The European Space Agency (ESA) has little choice but to heed an independent panel’s call for tough measures designed to square Europe’s space science program with fiscal reality.

The Science Program Review Team, tasked by ESA in February 2006 to take a hard look at the science program, has come back with a number of sobering conclusions, among them that the budget for these activities will remain flat for the foreseeable future at the inflation-adjusted equivalent of roughly 400 million euros ($535 million) per year. Meanwhile, as yet unexplained growth in mission support costs — coupled with mission extensions enabled by longer-lasting spacecraft — are eroding the agency’s spending power for new science projects.

This situation is not new: ESA’s science program, funded by mandatory contributions based on the gross domestic product of the agency’s 17 member states, has been operating on the financial brink for years. In 2003, for example, managers had to dip into ESA’s general fund to cover relatively minor cost growth on the billion-euro Rossetta mission – cost growth that was incurred after an Ariane 5 rocket failure delayed the comet chaser’s launch by a year.

The Science Program Review Team’s 66-page report was refreshing in its candor, even if its assessment probably was not music to the ears of ESA managers, contractors or scientists in general. It was also compelling. Even before the report came out, ESA’s Science Program Committee — which sets science funding priorities — was well on its way to fulfilling one of its key recommendations: finding 200 million euros in cost savings in the existing program before approving work on new missions for the 2015-2025 timeframe.

ESA science managers believe they can accomplish this without canceling any missions. Only time will tell if this is true.

Other recommendations, such as setting aside cash reserves to cover unforeseen program contingencies and pursuing more missions with international partners, represent plain, old-fashioned common sense. There should be lots of opportunity for international cooperation in the years ahead given the financial squeeze on NASA’s science budget and the emergence of other players such as India and China. The case for more international cooperation is strong under any circumstances: keeping pace with new frontiers in space science is pushing the cost and complexity of missions to the point that no single nation can really afford to go it alone.

What the review team calls for, above all else, is instilling a new sense of spending discipline in ESA’s science program. Due diligence requires, for example, that ESA solicit independent cost estimates for science instruments rather than relying on those prepared by the national institutes that would build them. These institutes have a natural incentive to be optimistic in their projections. Similarly, stopping work on missions whose costs grow by more than 20 percent, though seemingly harsh, will give program managers every incentive to be extra vigilant.

Given the inherent complexity of an international space agency whose individual members have their own national interests, there are no doubt political hurdles to many of the recommendations offered by the Science Program Review Team. The fact that the Science Program Committee apparently has been able to squeeze some 200 million euros in savings from the existing program, and thus get two new missions in the pipeline, is a good sign — even though it is by no means clear that the savings identified will be enough to avert a future financial meltdown.

Also encouraging is ESA Science Director David Southwood’s endorsement in principle of virtually all of the report’s recommendations. It remains to be seen whether the rest of ESA will climb on board.

Unaddressed, however, is the main point, which comes through loud and clear in the Science Program Review Team’s report: ESA’s science program, which by all accounts has been a model of success in recent years, has effectively been punished with a 20 percent decline in spending power over the last 15 years. ESA’s members need ask themselves why that is the case.