Europe’s space sector needs support

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

ESA astronaut Thomas Pesquet (R) with his NASA and Roscosmos colleagues aboard the International Space Station. [ESA]

Setting-up a Joint Technology Initiative in the space sector could enhance Europe’s space ambitions. They currently lag behind those of the other space powers, writes MEP Marian-Jean Marinescu.

Marian-Jean Marinescu is a Romanian MEP (EPP). A former rapporteur on the Galileo project, he recently received the 2016 MEP Award in the Research & Innovation category.

Europe is a major space-faring region that competes efficiently with the historic space powers, the United States, Russia and, increasingly, China.

Our industry captures about 20% of the total mass launched into orbit, 50% of the global commercial satellite markets, all the while achieving this with only 4% of the worldwide space workforce.

European space policy is an exception worldwide. Other space powers put space at the topmost level of the political agenda. This results in the establishment of massive, localised demand for space systems (mostly with defence programmes).

This is fuelled by large research and technological developments (RDT) support exclusively directed at fostering competitiveness of domestic industries. But Europe lags behind.

The European institutional space market is much smaller (in volume) than the US, Russian and Chinese ones. This creates situations of bias in global competition, unbalanced geopolitical power and technological dependence on the European side.

In such a context, and considering the limited funding available for space technology development in Europe, more efforts must be made to maximise the impact of public and private investments in space technology.

If Europe wants to remain at the cutting edge of global innovation in space, this is not an option.

And there is no need to reinvent the wheel! The Lisbon Treaty is already offering appropriate legal tools in this respect; it is now up to the EU institutions to fully exploit their potential.

In this spirit, I proposed last summer a pilot project, endorsed by the European Parliament, aimed at testing the feasibility and effectiveness of Joint Technology Initiatives (JTI) governance schemes applied to the space sector.

JTIs are indeed a recent model of public-private partnership whose goals are to leverage private sector investment in research, ensure critical mass by uniting currently fragmented efforts, and promote effective and efficient programme management, with an improved link between research and market needs.

The fact that the “Space strategy for Europe” stated as a clear objective in October to “explore new approaches to leverage private sector investments and partnerships with industry” is therefore very positive, and in line with the ambition expressed by the Parliament through this pilot project.

Now it is time to turn these ambitions into real outcomes. Building consensus among all relevant stakeholders is a first required success factor to move forward.

In the case of space, the largest possible range of technology suppliers (from industrial primes to SMEs), technology supporters (EU, ESA, national space agencies) as well as public and private users (EU programmes, ESA, Eumetsat, national programmes or commercial customers) should be part of the JTI reflections and set-up.

These extensive discussions are crucial to demystifying the concept of JTI, which remains largely unknown: too often for example, we hear that JTIs schemes would be excluding public authorities’ involvement, which is not accurate.

This instrument does provide the same opportunities for co-funded research that are today provided by the usual Framework Programme. In addition, while a focus would be put to close-to-market research, this would not prevent the full TRL scale to be covered – allowing therefore the participation of Research Establishments and Research and Technology Organisations.

A JTI for space would not be aimed at marginalising national space agencies or ESA, which have a paramount legacy in space research and technology developments in Europe.

Various solutions should be explored to give these actors full visibility on technology plans and implementation, and make them able to provide their views on challenges and priorities – e.g. through the creation of an ad hoc “advisory board” in the future JTI.

These upcoming discussions must be part and parcel of the wider debate on FP9 and the structure of its space-specific line.

From this standpoint, the European Parliament will be particularly vigilant in ensuring that the next Framework Programme becomes an even more appropriate vehicle to achieve the optimal continuity of actions from research to innovation, for the competitiveness of the European space sector and the autonomy of our continent in space.

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