Saturday, July 10, 2004

Space – the final frontier… of European integration

In a seemingly innocuous piece by the BBC yesterday, the British government is enjoined by the "Save British Science" group to back the European Space Agency's ambitious "Aurora" programme.

This includes a long-term plan for exploration of the Solar System, with ambitions to land a robot rover on the surface of Mars - perhaps as early as 2009 – a sample-return mission to bring Martian rock back to Earth for analysis, and possibly by manned missions.

The special pleading is ostensibly aimed at Gordon Brown and his spending review on Monday, asking for British funds to support the ESA initiatives. The siren call is that "British expertise" – which brought us the failed Beagle 2 Martian probe – will be lost unless we throw our lot in with the Europeans.

Funds required – by space standards – are relatively modest. Committing to Aurora would demand an investment from the UK of a mere £35m per annum for five years, to cover funding for any science instruments built in Britain and a contribution to the ESA's programme.

As always, however, there is more to this than meets the eye. The European space programme is by no means a straightforward exercise in scientific discovery. It has a strong political agenda, confirmed in January 2003 when the European Commission, in its Green Paper on European Space Policy (COM(2003) final) testified to the value of a space programme "in completing the process of European integration".

The programme has two advantages from the European perspective. Firstly, it forces high-technology aerospace companies and academic institutions to work closely together at a "European" level, thus promoting further economic and cultural integration and, secondly, by diverting national funds into high profile European ventures, it serves to reinforce the "European identity".

Rather than saving British science, therefore, this is a device to submerge it in the broader European project – which, presumably, is why the ever-willing BBC was so keen to promote the story.

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