In a speech today at the Royal Society, Britain’s chief financial minister, Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne, announced that the government would increase spending on space by £60 million per year, a boost of about 30%. The funding hike comes just days before European ministers responsible for space gather in Naples, Italy, to decide the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) budget and spending priorities for the next 4 years. The extra U.K. spending should allow British officials to commit to ESA programs more generously, which the government hopes will lead to more ESA contracts for British industry.
In a wide-ranging speech on science and technology, the chancellor listed eight fields in which British researchers could lead the world. These included synthetic biology, regenerative medicine, energy storage, and advanced materials. He announced several new funding streams, such as £20 million to help researchers develop low-carbon fuel or industrial raw materials, for example, using synthetic biology, and £22 million for graphene engineering.
"It is encouraging to hear the Chancellor talk about the importance of science with such enthusiasm. It is particularly gratifying that he acknowledges the parallel importance of curiosity-led and applied research, and the need for continued investment in science even in times of fiscal restraint. Maintaining a world class infrastructure will be essential to delivering the Chancellor's vision,” Mark Walport, director of the Wellcome Trust, said in a statement.
The extra money for space will allow Britain’s delegation to the ESA council meeting to make more substantial commitments to ESA projects, including science missions. One important item on the table will be the ExoMars project to send landers and orbiters to the planet. NASA withdrew from ExoMars earlier this year and ministers from ESA’s 19 member states must decide at the meeting whether to form a new collaboration with Russia to continue the project, or go it alone.
Although the chancellor’s announcement will boost Britain’s contribution to ESA to about €300 million per year, the United Kingdom will still contribute less to ESA than Italy (€350 million in 2012) and less than half as much as France (€751 million) or Germany (€714 million).
“The decisions made at the upcoming ministerial meeting will shape the future of the European space sector, especially given the current economic downturn. By pledging an extra £300 million over the next 5 years, we can put the U.K. in a leadership role for several major ESA projects,” said David Williams, chief executive of the U.K. Space Agency.