October 27, 2008

UK Slowly Backing Out of European Space Project

The UK has declined to take a lead role in one of Europe's flagship space projects.

The Kopernikus program, a joint venture of the European Space Agency and the European Commission, is being developed to collect satellite data on the health of the planet.

Experts believe failure to fully back the project could lead Europe's space ministers to begin cutting back on program related jobs in the UK.

"We had a chance three years ago to play a major role in this program and I'm afraid it looks as though we are about to let slip another opportunity," said Dr Mike Healy of EADS Astrium, the largest space company in Britain.

The Kopernikus project will build a coordinated system for Earth monitoring and will pull together data from various satellites, air and ground stations to create a comprehensive picture of the planet.

The goal of the project is to create a continuous, long-term data-set that can be used to enlighten European countries to deal with global climate change.

The project will cost over two billion euros, leading the UK to be reluctant to invest in Kopernikus.

The country passed on the opportunity to lead the program in 2005, and many believe they will give the second phase of the project limited support.

Some believe Britain will only offer 40 million euros to the project when the Esa meets at the end of November.

"One wonders if Europe will get anything from the UK, frankly," said Colin Challen, a Member of British Parliament.

"At the present time, we can claim scientific leadership on climate matters, in the Hadley Centre (a climate modeling facility) and at a great many other institutions in the UK that are doing a lot of extremely valuable work. But this kind of investment is about keeping us at the forefront," said Challen.

"Maybe that doesn't matter; maybe it's OK for the rest of Europe to do this job and for us to just freeload. But then we won't be able to claim we are the world leaders on tackling climate change."
Many of Britain's Earth observation scientists find the UK's stance on the project baffling.

Professor Shaun Quegan of Sheffield University believes the UK is losing authority in the Kopernikus project.

According to Quegan, many satellites and climate instruments risked being sidelined if Britain doesn't show more support.

"Dealing with climate change isn't just about running [computer] models; it's about actually getting the data. It's the data which keeps the models honest, if you like," said Professor Quegan.

"If we're saying climate is a major scientific issue and the UK is a serious player in this, but then we're choosing not to take part in the observational system that is needed - well, basically, we are talking the talk and not walking the walk."

The UK's unwillingness to commit to Kopernikus has a very negative impact.

Esa programs operate on a fair return basis, so countries that contribute to projects receive contracts to build support systems.

In Britain's case, Astrium UK watched the Kopernikus satellite contract go to an Italian company even though Astrium has done the early research work.

The country's lack of commitment will mean more lost work for UK space companies.

"The last ministerial was disastrous for us," said Dr Healy of Astrium.

"OK, we've been pretty successful recently - we've won quite a bit of commercial work - but institutional funding is very important to us; it accounts for 30% of what we do. To have two disastrous ministerials in a row would erode our long-term competitive position."

Many feel Kopernikus is a classic example of what is wrong with British space policy.

Countries like Germany, France, and Italy have space agencies with single voices and budgets, but the UK delegates space policy to a group of "users."

The users are comprised of government departments and research councils with interests in space-born services.  The setup is designed to limit space funding to "needs" instead of "vanities."

Critics believe the users' inability to make coherent decisions on complex programs means the UK finds itself lacking in international negotiations.

Challen plans start another motion on Tuesday to bring attention to Kopernikus.

"We have a few weeks left before the ministerial to try to put this right," Challen added.

The lead user for the UK on the Kopernikus project is the Department for Environment, Food, and Rural Affairs.  A spokesperson for the group said the UK is committed to supporting the project, though no final funding decisions have been made.


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