Profile: Advocating for Science in a Complex Policy Environment

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  Space News Business

Profile: Advocating for Science in a Complex Policy Environment

By PETER B. de SELDING
Space News Staff Writer
posted: 01 June 2009
10:57 am ET






Jean-Claude Worms

Head of Space Sciences Unit, European Space Sciences Committee, European Science Foundation

The European Space Sciences Committee (ESSC), which as part of the European Science Foundation gathers together scientists from 30 nations, in recent months has raised an alarm about ‘s space science budget as well as its dependence on non-European technologies for certain high-value objectives.

Jean-Claude Worms, head of the ESSC’s space sciences unit, admits that scientists are not always comfortable fighting budget battles or entering politically charged debates relating to European technological autonomy.

But the , France-based organization, formed in 1975, sees its role as one of broadly representing scientists’ interests in an increasingly complicated European space policy environment in which the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Union’s executive commission and national governments try to work without stepping on each others’ toes. spoke with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

What is the role of the ESSC?

ESSC is a group of independent experts selected for their expertise in space science – not just classical space science, but also Earth observation science and microgravity activity in addition to solar system studies, fundamental physics and the other topics normally associated with space science. We deliver policy advice and strategic recommendations on programs.

Do you have complete freedom in terms of the opinions you deliver?

Yes, that’s how we were built. We can say what we want to say, and sometimes people aren’t too happy.

For example?

is not sufficiently funding its science program. We have been saying this since 1995. Space science funding was declining in ministerial meeting in December 2005. And since then there has been no fantastic increase. has put a stop to the decline but we feel it should reach 500 million euros ($675 million) per year. We are not there yet.

We try to get our members to exert as much influence as they can at the national level. Our advice is not always followed, but it counts that the voice is heard in this way.

ESA’s
science budget in 2009 is 435 million euros and will be increasing by 3.5 percent a year for the next three years. At this rate you won’t hit the 500 million-euro mark until 2014.

Yes, and that is why we are concerned that the science program will remain overheated in the sense of having no margin for error given the programs it is undertaking and the budget constraints. We are faced with a dilemma: Either we persuade our governments that we need more financing, or missions might need to be eliminated from the program.

Is the program still under pressure after the recent budget increase?

If you look at the portfolio of missions inside ESA’s Cosmic Vision science program, you can conclude that the recent budget efforts may not be sufficient. Earth science has fared better, and microgravity is funded marginally better than before. But you still get the feeling that is lukewarm about its choices.

Is ESSC ambivalent about the international space station as a science platform?

Not at all. Yes, we have poured billions into the space station but we’ve done an awful lot of good microgravity science over the years and we can expect much more. Physical sciences research in space is now mainly being done in . The seems to have dropped it.

How should the European Commission’s role in space policy evolve?

First, I don’t think ESA should be tampered with. But there are areas where the EU can play a needed role, and fill in existing gaps.

The commission is already playing a key role in the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security program, helping fund exploitation of the data. This indicates a possible future direction. They could fund certain technologies that, for one reason or another, are not being funded at ESA.

What is an area that ESA is not financing that needs support?

Radioisotope energy sources for planetary exploration, for example. ESA is not doing it. I assume it’s because this touches on policy areas where ESA is unable to go. It’s an issue that needs political agreement. More broadly, all areas of non-dependence on space technologies could be an area of concentration for the European Commission without duplicating what ESA is doing. That’s key: The commission should go only where ESA is not going.

From what I understand of the near- term funding plans, the commission is heading in the right direction.

The ESSC has criticized the Earth observation and science data management process in

This is another area where the European Commission can be helpful. At NASA, you’re funded from A to Z on a project, including data use, and you can even get funds to pay for a Ph.D. student to handle the data. ESA does not have the remit to do that. It is up to the individual member states.

Once a mission is launched, scientists certainly get access to the data, but making maximum use of it – in effect, using data to produce data – is mainly in the hands of the national laboratories. It is not an integrated process. In fact, we have seen cases where data from some European satellites are better used by American researchers than by European PIs [principal investigators].

-Mars lander project faces budget problems now. How do you assess it?

Exo-Mars started in a different [ESA] directorate, with different goals. It used to be in the human spaceflight division, and now Exo-Mars and the robotic exploration program have been moved to ESA’s science directorate. But it’s separate from the rest of the science program in terms of how it is funded.

At its core, Exo-Mars is a technology program that was supposed to pave the way for Mars Sample Return. The exploration program is not normally driven by science. European scientists have made a clear choice in favor of Mars over the Moon, but they knew the Mars program was technologically driven.

How should Exo-Mars be trimmed to fit within the available budget?

It would probably help if its onboard science package was not as large and multidisciplinary as it is today. I certainly understand scientists’ wanting to get lots of experiments to Mars, but this could be damaging to Exo-Mars. We should never forget that science is a passenger of the exploration program.

So there’s too much science on Exo-Mars given the available financing?

That’s probably fair to say. The important point is: What are we doing about Mars sample return? It seems to be stalled in the United States. needs to invest in this area.

You said favors Mars over the Moon for exploration. But is trying to fund its own lunar mission.

. It is only natural that, with 27 member states – 18 inside ESA – you are going to get differences in approach.

Scientists usually stress maximizing science return, even at the expense of industrial-base maintenance, technology independence and so on. But ESSC stresses technology non-dependence, even though it costs more. Why?

We didn’t decide this on our own, but in consultation. European scientists’ objectives are not necessarily so different from those of non-scientists. To analyze what you are trying to analyze, you need your own tools and your own toolbox.

Plutonium-238 production is just a recent example. The U.S. Department of Energy has apparently decided to resume production for radioisotope heating units, but until that decision we were wondering about a future supply. If you want to maintain your own objectives, it’s best not to be overly dependent on suppliers who may not be there when you need them.

I know this appears a bit off the usual science track, which focuses on science return. But this is a reaction to years of ITAR [the International Traffic in Arms Regulations, the technology export controls that were tightened in 1999] constraints. Any relaxation of these constraints would of course be welcomed, and if they are relaxed, we can rethink the issue.