Osborne announces that UK will invest more in space science research

The chancellor George Osborne has announced that the government will be investing an extra £300 billion in space science research over the next five years. The announcement, which was made at the Royal Society in London, was Osborne’s first major speech on the Treasury’s ambitions for science and technology. Osborne outlined future government support for eight areas of technology where Britain could lead the world. The list included synthetic biology, regenerative medicine (which includes work on stem cells), agricultural science, energy storage, advanced materials (including nanotechnology and metamaterials) and robotics.

Osborne cited scientist Professor Brian Cox as one of the influential figures in the decision, saying that he was “up for the challenge” set by the physicist of making Britain the best place in the world to do science. He also acknowledged that economic competition faced by the UK was significant in explaining his interest in science. “Prosperity and the power it brings are shifting to new corners of the globe, to countries like China, India and Brazil,” Osborne said. “So as the prime minister has said, countries like ours are in a global race. That we face a choice: sink or swim, do or decline…it is right that, even at times of fiscal restraint, we find the resources to enable new scientific breakthroughs”

The creation of new jobs in the UK was one of the reasons for Osborne’s decision to increase government investments in the European Space Agency. Currently, the UK invests an average of £170m a year in the ESA. This is set to rise to an average of £240m over the period from 2013/14 to 2017/18. This commitment to the ESA will see the agency base its satellite telecommunications headquarters in the UK, expanding its recently opened technical centre in Harwell, Oxfordshire. It will create a 100 new hi-tech jobs in the area.

The UK’s space industry – including satellite companies such as Astrium and Inmarsat – has grown at around 8% per year over recent years, despite the economic downturn. The sector provides £9bn to the UK economy and Osborne said his ambition was to grow this to £30bn by 2030. However, overall spending in civil research has declined by 5% since 2010 – a reduction which is set to continue. Privately, many are concerned that reduced sources of funding will mean that focus will be placed exclusively on research areas that catch the eye of the chancellor and science minister, at the expense of fields that are less politically appealing but nonetheless important for the UK’s science base. There is concern that this will mean a move away from a tradition of allowing scientific experts to make the decisions on how research funding should be spent, something that is very worrying for many scientists.

Sources include: The Guardian, BBC News, The Telegraph

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