Europe should invest more in space science
5 April 2001Greater investment in space science would help nurture Europe's scientific community and consequently build up the knowledge-based society that Europe's heads of state declared they wanted at the European Union summit in Lisbon last year. This was a common message delivered to the General Assembly of the European Geophysical Society in Nice last week by the outgoing and incoming directors of ESA's science programme.
Europe must take a political decision to maintain its second-ranking position in space science, if countries such as China are not to overtake it within a decade, said Roger-Maurice Bonnet, who retires as Director of the ESA Science Programme at the end of April. In particular, incentives are needed to prevent Europe's scientific community dissipating to the United States and other greener pastures, he continued.
David Southwood, who takes over from Bonnet on 1 May, echoed this message and suggested that ESA's future policy needed to dovetail with that recently outlined by Philippe Busquin, EU Research Commissioner, to build up a European research area of networked laboratories and to make Europe draw in researchers. One way in which ESA could help to do this is by networking with research institutes to give support for advanced payload development, according to Southwood.
In his talk on Space science and exploration in the 21st century, Bonnet said that the revolution in knowledge already brought about by space science can only be maintained with additional investment in advanced technologies, especially for astronomy. Although there is a growing interest in planetary exploration within Europe, the issue is how to carve a niche in the face of far greater resources invested by the United States.
Bonnet's great achievement during his directorship has been to institute the Horizons 2000 programme, which has allowed for forward planning, said Southwood in his talk on The future of the European space science programme. However, a reducing budget, or one with no inflation compensation (an idea that has been floated), would compromise this approach.
The programme of new missions approved by ESA's Science Programme Committee last October (except for Eddington, a mission to search for Earth-like extra-solar planets) can be achieved by 2013 if the buying power of ESA's space science budget is kept constant, which is the minimum assumed by the SPC. Although this programme is broad, it has gaps, no flexibility to respond to new scientific or technical developments, and expects scientists to wait too long for new mission opportunities. However, a budget increase of 5% a year for five years, would enable the new missions, including Eddington, to be completed by 2011, giving 40% more science, concluded Southwood.
Bonnet gave his address after being awarded an EGS Fellowship Medal "for his authoritative and wide-ranging support of the space sciences putting Europe at the forefront of Solar System exploration". The EGS general assembly, which was attended by several thousand geophysicists and lasted all week, also heard about several of ESA's solar system missions. For further details, go to the Huygens and Mars Express pages.