With the UK government committed to a referendum on membership of the EU by 2017 if not earlier, what does this mean for a UK space economy whose ongoing success is so closely linked to the European Space Agency?
Although space agencies could now be seen as facilitators of a burgeoning private space sector rather than the drivers of everything in space, politics and governments will still continue to be very important; no sector of the economy can be immune from big political changes, but is the space economy even more vulnerable?
What will become of the UK’s involvement in the European Space Agency (ESA) if there is a British exit from the EU, what will happen to ESA facilities and employees in the UK, and ESA contracts with British companies? At a time when Britain awaits the imminent launch into space of ESA’s first British astronaut, Tim Peake, and the certainty of a referendum in the next year or two, these questions need to be out in the open, and some answers available.
This weeks’ successful UK Space Conference in Liverpool told the many success stories of the UK Space industry, many of which depend on the ESA at one point or another. The UK is already punching above its weight in the space economy, and has ambitious plans to develop this further. The target of the UK Space Agency and the Government is for the UK space sector to be worth £40 billion by 2030, employing 100,000 people. With 37,000 people already employed, with £9 billion current contribution to the UK economy, it’s easy to argue that they are well on their way.
So what happens during the period of uncertainty in the build up to the referendum, let alone a British exit? Do the ESA employees all become unemployed the day after such a vote? Not necessarily was the response from UK Space and commercial interests at the UK Space Conference. A representative from the UK Space Agency pointed out that non EU members can become associate members of the ESA and forge their own agreement, however such a difficult process would be undesirable, and of course the outcome contains some uncertainty. One of the success stories told at the conference was a UK star-up, RDT, who produce satellite navigation and communication units. The company has seen incredible growth, and had support from the ESA at each step of their journey. Chris Harman, the head of RDT, expressed a personal preference to remain inside the EU, but made the point that not all their competitors are within the EU. These competitors still have to make their products to the same specs and compete in the same markets, so membership wouldn’t mean the end of their company, or even their growth, but the question is left hanging as to whether RDT could have developed as it did in a world without the ESA.
It’s worth looking at Jo Johnson, the minister with responsibility for science and universities, who recently opened the new ESA facility (ECSAT) in Harlow. Jo is brother of the much more famous politician, Boris, but being related doesn’t mean Jo shares his brother’s views. In fact, they may be on opposite sides of the EU debate; with Jo being much more pro-EU than his brother’s well documented euro-scepticism.
Jo, while sharing his brother’s drive and intellectual prowess, perhaps isn’t a typical Conservative politician in some ways, his wife is an award winning write for the left-wing Guardian newspaper for example. Jo Johnson achieved a first in his history degree from Balliol college, and made a name for himself writing for the Financial Times, at one point as the FT’s bureau chief in Delhi. Jo clearly understands the challenges for the UK to remain competitive framed against the emerging giants such as India and China, and his writing has perhaps been the best expression of how his politics could define him; as someone who knows what it would mean to act pragmatically in Britain’s economic interest.
The Government’s support for the space sector at a time of general spending reduction would also be evidence of that approach. At a time when the space sector is getting to know Jo Johnson, it may come to be very glad that they have this particular champion. Time will tell, and we won’t have too long to wait to find out.