Thu. May 26th, 2022

Britain must become a “scientific superpower” where British-built rockets will launch British-built satellites that run everything from cybersecurity to deliver pizza, the new science minister George Freeman told Sky News.

Freeman says he will put Britain’s days as a ‘science leader but innovation lagging’ behind us, arguing that British consumers are ready to embrace new products such as genetically modified meat that will improve animal welfare and tackle the climate crisis.

But could the pressure on public finances, as well as increasingly sour links with the EU, stem the ambitions of the former biomedical venture capitalist?

Today, Freeman announces £ 440,000 in new funding from the British Space Agency for research into the health of astronauts. Understand why and how astronauts’ bones, muscles and eyesight begin to deteriorate after just a few days in space.

Official parliamentary portrait of George Freeman MP, now Minister of Science
George Freeman says Britain can no longer be a ‘science leader, but innovation behind’

It is fundamental for sending astronauts on long missions to the Moon and Mars. Missions that Britain wants to be a part of during its new national space strategy launched last month.

The government has invested half a billion pounds in Britain’s space industry this year – part of the new national space strategy designed to help £ 16bn. The sector competing with those in the US, China and Europe.

“The Americans are throwing huge money at this. The Chinese are throwing huge money at this. The Russians have their own program,” Freeman says.

Investing in the UK space industry and working with our allies like Europe, says the continuing MP and former trade envoy, will help increase our strategic influence worldwide.

“There are many nations – Japan, Australia, the Philippines, that want to be safe in space and do not want to be vulnerable to Russia or the Chinese or bad actors.

“They want to be part of a network, a Commonwealth, if you will, of space scientists and companies operating with the highest values. And I think that’s a great opportunity for Britain.”

Central to the national space strategy is the UK’s ability to manufacture satellites but also launch them. But the minister would not confirm that he had hit the prime minister’s boast of launching the first satellite from British soil as early as next year.

An employee faces the launch pad at Jiuquan Satellite Launch Center ahead of the Shenzhou 12 mission to build China's space station near Jiuquan, Gansu Province, China June 16, 2021
This is China's first crew mission in five years
Sir. Freeman says the United States and China are ‘throwing huge money’ at their space programs, and Britain must not be left behind

“I want to make sure that when we do that, that it’s an example of what we have here in the UK. It would be a shame, I think, to hit the target date and rely on foreign providers,” Mr Freeman said.

Whether he goes to launch may ultimately depend on how much money is left for his department in the comprehensive spending review later this month, where health and social care, COVID recovery and net-zero are all high priorities.

The ground for Chancellor Rishi Sunak is to a large extent that the space sector can be one of the UK’s biggest wealth generators: “The argument I have made to the Treasury is that this is not crisp money on some kind of space game,” says Mr. Freeman.

Relations with the EU may further limit funding for science.

Prior to Brexit, the majority of research in the UK was funded through the EU and access to important collaborations such as the Copernicus satellite program depending on EU membership.

Negotiations on how to remain part of these programs are under way, but Freeman admits they could be poisoned by deteriorating links with fisheries and Northern Ireland.

The Minister of Science also wants the UK to better commercialize its biotechnology
The Minister of Science also wants the UK to better commercialize its biotechnology

“If for some reason the EU plays hardball and we are not allowed to be part of these programs, we will invest in ensuring that the companies that have been very dependent on these programs are not left out,” he says.

However, many researchers are concerned that the cost of going into science alone will be higher than collaborating with Europe, and when funding is limited, science is often the first to lose.

Sir. Freeman also wants Britain to better commercialize its biotechnology.

He said he sympathized with British researchers, who have been pioneers in re-editing crops, only to see their ideas marketed abroad.

Gene editing, where discrete changes are made to an organism’s DNA instead of foreign genes being added using genetic modification, has the potential to improve food quality and sustainability in agriculture, he says.

With proper food labeling, he believes consumers are ready for genre-edited products.

“I think when they see that genre editing has the ability to help us develop a range of products that can dramatically improve the environment, dramatically improve animal welfare, reduce the use of chemicals dramatically, I think the public is ready for it.

“It’s an incredibly exciting moment where British science is helping to tackle global challenges.”

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