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Science, People & Politics

Science, People & Politics. Issue 2, November - December, 2005.

Europe's Space Science Programme Remains Endangered. A tale of woe behind the headlines, or a story that scientists' need to know if they are to protect their futures
by Helen Gavaghan


Today the European Space Agency's Council meets in ordinary session in Paris, the first time since the meeting at Ministerial level in Berlin on December 5th and 6th agreed a 97% increase to the Agency's overall spend. This figure disguises an unpalatable truth for scientists building their careers around the Agency's science programme: cancellations and mission delays remain a real possibility.

If the national delegates meeting today and tomorrow, and whose task it is to steer the Agency's overall managerial and budgetary direction in line with their governments' policies, are on the ball, one issue they might tackle will be the question of overheads. David Southwood, ESA's head of space science, is particularly vocal on this subject. He argues that the science programme is penalised by carrying an unfair share of the Agency's overheads. It is a vexed question, and one which the Agency is making efforts to correct by handing one of its most experienced long term directors, Jorg Feustel-Buechl, the poisoned chalice from which to extract a solution to the difficulty.

He will be acting within a strategic framework which both he and Southwood are well qualified to understand. Feustel-Buechl because he has headed both the Agency's launcher programme and its efforts with the International Space Station, pressured posts putting him in close contact with industry. Whilst Southwood, who is close to the Agency' former head of space science, Roger Bonnet, played a significant part in setting the Agency's aims in Earth observation science. As a former head of the physics and astronomy department at Imperial College, London, he is also familiar with the competing financial pressures on large departments in large Universities, from whence spring the world's space scientists.

When the European space ministers made their decisions in Berlin - the only notable spending cancellation was preparatory studies for a spacecraft for space exploration - they were reflecting the Agency's gradual strategic shift in emphasis to support the topics on which Fuestel-Buechl and Southwood have become expert, namely environmental security and European industry. In practical terms the strategic shift to these two has given a higher profile to European commercial launchers and application satellites for Earth observation, navigation and communication.

It is not only rising overheads and strategic shifts, though, that are squeezing Europe's space science programme, which is the only ESA programme other than the general budget that country's must contribute to if they are to be members of ESA. Expensive launch failures, an unexpected cost overrun on the Herschl-Planck infrared space telescope, rising industrial costs, and an ambitious science programme in an uncertain world are also causes of the problem. And the ministers' decision to favour only Europe's own launchers may be prestigious for the continent and keep people in work, but it reduces the science director's options for controlling his budget.

So the squeeze remains on the budget despite the fact that ministers in Berlin awarded the science programme its first increase in real terms since 1995: 2.1 billion for the years 2006 to 2010. Arguably this increase, portrayed in a positive light by the Agency, is more akin to the guilding of a creaking superstructure. On the one hand this is the first increase above the rate of inflation since 1995, on the other hand the science programme still suffers from the financial straight jacket imposed in 1995 when the ministerial council decided that the programme's budget would no longer increase with inflation. And, though the Berlin settlement for the mandatory science programme is 0.3% above the average rate of inflation, the aerospaces' market is shrinking, making its costs rise at above the annual rate of inflation. Nor is there any guarantee that the rate of inflation will stay at 2.2%.

"It's a gamble," says Southwood. He says too that the scientists are unhappy with the way he is running the science programme. Part of the difficulty is that ESA's two largest science missions, the Bepi-Colombo mission to Mercury and the GAIA mission to map the locations of a billion stars in the Milky Way, have been known since April of this year to have costs between €100 and €200 million more than the €450 million each agreed after the ESA Ministerial meeting in Edinburgh. The increase in predicted cost for these two missions struck home because ESA and its science community is already facing the problem of how to compensate for the large overruns in the predicted cost to completion of the Herschl-Planck infrared observatory for which contract have already been signed.

As soon as these massively upwardly revised figures hit Southwood's desk he decided that invitations to tender for the implementation phase could not be issued. In his view cancellation needs to remain a real option. He does not want the Agency to be in a position where it has placed contracts then must deal with the job losses that go with cancellation of large projects.

These are economic and industrial policy decisions. Those charged with making the recommendation as to whether to go ahead with projects costing more than it was thought they would as recently as two years ago meet in January and February next year. They will have to decide whether the science each will return is worth the extra and if so what else will have to be cancelled or delayed. "No-one is pointing fingers at any individual, but there is no question that the programme is overheated," says Walter Gear, a professor in the physics and astronomy department of Cardiff University.

Walter Baumjohann, director of the Space Research Institute in Graz, Austria and a member of the Science Programme Committee charged with making the decision about what goes ahead on the basis of advice about scientific feasibility from the Agency's Space Science Advisory Committee, says his personal view is that both missions are worthwhile. He considers that the settlement in Berlin makes Bepi-Columbo's future more secure. In Baumjohann's view the solution could be delays in the Solar Orbiter and or LISA. If so then the decision makers will need to take politics and diplomacy into account. Baumjohann says that because Japan is contributing to Bepi-Columbo he would be loath to see Europe delay or cancel the mission. Another mission where cuts might ruffle internationl feathers is LISA, which stand for laser interferometer space antenna, and is a joint mission with NASA to detect gravitational waves. By contrast cancellation of Clipper at an early stage prevents unpleasantness with its co-sponsors, Russia, at a later stage.

Whatever decision is made, therefore, will have ramifications for scientists and policy makers far beyond Europe's shores. Space agencies around the world pay close attention to one another's activities when they draw up their plans. Southwood is on record as saying that international space activities are a balance of co-operation and competition. Accurate reliable planning is needed for both.

Nor is it only on the international stage that accurate planning is needed. Individual careers, both short and long term, are pinned to specific space missions. There is no doubt, says Baumjohann, that scientists are unhappy with the uncertainty in their professional future that such financial battles create.

It will be interesting to see what practical solutions the council delegates might be able to suggest to the Agency's executive and is science advisory structure.

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