A damp squib?

Today's much heralded launch of the UK Space Agency has happened. The launch took place at the QEII Conference Centre; a venue that seems to stop information escaping it. So far there have been a few photos from Brian Cox, some tweets, and an article by Jonathan Amos about a 'Muscular' UK Space Agency. UKSA (uck-sa?) has a logo which does look a little like Dad's Army. It doesn't yet have a website which I'd have expected to go live with this press conference.

Apart from a logo and a name, it's the details of the new space agency that everyone is waiting for. We still haven't heard who will lead it or what the executive structure will be. In terms of finances, apparently Lord Mandelson has said that the UKSA budget will be £230 million but it isn't clear if that replaces or adds to the £268 million spent by BNSC and its partners. This could actually be a £38 million cut in spending depending on how much double accounting is going on in those various figures. Oh and the new agency is apparently going to increase its impact on the UK economy to £40 billion per year compared to the current ~£6 billion.

For me, the launch has been a let down. We were led to believe that UKSA would be a NASA for the UK. The reality is far from it. The graphic in Jonathan Amos's article shows how much less we spend compared to Germany, France and Italy. NASA has a budget of something like $16 billion per year. The US has about 6.4 times the GDP of the UK and 5 times the population but spends 40 times more on NASA (not including relevant NSF grants) than we spend on space.

I want to have an fantastic, inspiring, space agency. I want us to invest in it like we mean it. I want a NASA.

I feel as though we've got a refurbished, second-hand agency that might collapse as soon as it leaves the launchpad and never make it past the General Election. Come on UK. You can do so much better.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 23rd Mar 2010 (13:22 GMT) | Permalink

Space Agency UK

This should be a big thing. It's the start of a new era for the UK. From today (23 March) we'll have our own space agency. I should be more excited.

In 1985 the British National Space Centre was formed. With a staff of something like 30 it acts as an umbrella for various UK Government departments, the Research Councils, and the MET Office to coordinate UK space activity. Space activity includes everything from weather satellites, to navigation, to scientific missions with the European Space Agency. From today though, the way the UK deals with space will change. Or not. I'm not really sure.

Today we get a new executive space agency. The body was first announced back in December by Science Minister Lord Drayson. He announced plans for a new "bureaucracy busting agency" that would provide "strategic decision making". What this means in practice, and if it means a larger budget, is unclear to me. "Bureaucracy busting" could mean genuine efficiency or it could be fancy talk for cuts.

The organisations that make up BNSC spent £268 million on UK space activities last year. This apparently contributes some £5.8 billion to the economy (or £6.5 billion according to another press release). Interestingly, the overall budget has increased by £89 million since 2000/1 with the rise mostly funded by increases from the Natural Environment Research Council (£42 million) and the Science and Technology Research Council (£77 million). The rise in STFC's contribution has presumably not made things easier for the ailing council. The budget of BNSC itself seems to be only around £2.6 million. Given the return for the economy, it would make sense to give the new space agency extra money compared to the sum of BNSC's parts. It would be great if it did but, given the way STFC has been left adrift for the past 2 years, I'm not too optimistic on that front.

A new agency brings many questions. What will the strategy of the new space agency be? Will its focus be on technology, science or business? Who will be providing the direction? I hope the Director is someone inspiring, someone who can bring cohesion, someone who the community can respect. I can think of one person I hope it isn't. There is also the question of whether this agency will survive through to the other side of the upcoming General Election.

Later today, at the official launch, we shall find out answers to some of these questions. Although I'm not amongst the great and the good I was invited to the event. Unfortunately, it's rather expensive to get to (£164 return fare on the train) so I won't be attending. I'd been told I would be able to listen remotely but that option caused confusion within BIS and was going to cost £300 to set up a phone line. With no means of attending I shall just have to wait for information from Jonathan Amos, Paul Crowther, Alex Connor and the rest of the Twitterati.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Tuesday 23rd Mar 2010 (00:12 GMT) | Permalink
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