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UK chancellor dishes extra £60m to European Space Agency

Hopes to boost mythical British 'space sector'

The UK is to spend an extra £60m to £70m a year on space technology, by upping its commitment to the European Space Agency (ESA).

The Chancellor George Osborne announced today that Britain was willing to commit an average of £240m a year for the next five years to ESA, mainly in capital. The country currently gives the agency an average of £170m a year.

Osborne said that the increased spending on ESA would bring substantial benefits to the UK adding that the private sector had already identified projects worth up to £1bn that “will flow” from the investment. Clearly, the expectation is that more contracts will come Britain’s way if it ups its investment in ESA at a time when other European countries are finding the spare change to fund their existing obligations.

The chancellor also said, in a speech to the Royal Society, that the ESA had agreed to site its telecoms satellite headquarters in Harwell in Oxfordshire, a move he said would create a hundred new high-tech jobs in the area.

The government is fond of bandying about the idea that the UK space sector already generates £9bn a year, but in fact this is a completely made-up figure concocted by counting Sky TV and a few other "downstream space" companies as though they were satellite makers or something.

“We are now at a watershed where space is transitioning from a celebration of science endeavour into a capability that impacts on our everyday lives,” he said.

“Live transmissions of news and sports are driven by satellite telecommunications, and satellites are bringing broadband to rural communities across the UK, while providing enormous export opportunities. The new generation European navigation programme brings very precise location capabilities opening up new markets.”

Space wasn’t the only scientific endeavour to get the chancellor’s nod today. He also wants Britain to lead the world in big data, synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, agriscience, energy storage, advanced materials and robotics.

“I want to begin a debate about eight future technologies where we believe we can be the best – where we already have an edge, but we could be world-leading,” he said.

He said that the UK was already in a good position to improve data management, pointing out that the country has 25 of the world’s 500 most powerful computers. Osborne didn’t announce any new funding for data IT, but he said that the investment last year of £100m in high performance computing was reaping some benefits.

“Intel [has put] five different investments into the UK this year. We have also created the Open Data Institute in the East of London in Tech City, to bring together study of all the data from our whole environment,” he said. “And as a government we are making more and more of that data available.” ®

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