public R&D investment levels.
For the UK Government to meet its objective of 10% of the global space economy by 2030, the UK budget would need to increase to meet those of other space nations, such as France, Germany and Italy, where they already have a coherent and well-embedded national space strategy. For comparative purposes France, Germany and Italy collectively contribute 58% of the European Space Agency (ESA) budget at a value of 2,625M€; the UK contributes 9.2% at a value of 419M€. As of 2018-19, the UK income share of the global space economy is 5.1%. In employment terms, the ambition to create 100,000 jobs by 2030 is challenging considering the current position of 45,000 employees and nationally we do not train enough engineers to fulfil the high-skilled jobs that need to be created to support national space ambitions (see answer to next question for further information).
For the UK as a whole, income by region is concentrated in London, the South East and the East of England. With a combined value of £14.7 billion, these three regions hold 90% of total UK space industry income. That is why, if the Government wants to address the Prime Minister’s point that talent is evenly spread across the UK, but opportunity is not, it is imperative that the country’s space ambitions are distributed across the country, including in the Midlands, which already is home to the space industry and array of space academic expertise.
For the Midlands region (East and West), there are currently nearly 2,500 employees, 6% of the UK space industry workforce, that generate income of nearly £0.9 billion (5% of total income). There are considerable opportunities for growth across the Midlands region in space-related industries to leverage and diversify the already existing expertise and facilities and develop new international partnerships.
Topic 2. What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base?
The strong research base in UK universities offers the opportunity for innovative engagement across the whole space-related landscape. The report by the Space Academic Network (SPAN) identified 53 universities with active space science research functions and highlighting the highly interdisciplinary nature of space science research. Working in partnership with industry and SMEs, MI universities are able to engage directly with the issues that are challenging the UK space sector now.
Positioned to support the training of high-calibre engineers, business leaders and technicians needed to work in the space sector, there is the challenge of training the exceptionally highly-skilled workforce that will take the industry forward. With 3 in 4 (77%) of space employees holding at least a primary degree, the average qualification level of space industry employees is higher than any sector covered by ONS Census data. MI universities are already supporting over 300 research students in space-related disciplines but recognise that more capacity and resources are needed to meet the short-fall in skills.
The UK has a leading position in Earth Observation (EO), with particular regard to ground based applications. The research undertaken by our partners directly aid and inform policy (e.g. agriculture, forestry etc), conservation, the provision of data for key environmental policies (e.g. biodiversity, water etc), through the definition and monitoring of conservation areas, defence (i.e. basic geospatial data sets for planning and logistics, from determining trafficability to visualisataions of terrain), and disaster response (e.g. flood mapping and monitoring). High demand is expected for environmental monitoring, geospatial research, remote sensing and data analysis from satellite feeds to inform and provide evidence of the climate change impacts that support the UK Government’s Net Zero statements. Consequentially, increased investment in these technologies is needed to keep the UK in a leading position.
A challenge for the research and innovation base is the current funding structure that is short term in focus and fragmented across UKRI and UKSA. Developing a secure funding stream that is resilient and meets the needs of the UK Space Strategy would allow for the research and innovation community to improve scale-up and match the aspirations of the UK becoming a ‘Science Superpower’.
The Director General of ESA recently commented that with the predicted high growth in the value of the space economy, he sees the UK as leading this commercial opportunity. For this to be realised, a strong academic space community is required, the country needs to financially support additional capacity in STEM degrees, and the space industry need to be incentivised to locate across the country, not just into London and the South-East.
Topic 3. What lessons can be learned from the successes and failures of previous space strategies for the UK and the space strategies of other countries?
Topic 4. What should be the aims and focus of a new UK Space Strategy?
This should be focused on delivering a National Space Programme that makes provision for transforming science, technology and skills development and complements the ESA programme. Expanding diversity of the workforce should be an integral element considering at present only 36.5% of space industry employees are female. Developing a strategy that encourages more females to engage with space-related university and skills training would be beneficial for the sector as a whole.
A UK Space Strategy that enables the UK to thrive with national and international partners should also focus on leveraging the existing technology, infrastructures and manufacturing expertise across the science and space community – something the Midlands region has a strong presence in. Investing in a core programme that builds on the growing base of small satellites and leads the world on technologies that track, find and potentially encourage reuse of materials, would be core to commercial and defence requirements.
An embedded element of the strategy should be alignment to the UK Government’s levelling-up agenda. As noted earlier, there is a disparity across the UK regions in terms of public spend on R&D with the Midlands requiring an additional £1.4bn p.a. to level up with the South East. The Midlands Engine Independent Economic Review has identified low levels of R&D investment as one of the causes of the Midlands productivity gap. Investment in space-related R&D in the region would offer a potential to contribute to the levelling up of R&D investment, whilst supporting growth in the Midlands space sector.
Including a focus that encourages a national spread of facilities (that offer incubation and development of ideas) that are funded across the UK, will allow for capacity building and resilience across the space sector and again support levelling-up. By opening regional facilities we can encourage start-ups, SMEs, research organisations and larger industries to fertilise ideas collaboratively and at pace, stimulating clustering of the space sector.
A further aim of the Space Strategy should be alignment to the UK Government’s climate change, net zero ambition. We need to use our research expertise in EO, Artificial Intelligence (AI) and data analysis to drive and transform the way we respond to the challenges we face, for example monitoring sea surface temperatures, erosion and landslides, air quality and pollution, deforestation and land use and change.
Topic 5. What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications?