Making a Difference | David Willetts, U.K. Science Minister

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In late November, the British government grabbed the attention of the global space community with the announcement that it would be increasing its contribution to the European Space Agency (ESA) by 25 percent, to 240 million British pounds ($383 million) per year for the next five years.

In an era where flat is said to be the new up when it comes to government investment in space, the announcement came as a huge, and welcome, surprise. And while it was made by George Osborne, the U.K.’s chancellor of the exchequer, Osbourne gave the credit to David Willetts, Britain’s minister for universities and science.

Willetts, Osborne said, was the one who convinced the exchequer’s office that increased space investment was the way to boost Britain’s economy and competitiveness. Given that Britain had been dialing back spending just about every place else, Willetts obviously made a persuasive argument.

The impact was almost immediate. In unveiling the spending plan in a speech at the Royal Society in London, Osborne said ESA would be relocating its Estec technology center from Noordwijk, Netherlands, to Britain’s ESA facility in Harwell, bringing more than 100 new jobs to the latter site.

The move reflects increased clout at ESA, where Britain now is the fourth largest contributor, behind France, Germany and Italy. During the November ESA ministerial conference, Britain made financial commitments that surpassed Italy’s and prompted ESA Director-General Jean-Jacques Dordain, who is French, to quip that he would be speaking English for the remainder of his term.

Soon thereafter, in January, Willetts announced that Britain would be investing an additional 60 million British pounds in space technology development efforts including robotics, nuclear power and propulsion. 

Willetts struck again in July, announcing a 60 million pound investment in an air-breathing rocket engine that he hopes will put Britain at the forefront of propulsion technologies. Up to now, funding for the Synthetic Air-Breathing Rocket Engine, or SABRE, has come primarily from private investors.

Senior government officials worldwide are fond of talking about the importance of investing in space, but in these days of tightening budgets, Willetts is one the few who is truly putting his money were his mouth is.