Op-ed | Today’s space race as a catalyst for regulatory reform
In February 2021, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson established a task force to address the excessive bureaucracy stifling scientific and technological innovation. At least, this appeared to be the crisis undermining the U.K.’s best startups and laboratories. The hot take of the day, fashionably brandished by our thought leaders: red tape. How astute.
But Johnson wasn’t just reacting to sentiment. He was forging an image of himself as the prime minister who turned Britain into a scientific superpower. His task force would be the pretext to leveling up; the curtain call to the Oxford-AstraZeneca vaccine triumph. Better still, it would be positioned as an opportunity born out of Brexit.
The group published an alarmingly patriotic-looking report in May later that year. A community of academics and entrepreneurs pored over the findings that many of them had fed into. The message was clear: sweeping regulatory reform would accelerate innovation in the U.K.
The report comprised 109 recommendations ranging from reform of data protection law to changes in clinical trial procedure. But nestled deep in the report was recommendation 15.1, which would have a profound impact on the space sector if implemented.
Access to the final frontier from British soil remains mostly unventured territory. Until last year, there was no legal mechanism to operate an orbital launch. The regulatory framework to facilitate such a mission marked a giant leap in launch aspiration, but one section threatened to downgrade this leap to a mere small step — insurance.
The law currently requires spaceflight operators to indemnify, or insure, the U.K. government against damages. Should something go wrong, the government would be financially protected by the commercial entity carrying out the activity. In practice, this entails the Civil Aviation Authority granting spaceflight operators their license and, as specified as part of that license, the level of indemnity they must agree to provide the U.K. government.
This legislation represents no marked deviation from the frameworks practiced in other spacefaring nations. That is, except for one critical component. The U.K. government refuses to guarantee a limit on the level of indemnity it can demand when providing spaceflight operators with their licenses. With no limit in place, the prospective license holder faces potentially unlimited liability; the risk attached to an already high-risk venture skyrockets. It could prove impossible to raise funds for spaceflight due to this uncertainty. It’s a glaring legislative failure.
Cue Johnson’s Taskforce on Innovation, Growth and Regulatory Reform (TIGRR or “Tigger,” as industry started pronouncing it). Christopher Robin was here to save the day, flanked by his anthropomorphic Brexit-loving tiger. The snappily named group had published their solution: recommendation 15.1, “cap insurance and enable businesses to raise capital and launch the UK into space.”
And then, in a turn that no one could have possibly predicted, recommendation 15.1 remained just that — a recommendation. A few months after the report was published, Lord David Frost formulated a response from Government. He addressed each recommendation individually in a letter addressed to Sir Iain Duncan Smith, the task force lead. Writing about recommendation 15.1, he said, “this Government has already commenced a review of insurance requirements to support the needs of satellite operators and is continuing to build on the UK’s position as a science and engineering superpower.” That’s longhand for ‘we’re looking into it.’ This remains the stance well over a year after the task force’s initial publication.
The U.K. space industry stands as the most educated workforce in Britain — three out of four employees hold a degree. It’s also grown quickly, with income trebling in size since 2000, outperforming the global space economy. An advanced, booming industry, it’s the perfect poster child for Britain as a scientific superpower, but its challenges are also symptomatic of the actual, more nuanced crisis undermining science and technology in the U.K.
If this government is to champion innovation in science and technology, and the fields Johnson wants to excel in — space, artificial intelligence, autonomous vehicles and so on — it should prioritize meaningful dialogue with industry and value quick action. Formed from within industry and adapted in real-time, a new approach to regulatory development would give regulators a fighting chance to keep up with technological progress and allow regulators to champion, rather than inhibit, innovation.
The U.K. space sector represents the perfect blank canvas on which reform can be tested, adapted and used to demonstrate success. A rapidly evolving landscape, a truly global market and a meaningful commitment to environmental sustainability, the space industry can be used to demonstrate a modern-day approach to economic development.
As for recommendation 15.1, the industry has called for implementing a regulatory sandbox, as has worked successfully in the financial services sector. The focus should be on a tiered structure of variable levels of liability, such as in France and the United States, to encompass the variety of spaceflight activities.
Connor Moore is a space policy analyst at U.K.-based launch provider Skyrora.
This article originally appeared in the July 2022 issue of SpaceNews magazine. British Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced July 7 that he will resign as the head of Britain’s Conservative Party when a successor is found.