Sentinel-2
Sentinel-2 © ESA P. Carril

From horizon to wider horizon

The European Space Sciences Committee (ESSC), part of the European Science Foundation, began its involvement in the EU’s space activities as far back as 1992. The committee has played a substantial role in helping to define European space policy and, since FP5, has also provided regular information and recommendations on the space theme in the EU’s research and innovation frameworks.

Horizon2020projects spoke to Jean-Claude Worms, head of the Science Support Office at the European Science Foundation on the ESSC’s continuing role in shaping space research, its expectations of Horizon 2020 and the impact of budgetary changes.

Having undertaken research during FP7, how much involvement will the European Space Sciences Committee have in Horizon 2020?

We expect to continue to provide expertise to the European Commission and the EU during Horizon 2020. I think from Commission’s point of view, the ESSC has become the main recognised science partner in all the events that have been organised by them concerning Horizon 2020. We have undertaken a number of presentations, keynote speeches, assisted in the rapporteur’s role and have taken part in all the discussions in the last 18 months relating to Horizon 2020, in particular the space role in Horizon 2020.

At the moment, we are doing a community consultation to define the Strategic Research Clusters, a new concept that the Commission wishes to incorporate into the space objective of Horizon 2020. The clusters tend to provide some elements of top-down research, although most Horizon 2020 objectives are bottom-up programmes. In the space area, one difficulty of the bottom-up approach is that you have a very short-term view – you cannot engage in any major, long-term strategic outlook.

It is important to retain blue sky research (annual calls and the bottom-up approach) in order to stimulate innovation and scientific breakthroughs. However, long-term visibility could be provided through the clusters and top-down research, and this is vital for building a long-term space strategy for Europe, enhancing the continent’s competitiveness and non-dependence.

Of course, you need to be very cautious for what you identify as a cluster as it has to be something that requires a long-term strategy. We have been asking the community what could be the candidates for these clusters.

It has been announced that Horizon 2020 is likely to receive nearly €10bn less in funding than previously thought. What impact is this likely to have on ESSC and wider space research?

We will not be directly receiving funding from the EU and Horizon 2020. However, on the research itself, there will be significant impact if this reduction if confirmed and it’s unlikely it’s going to be entirely proportional.

The actual impact on the space component is not known yet. But if this is confirmed, there will be most likely be a major impact on space projects. What I find problematic is that all of the actors involved in space research have already publically recognised that the areas that the Commission supports are vital for the competitiveness of Europe. I was at the ESA ministerial conference in Naples in November where all member states, as well as ESA, agreed space was vital for Europe’s competitiveness and non-dependence.

How do you think the ESSC can better contribute to addressing the problems facing European society, as outlined in the three main pillars of Horizon 2020?

The main entry point for space in Horizon 2020 is likely to be ‘Industrial Leadership’ – ESA, for instance, is here to build, develop and strengthen the industrial base as well as space research and development in Europe. But it’s possible that some space-related projects (I’m not necessarily talking about Strategic Research Clusters now) and individual projects proposed by the community could find a place within ‘Excellent Research’, for example receiving Commission support for a major breakthrough, or in the pillar of ‘Societal Challenges’.

If you look at space exploration, and in particular human space exploration and all the projects relating to it, one issue that is not yet solved is whether this is a subject or an ambition, which is broadly accepted by society. So you can imagine that through projects relating to social sciences or at least that are coupled to social sciences and space research, there will be an opportunity to do some interesting research here.

Four or five years ago, we started to launch a project called ‘Humans in outer space’, a sort of novel way of looking at exploration whilst talking to scholars in humanities and looking at space from a social sciences perspective. After a while it became obvious that the scholars started to ask a number of research questions linked to the societal dimension of space exploration. So, I can imagine that this could be a very interesting entry point for a space-related subject in the society pillar.

How do you see Horizon 2020 contributing to the wider development of the ESSC and the space research industry over the next seven years?

As far as the industry is concerned, if it is supported adequately, it can have quite an impact. One issue is how will the EU and ESA work together. ESA has been the space R&D European agency for more than 35 years and now the Commission wants to play a more substantial role. Through the framework programme, they are supporting some elements of space research and technological development, and this is important. But they are also entering the scene at the political level and it’s becoming clear that in the mid to long-term, they will play a more substantial role in defining European space policy and shaping the strategic direction of space in Europe. So the big question is how this is going to be managed, how are the responsibilities and roles going to be shared by ESA, member states and the EU; this needs to be done in a way that preserves Europe’s assets and does not jeopardise the good job ESA has done.

The current budget, even within Horizon 2020, and it is higher than FP7, is still not a budget that you can buy a series of missions with! Well, maybe one, one and a half, but that’s it. Space science does not cost European citizens that much, but missions are expensive and so what the framework programme can do is support some elements of technological research. Space, though, is not sufficiently addressed in Europe because it is a conglomerate of nations. Scientists at a national level can get a mission selected, funded and built by ESA but then they need to find support at national level to prepare the mission, develop the payloads, hire scientists to exploit the data, etc.

Currently this is not sufficiently co-ordinated at European level. This is not ESA’s fault – it just does not have the mission or the money to do that. It either needs to be done at national level or, perhaps preferably, the EU needs to find a way to do it at European level.

If the Horizon 2020 programme is going to be successful, it needs to have the key components in enabling all these stakeholders to work together in a co-ordinated fashion. The important thing for us is to have coherence and co-ordination in European space policy, as well as long-term strategic planning.

One component of this is to have an advisory structure at EU level for space R&D, for example creating a European space board, and the ESSC can certainly provide some of the solutions as part of its remit.

Dr Jean-Claude Worms

European Science Foundation