Panel Urges Britain To Boost Space Spending, Support Exports

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PARIS — British government science and finance ministers promised to deliver, by early March, a formal response to a government-commissioned study recommending a large increase in space spending and more-active involvement of Britain’s export-credit agency in backing space hardware exports.

In taking delivery Feb. 10 of the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, or Space IGS, report, British Science Minister Lord Drayson conceded that some of its recommendations were “troubling,” but insisted he welcomed the challenge of better positioning the British government to develop its space sector.

Ian Pearson, Drayson’s predecessor and now economic secretary to the Treasury, also sounded hopeful, but said a British government committed to cutting its budget deficit by 50 percent in four years will not find it easy to accelerate spending anywhere.

The Space IGS report, prepared by a committee led by Logica plc Chairman Andy Green, makes 16 recommendations for how Britain should raise its space profile to further encourage an industry that has proved recession-resistant despite the government’s modest investment.

Britain’s current space budget is about 265 million pounds ($414 million) per year.

The report said Britain’s space industry grew by 9 percent a year on average between 1999 and 2007, and now directly employs a 19,100-strong work force.

“The killer fact is that space has bucked the recession,” Drayson said at a Feb. 10 press briefing. He said the British division of Astrium, Europe’s biggest space company, has increased employment by 10 percent in each of the last two years on the strength of its work building satellite electronics payloads.

The report calls for Britain to double its contribution to the 18-nation European Space Agency (ESA) in 10 years, a 7 percent annual growth rate. In 2010, Britain is scheduled to invest about 255 million euros ($350 million) with ESA. That investment would need to increase by 45 percent to match Italy’s ESA contribution this year and more than double to catch up with France and Germany.

In an example of its occasionally blunt language, the report says: “Britain is generally perceived as a follower rather than a leader in Europe on large space programs.”

Green said during a Feb. 10 press briefing that Britain “is outplayed in Europe” in the race for ESA contracts, in part because it has been unable to stake claims to sizable shares of ESA projects early in their development.

But the report is more than a request for more funds. It suggests that British government authorities review existing policies with a view to making them better suited to capturing the global space-sector growth expected in the coming years.

Drayson has already begun to tackle the problem by agreeing to create a British space agency to consolidate the government’s annual investment in space programs. The idea is to give Britain more influence within ESA by enabling its space agency to direct resources to projects that will deliver the most return for Britain. ESA operates on the principle of geographic return, meaning each nation is guaranteed to get back, in the form of contracts for its national industry, most of its ESA spending.

One recommendation Drayson will be looking at is that the new British space agency’s field of activity include military as well as civil space, as is the case in France and Italy. The report proposes that Britain’s coming Strategic Defence Review take a fresh look at military space applications. Unlike France, Germany, Italy and Spain, Britain does not have its own military Earth-observation spacecraft.

Green said that in a place like Afghanistan, a British soldier is likely better served by a near-real-time video of what is happening in his immediate vicinity than by a flak jacket.

The report also calls for the government to create an explicit national space policy whose goals would include promoting greater activism on behalf of commercial space exports on the part of Britain’s Export Credit Guarantee Department.

Like other export-credit agencies, the British department is able to offer credit guarantees to sweeten British industry bids for overseas work. But it has been a no-show for space exports. In the Feb. 10 press briefing, Green referred admiringly to France’s Coface export-credit agency, which during the recent financial crisis has been perhaps the world’s most active in backing satellite projects through loan guarantees.

One of the report’s more-specific proposals is that Britain create its own Earth-observation services agency with its own satellite to be used for environmental, civil-security and other purposes. The agency would gather together the government’s currently scattered uses for Earth-observation data under a single roof, the idea being to promote British expertise in environmental monitoring.