Go back

STFC caught out by Willetts’s surprise space deal

The Science and Technology Facilities Council was “taken by surprise” by the government’s decision last November to subscribe to the European Space Agency’s Programme for Life and Physical Sciences and has no plans for specific funding programmes related to it, says its head of astronomy Colin Vincent.

Science minister David Willetts subscribed to the Elips programme at the European Space Agency ministerial meeting in November 2012. The deal, which will cost a minimum of €16 million (£13.7m) over four years, means that UK researchers will be able to perform micro-gravity experiments using the programme’s drop towers, parabolic flights, sounding rockets and the International Space Station. UK researchers will have to apply to ESA for access to Elips facilities and then to a research funder for a project grant.

Vincent told Research Fortnight “we haven’t really got any plans" to commit specific funds to Elips research. “For many years there hasn’t been that much UK interest in supporting microgravity space-based experiments…that’s one of the reasons why there isn’t a coordinated response to it,” he says. Researchers can, however, obtain funding for Elips experiments through STFC’s general funding programmes, such as the Project R&D scheme, even though Elips is not listed alongside other astronomy facilities on the STFC website.

Other councils also have limited or no plans. Both the Medical Research Council and the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council have confirmed that they will not issue special calls for Elips, although the EPSRC will hold a workshop to tell its researchers about how they might use Elips facilities. The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is organising a workshop for researchers who wish to apply for funding for ageing research that requires Elips bed-rest facilities. The event was instigated by the UK Space Agency as a way of promoting Elips to those who are not traditionally space researchers.

But STFC-funded researchers are likely to be the keenest to use Elips, and are hoping to meet the STFC to discuss the situation later in April or early in May. Vincent plans to tell researchers that a dedicated programme could be created, but only if they file a statement of intent with the STFC Science Board to request one. A decision from the Science Board could be reached within a year.

Some researchers are worried that waiting for dedicated programmes—and the lack guaranteed Elips-related funding through existing programmes—could put UK access to the facilities in jeopardy. “It’s important that we have some quick wins from Elips because if we can’t prove things in three or four years’ time then David Willetts might not put more money in,” says Helen Fraser, a lecturer at the Open University’s department of physical sciences.

Andrew Kuh, microgravity programme manager at the UK Space Agency, adds that the UK needs to “balance short-term successes, demonstrating the potential of the programme, with longer-term goals that could bring further, significant benefits to researchers in the UK”.

The STFC’s Solar System Advisory Panel chairwoman Monica Grady, a professor in planetary sciences at the Open University, thinks that the STFC should set aside £2m to £5m every two years for six years as “a small amount available for capacity building and…as a gesture of support or the opening of a new type of research”. In its November 2012 contribution to the STFC’s programmatic review, Grady’s panel recommended that “STFC should consider requests for funding to exploit data from the Elips facilities in the same way as from other space missions and projects.”

But Vincent says, “We don’t have an uncommitted pot of money…they have to come through the normal peer review system and take their chance.”