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Royal Society calls for UK space agency

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The Royal Society has called for a new UK space agency to be established to replace the British National Space Centre (BNSC). It says the BNSC has neither the authority nor the funding to represent the UK's space scientists on a national level.

Royal Society president Martin Rees said: "A UK Space Agency would have the authority to implement a national space strategy and raise the profile of scientists and industries working in the space sector. It would essentially provide a 'one stop shop' for UK space science activities."

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the largest funder of space science in the UK. It has just been merged into the new Science and Technology Facilities Council, and Rees argues that this gives the government the perfect opportunity to rethink the way it funds space science.

Rees said a dedicated UK space agency would also be able to raise the UK's profile in the international space community.

"No European country can afford to go it alone," Rees said. "Collaboration is a cost effective means for the UK – which currently constitutes a small but specialist component of the global space community – to be involved in high-profile projects."

But the Royal Society argues that the UK is losing out on the international stage to countries with properly funded national space agencies, which fight harder for their national best interests.

The Royal Society also attacked the UK's relatively small role in European space efforts. The UK contributes just seven per cent of the European Space Agency's (ESA) budget. France chips in 25 per cent, and Germany 20 per cent.

The scathing attack on the BNSC was issued under embargo late last week, just days ahead of the government's announcement of a new deal between the BNSC and NASA. The two organisations signed a memorandum of understanding on Friday to increase collaboration on exploration of our solar system, that could even lead to UK astronauts being sent to the moon.

A spokeswoman for the Royal Society said she thought it was unlikely to alter the organisation's position. "This is just a one off deal. I can't see how it would drastically change anything," she told us.

Indeed, the Royal Society's policy group said it welcomed the move as a "step in the right direction", but added that it remained convinced that "future partnerships would be better served by a well coordinated, high profile UK space agency –  to match NASA –  rather than a loose partnership of nine government departments and research councils which currently makes up the BNSC."

The BNSC issued a statement in its defence, saying: "The BNSC combines the best points of, on one side, a space agency which offers a holistic focus across various space activities and, on the other, a fully devolved arrangement which gives strategic ownership to the lead department.

"Of course, no organisational form is permanent, and the government remains open to ideas to improve the current arrangements." ®

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