Micro-gravity ‘not a priority’

Important UK micro-gravity research is likely to come to an end through lack of government funding, even though a DTI review will back further work in the field.

Micro-gravity research, which examines the properties of materials and mechanisms in a near zero-gravity environment, is undertaken by UK industry and academia using European Space Agency equipment.

But last year ESA demanded that the UK pay £21m over the next seven years for continued access to its equipment. As a result, in October the DTI launched a review to examine the benefits of funding the research, run by the British National Space Centre.

While the review is expected to recommend continuing micro-gravity research, The Engineer has learned that science minister Lord Sainsbury will not support it, following opposition from the UK’s science and engineering research councils.

Prof Richard Holdaway, director of space, science and technology at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, said the research councils do not see micro-gravity as a priority for funding.

‘No one has said ‘we want to fund it’. The problem for micro-gravity is that there is not a community of researchers – they are a disparate group of scientists from different research councils.’

But a number of scientists have attacked the way the review was undertaken. One senior university participant was scathing of the process, accusing the councils of such inadequate consultation that the entire exercise was futile.

‘The consultation exercises undertaken by the individual research councils were at best limited, at worst non-existent. People may say they undertook an in-depth strategic review of this area, but they did no such thing. They brought together people who had no knowledge of space and asked them simple questions such as ‘you have a limited sum of money, would you like to give away some of that to a new venture?”

Micro-gravity studies are undertaken by a wide range of UK researchers, including those in the steel industry, who use it to research the internal structures of materials without the effects of gravity.

This work is undertaken using ESA’s drop towers, sounding rockets and parabolic flight aircraft, all of which can briefly create zero-gravity environments.

The UK does not have equipment of its own, and the loss of access would certainly end any useful research. Review chairman, Prof William Wakeham, vice-chancellor of Southampton University, said a decision would be needed by April, or equipment access will be lost.

The review also took evidence from micro-gravity researchers, and it was their evidence that convinced the panel that the work must be continued.

The panel, which included senior figures from Imperial College, the Engineering and Technology Board and Rolls-Royce, submitted the report to the DTI and BNSC in January.

A DTI spokeswoman denied that the review presented budget implications to the councils.

She said that only the scientific merits of micro-gravity research were considered.

On the web