PARIS — The British government, in a stunning decision for an administration that is slashing spending left and right, and views Europe with a skeptical eye, on Nov. 9 committed itself to increasing its investment in the 20-nation European Space Agency () by 25 percent starting in 2013 and extending through 2017.
The announcement by the U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, whose office controls the governments’ purse strings, exceeded even the most optimistic of forecasts of how Britain would approach a new round of program decisions at ESA.
In a speech at the Royal Society in London, Osborne said Britain’s contributions to ESA would increase to 240 million British pounds ($383 million) per year for five years. Where the spending is made, he said, will depend on negotiations with other ESA governments during a meeting of ESA government ministers Nov. 20-21 in Naples, Italy.
Britain’s contribution to ESA in 2012 is about 240 million euros ($306 million) and puts Britain in fourth place behind France, Germany and Italy, and ahead of Spain and Belgium. At current exchange rates, 240 million pounds is about 301 million euros, meaning Osborne is committing to a 25 percent increase.
Osborne said his office has been persuaded by arguments made by David Willetts, Britain’s minister for universities and science, that investing in space technologies is a way to stimulate economic growth and boost international competitiveness.
Other ministers in other governments in Europe and elsewhere might wish to learn exactly what formula Willetts used to coax such a large spending increase from a government that is pleading empty pockets in so many other areas.
Osborne also said that ESA will be moving its telecommunications directorate, now located at ESA’s Estec technology center in Noordwijk, Netherlands, to Britain’s ESA facility in Harwell. He said more than 100 new jobs would be created at the Harwell site.
U.K. Space Agency Chief Executive David Williams said in a Nov. 9 interview that Willetts, who will lead Britain’s delegation to the ESA conference in Naples, has been able to hammer home the idea that investment in selected space technologies catalyzes economic growth that is many times the value of the original investment.
Williams insisted there was no sleight of hand in the government announcement.
“Minister Willetts and I have been given this amount to spend, but of course it will not be distributed across the ESA program,” Williams said. “We will be focusing on some of the more commercial technologies that ESA proposes. But the sum of money is solid, and if we do not obtain the placement we want in one ESA program, we could have more to spend in another program.”
The only other government to commit to spending more at ESA in the coming years than in the recent past is Germany, and German officials have said they are likely to arrive in Naples with no more than a 1 to 2 percent increase over the previous conference, held in 2008.
Germany and France each contribute more than 750 million euros per year to ESA, when France’s role as home to Europe’s Guiana Space Center spaceport is taken into account. Italy’s contribution in 2012 is 350 million euros.
The British announcement gives an immediate lift to ESA, which has been fighting headwinds as it attempts to win approval of a suite of new programs in telecommunications, Earth observation, meteorology, exploration and launch vehicles.
ESA Director General Jean-Jacques Dordain, in a Nov. 9 statement following Osborne’s speech, said:
“With this substantial increase in investment, the U.K. is helping to promote competition in, and encourage the growth of, the European space sector by developing space capacities in the U.K. In addition to the increased use of U.K. industry, our commitment to growing ESA’s facility here in Harwell confirms that the U.K. Space Agency is taking up more of a leadership role in key parts of the space sector.”
Britain has long maintained a capacity to build telecommunications satellite payloads as part of its large Astrium Satellites facilities. In addition, the Astrium-owned Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd. has made a successful business out of building small satellites.
The British delegation to Naples will, among other things, push for adoption of an ESA proposal to invest in a new generation of telecommunications satellite platforms.
ESA’s tentative spending plan, which will be presented to the Naples conference, includes few program budget increases except in telecommunications. The British announcement renders that decision more credible, although it will still depend on other nations taking part in whatever telecommunications satellite developments are approved.
Osborne said the British space sector currently generates 9 billion pounds in annual revenue for the British economy and has been growing at 8 percent per year recently despite the sluggishness of much of Britain’s economy. The government’s goal, he said, is to triple the figure, to 30 billion pounds, by 2030.
“We are now at a watershed, where space is transitioning from a celebration of science endeavors into a capability that impacts on our everyday lives,” Osborne said. “Satellites are bringing broadband to rural areas across the U.K., while providing enormous export opportunities.”