Archive for the 'Space' Category

Academics should not allocate research funds

It’s long been the case that the greatest barrier to the advancement of a UK involvement in manned space exploration programme has been the vested interests of the scientific establishment. Distinguished academic prima donnas have a tendency to allocate research funds to their own pet projects (or to at least vote down expensive projects that may compete for funds with their own). Now we learn that the disgraceful decision to close the Jodrell Bank observatory was made by other scientists protecting their vested interests [The Times].

This state of affairs in unacceptable. Left to their own devices it’s only natural for scientists to allocate funds to projects closer to their own interests. Yet even on a broader perspective it should not be for the scientific community to decide who taxpayer funded research grants should be allocated. Science has benefits far beyond the sake of science itself. There are not just the tangible benefits such as improvement to health and quality of life. There are also intangible benefits such as inspiring future generations. Scientists alone are not best placed to weigh up all these pros and cons.

Of course it’s right that scientists should be involved in the decision-making process – any funding body needs to include expert members. But the funding council boards should not consist of expert members exclusively. As with other public bodies there should be a diversity of skills, knowledge and experience, with a lay majority, so that future decisions can be made to reflect the overall interests and priorities of society, not the scientific establishment.

Keeping up with China

This month’s IET Engineering & Technology magazine focuses on China. Two particular articles worth reading are The Next Science Superpower? and Space: The Chinese Way.

The opening paragraph of the second article is the most striking:

China made its first manned spaceflight 40 years after America and the Soviet Union, but that doesn’t mean it is 40 years behind them in space technology.

This principle applies more generally to science and technology in China and it’s development too. The Industrial Revolution may have taken us some time, but today’s developing countries will not take that long and will catch up with us very fast. What happens when they actually overtake us?

Politicians from across the political spectrum have spoken of the need to meet the challenges of globalisation. Yet I think none have really addressed this challenge head-on. The march of progress in developing countries means, inevitably, that our wealth (in relative terms) is diminishing. Could that, at some point, result in a reduction in absolute wealth, and in our standards of living? What happens to the UK when a consumer boom built on cheap imports, rather than any real industry comes to an end because we can’t afford “luxury” Chinese exports?

I often looked at the Make Poverty History campaigners and wondered whether they realised that for the starving in Africa to get a fairer share of economic wealth, we would have to give up ours. Were all the protestors really so magnanimous as to want to give up some of their standard of living in order to raise that of others?

I think there are some hard choices ahead of us about how we remain competitive as an economy as well as what standards of living (absolute and relative) we are prepared to accept and aspire towards, for ourselves and others.

Getting open-minded about manned spaceflight

I stumbled across an article on a possible change to UK space policy [The Times], based on an interview with the recently appointed Science Minister, Malcolm Wicks MP.

From the article:

The Government’s long-standing refusal to fund manned spaceflight could be reconsidered to allow British astronauts to join expeditions to the Moon and Mars, the new Science Minister has indicated.

Britain will be an active participant in American and European projects to explore the solar system and should not automatically opt out of missions with human crews, Malcolm Wicks told The Times.

While there are no immediate plans to pay to send Britons into space, the presumption that such missions are always a waste of money should no longer apply, he said in his first interview since becoming Science and Innovation Minister in November.

It’s about time someone in government showed a degree of pragmatism. I reluctantly accept that the UK was right to cancel the bulk of its space programme in the last century – the economy simply couldn’t afford to sustain it and there was no way we could muster the resources to compete with the USA and USSR in their race. Yet, we now live in a completely different age. There is much more private sector involvement in space exploitation, there are many more space-faring nations, and much more of an emphasis on international collaboration. This doesn’t mean that we should rush into an expensive government-funded human spaceflight programme. On the contrary we should be careful to foster a home-grown space industry rather than throw tax receipts at a monstrous bureaucracy like NASA. Nevertheless the Minister is right to say that we should be open minded about astronaut missions and consider each on its own merits.

Andy Chipling – Paper spacecraft pioneer

Browsing the Imperial College news digest, I was pleasantly surprised to find this gem from the Daily Mail about Andy Chipling of the Paper Aircraft Association. I have fond memories of Andy from his days as a technician at IC, when he would help us each year to organise the C&G Egg Race.

Imperial daily news digest – Friday 24 August 2006


“Plane crazy” The Daily Mail p15 – “This man plans to launch a paperaeroplane into space at 16,500 mph – with a little help from Nasa…

EVEN the most generous of observers would have to concede that Andy Chipling doesn’t look like the sort of man to have a hotline to Nasa…

Ever since he fired off a chance e-mail to Nasa four years ago while working at Imperial College London, Chipling has been trying to persuade the space administration to release a paper airplane into the atmosphere during one of the shuttle missions. Now, the founder of the Paper Aircraft Association believes he may be nearing his goal and says it will be a fascinating way to educate children about the science of outer space.”

A paper craft thrown out of a Shuttle? I have to say, with no drag, I’m not sure what the point is. (In the near-vaccum of space, it’ll go far no matter how much it lacks in aero-dynamic design.) Nevertheless, it has a certain novelty value to it. Go Andy, go!