van Duinen

Chairman, Science Program Review Team

The European Space Agency (ESA) in 2006 appointed a panel of outside experts to look at the space science program and determine whether it was being managed correctly given the fact that its budget — about 400 million euros ($546 million) per year — is unlikely to rise in the near term.

Led by Reinder van Duinen, the Science Program Review Team was given carte blanche to look everywhere, and propose anything it wanted, without limit.

The report the team produced in March concludes that the reality of static budgets should force the agency to manage its science efforts differently or risk losing the support of a new generation of space scientists.

Van Duinen, a former president of the European Science Foundation and former chief executive of Fokker BV’s space division, discussed the group’s findings with Space News staff writer Peter B. de Selding.

Are taxpayers and scientists getting their money’s worth from ESA’s science program?

Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it. There’s always a problem with these types of reviews to the extent that we focus on things that can be improved. But the science program is a tremendous asset for Europe.

If the program is so well organized, why has it been subject to three major outside reviews in 20 years?

I think it’s more like three in 30 years, but the fact is that this is a healthy process when a program exposes itself to outside scrutiny. In this particular case the overheating of the science budget was the specific reason. But other ESA departments also might find this exercise useful for them.

The science program budget, in buying-power terms, is 20 percent less than it was in the 1990s. If there is no scandal, how can you explain the decline in investment?

That is certainly a major problem and we purposely left it out of our review. We assume the budgetary condition today as a given, and we used it as our starting point. We did not want to get into a political debate over whether the budget is sufficient. Instead, we limited ourselves to looking at whether the program has fully adapted itself to this reality.

Your report says that ESA’s science managers need to find immediate savings of at least 200 million euros. ESA says they have now found these savings — pending an agreement on one mission with NASA. Are these economies sufficient?

When we say “at least 200 million euros,” we mean “at least.” That takes care of the immediate issue. But the problem has not gone away.

You propose reducing the budget for mission extensions — successful satellites that keep operating beyond their originally scheduled retirement dates. You would shut down missions that continue to produce science?

It’s true that nothing is less expensive, in terms of scientific return, than a mission extension. But if you look at what has happened, we now have 60 million euros per year being spent on programs that are beyond their retirement date. We suggest that ESA explore whether it cannot extend missions less expensively, perhaps by finding cheaper personnel, or outsourcing the job to universities, for example. It’s all part of finding equilibrium in the budget so that new missions can be started.

Your team found that ESA was spending 25 percent of its budget in the 1990s on mission support — and 50 percent today, leaving less for the design and manufacture of the satellite hardware. What accounts for this?

It’s the accumulation of numerous factors, including satellite mission extension and ESA internal costs. Remember, we now have something like 16 satellites in orbit at the same time. On the issue of ESA’s overhead charges, we found it very difficult to find reasons for major changes. But the new financial system the agency is putting into place will mean the science program is billed based on its use of ESA facilities. The new mechanism also should make the internal charges much more transparent.

In the meantime, we proposed that the science program set a hard limit: No more than 40 percent of its budget should be spent internally. If you don’t fix a limit, there is a danger that these charges will creep back up over the years.

You also propose that science managers benchmark ESA’s overhead services — find comparable services elsewhere to compare prices. Can this be done?

Yes, and ESA will do it. It’s a hard call, though. You could look at NASA, or another space agency, but you have the problem of comparing apples and oranges. But we have been told they are going to take this seriously.

The Science Program Review Team
also proposes setting aside 2.5 percent of the science budget for technology development to avoid cost overruns and other surprises late in development. Isn’t there a danger that scarce
science resources are used to develop technology that might not be used?

We felt it was necessary to make the investment early on, especially since the missions we’re considering are getting very challenging technically. Of course, it’s always possible that a new science field could open up that is not very expensive. Remember infrared systems 25 years ago? They produced wonderful science and were not that expensive. But in general, the instruments are getting more sophisticated, more complicated. If it leads to developing technology for non-science missions, that’s no bad thing.

We also recommend that this technology-development money be made available on a competitive basis.

International collaboration in space science is another area you say needs to be better exploited. Is this feasible given technology-transfer restrictions in the United States and elsewhere, and industrial-policy demands in Europe?

Sure it’s difficult, but much more international collaboration needs to be done. Of course you hear: ‘The Americans tend to steal our ideas,’ or ‘NASA in the past has dropped out of collaborative programs.’ These things have happened. But given their complexity, future science missions are going to be more difficult. We need to look worldwide for good ideas — Japan, India, China, Russia and the United States.