Written Evidence Submitted by AstrobiologyOU, Open University
Who we are:
AstrobiologyOU is a multidisciplinary research group that is working collaboratively to address the scientific, governance and ethical challenges associated with the advancement of astrobiology and related space exploration missions; whilst ensuring societal benefits and sustainability through commercial applications.
The group is based at the Open University in Milton Keynes, UK and was awarded £6.7 million in 2019 by Research England as part of their Expanding Excellence in England (E3) programme. The group consists of over 50 members (including students, support staff and academics) and works across traditional disciplinary boundaries and brings together scientists, social scientists and educators, to build capacity not only in science, but also in areas of space governance and application of techniques to international development.
Members of the group are involved in key astrobiology-related missions and in developing international planetary protection regulations, and their research impact is maximised through commercial applications.
For the last ten years the UK government has articulated a goal for the UK space sector 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. This ambition is welcome; as scientists, scholars, and educators embedded and engaged with the UK space sector, throughout the four nations, we share that ambition. However, there needs to be increased funding and government support to match stated ambitions. A national programme requires a financial commitment and government support to match national ambition.
Therefore, UK space policy should play to the strengths of the UK space sector: communications, Earth Observation, satellite manufacture, scientific research and others. For example, the UK space research sector can be a trailblazer in conducting research ethically in analogue environments. Many of these ‘extreme’ environments have been lived in by indigenous peoples for generations. Conducting research in such environments needs to be guided by ethical research frameworks. Research in these analogue environments can also benefit from indigenous peoples’ knowledge systems that are based on lived experiences of these unique landscapes on Earth. AstrobiologyOU is a leader in this, and there are many other examples of world-leading research at UK universities. UK space policy, if it aims to assist in the stated ambition of making the UK a ‘science superpower’ needs to support these efforts.
However, UK space policy does not exist in isolation and needs to be viewed and pursued in the context of the UK’s membership of the European Space Agency and the wider European and global space community. The European Space Agency is planning on undertaking a Mars sample return mission (building on the recent landing of the Perseverance rover by NASA) and UK space policy should position the UK to maximize the value of these relationships. Further, there needs to be planning to ensure a distinct UK role in the Artemis programme. The UK was one of the early partners in the US initiative and while the UK’s participation in ESA will be a significant driver of UK participation in the Artemis programmes this also presents an opportunity to carve out a niche for UK expertise.
Domestically, the UK Space Industry Act of 2018 and its associated secondary legislation has provided an excellent foundation for a UK launch sector. However, 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’ beyond this foundation. AstrobiologyOU is involved in the Oxford-Cambridge Arc Space Working Group. Building a Space Gateway for the whole of the UK from the Arc has been identified as a key project in the recently launched Arc Economic Prospectus. This will provide a broader foundation for UK ambitions and launch sector.
Further support should include increased funding for students to ensure the skills base for the future UK workforce. This means not only increased funding for STEM study due to inflationary increases but a broader appreciation of what skills and expertise is needed by the UK space sector. Social sciences and humanities experts have much to offer, as AstrobiologyOU is demonstrating, and a broader, more holistic approach would truly cement the UK as a world leader. This should cover undergraduate, postgraduate and apprenticeship study. Further, part time, distance, and mature students need increased support; enabling people to change careers and/or develop existing skills will be vital to the development of the UK space sector’s workforce. The space sector has, and will continue to need, a diverse collection of people and skills. This broader approach, recognizing the value of social scientists and humanities backgrounds, would ensure that. It would also help expand the diversity of the UK space sector workforce, which as indicated by the recent report of the Space Skills Alliance, still needs improvement despite recent progress.
Funding should be found for the UK Space Agency International Partnership Programme. The cuts undermined funded projects’ efforts to create space-enabled solutions for global societal, economic and health challenges, malaria being one of them.  On top of the unrealised potential of new technological tools to support the Sustainable Development Goals, the cuts had a detrimental effect on the projects’ attempts to create and strengthen international networks for cooperation on global issues. Given that the sought partnerships included governmental agencies, commercial actors, community organizations and NGOs in ODA countries, the long-term effects of cutting the funds and interrupting these strategic relationships cannot be fully quantified.
In the realm of international law and policy, the UK could build on its leading role in the development of international norms by developing its own planetary protection policy to demonstrate an all-encompassing commitment to protecting the space environment and science leadership. The UK can also provide leadership in Space Traffic Management and Space Situational Awareness. This would be advantageous for the UK itself, but it would also be a ‘value added’ component of our international partnerships.
Overall, the most pressing need is for an overarching, whole-of-government space policy and strategy. The sector needs more support to achieve the stated objectives, but a scattered approach will squander resources and talent. Too often decisions seem to be made for the wrong reasons, even if the decisions themselves are not necessarily wrong if viewed in isolation (OneWeb may be a prime example). With limited resources UK government efforts need to be targeted and focused with an emphasis on developing specific capabilities and fulfilling objectives. This will have spillover effects into other industries and sectors as well as bolster the UK position globally.
Greater UK ambition in space and science is welcome news. However, there needs to be meaningful follow-through in order to ensure that this ambition becomes reality.
A Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2010-2030 (Space IGS, 2010), 34
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