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Editorial Spring 2015

I noticed that ESA has recently published an interesting call for commercial partners in space exploration. Calling new partners for exploring the moon and Mars. The announcement was for a call for ideas to assess how companies could join forces with ESA in novel partnerships. I welcome this approach by ESA and look forward to developing similar ideas for the EO services domain. This will mean taking some difficult decisions but together we can all benefit.
In this respect, we recently participated with Eurospace to co-organise a workshop addressing priorities in future calls for the space part of the H2020 programme. For those unaware, H2020 is the research programme of the European Union replacing the Framework programme as it was previously known. Calls are issued approximately once per year under different thematic priorities which define the research activities which shall be undertaken.

The research priorities and hence the calls are determined by the European Commission but with a very strong input provided by the Member States through the programme committee. Additionally, the EC is often given expert advice by the Expert Advisory board comprising individuals selected for their background knowledge and expertise. Essentially, decisions are in the hands of the Member States; nowhere is there room for a formal view coming from the industry.

This has long been an issue for EARSC (and for Eurospace) since it means that the projects which are ultimately selected are not necessarily connected with commercial goals. In the earlier Framework programme the situation was worse because the instruments (ie the rules by which participants receive funding) were unfavourable towards private sector players. H2020 is better but it will take some years to see if this is reflected through more exploitable products and services.

Hence this meeting, addressed towards the EC, was the industry approach to getting its views heard. EARSC vice-chairman Chetan Pradhan presented our views (presentation) and made several telling points including the need for stronger industrial participation in projects, the need to improve success rates as even very strong proposals receiving marks of greater than 93% are being rejected and most importantly that a strategy is needed to ensure that actions are coherent and the effort is not widely dispersed.

I saw another reflection on this last point in a recent article by Luc de Keyser of Stratfor ;“Rolling a boulder up Mount Everest”. This is a subscriber only service so I cannot link you to the article but it discusses the proliferation of research and the laws of large numbers. Luc starts by reminding us how policy makers are often unaware of their impacts. He recalls the legend of the inventor of chess who was offered a reward by his king and asked simply for grains of rice on each of the 64 squares starting with 1 and doubling for each additional square (so reaching 2^64 on the last one). The king was happy to accept this apparently modest request not being aware that, in total it would lead to a pile the size of a mountain and representing 1000 times the annual global rice production!

He goes on to talk about mathematical progressions in research such as varying elements which make up the design of a revolving door or a modern commercial aircraft and links this to the notion that each research project leads to more questions than answers and so, whilst the total knowledge increases, the total of unknowns increases even faster. Imagine an expanding balloon where each puff represents a new research result but the surface of unknowns expands geometrically in consequence. He uses as an example the human genome project where in the late 90’s there was enormous investment going into the competition to unravel its components with the great promise to understand the link between certain genes and diseases. But it was just the start and the consequences are large.

Scientists have now acknowledged that even though we know the human genetic code, we don’t really comprehend how it works. There are plenty of bits and pieces of the puzzle that have become clear, but we are only now beginning to realize the immense amount of work ahead of us in our quest for a deeper understanding of the complex interactions between the DNA components and cellular layers that make up a living being. Again, this represents the problem of big numbers: Scientists would need to explore the thousands of different proteins that can be spliced and reassembled into many different combinations, as well as the myriad factors that can affect genetic expression, including the conditions of the womb, stress at birth and the development of individual microbiomes on the skin and in the gastrointestinal tract. Combine these variants with the alternatives that arise in experimentation and the testing of new therapies, and we reach an astronomical number of options that are too unwieldy to test one by one.

What this is telling us is that some more focused efforts are necessary to deliver better returns against the large investments being made. Again I prefer to quote the words from the article:

An explanation for each human disease and disorder exists somewhere within this vast array of data. We now know more about some diseases with simpler processes such as Huntington’s chorea. A silver bullet cure for common chronic illnesses such as diabetes, cardiovascular diseases and most cancers remains elusive. At the time of the Human Genome Project’s inception, enough information was known to anticipate the staggering number of possibilities that scientists would encounter and to adopt more modest and realistic goals accordingly. Had policymakers done so, perhaps they would have devised an approach that was more productive than a high-profile race between public and private institutions. Given all that we don’t know and likely will not know for some time, it is discouraging to see that, today, occasional articles triumphantly announce the discovery of the gene for obesity or Alzheimer’s, knowing that a cure is likely further from our reach than we realize. 

Taking decisions is difficult and whilst the winners are satisfied, those which lose by the decision are not. Hence public money is usually spent in ways which keep as many people happy as possible. But we see the consequences of this in the quotes above and it brings me back to one of our central requests to European policy makers that we need a strategy (a roadmap) to inform on future investment decisions. Furthermore, if we are to put commercial success as a goal by generating economic benefits and jobs, then the private sector must have a formal and recognised voice in the process. This will require a new type of partnership; not necessarily new for the EU but new for our sector. It must bring together the EO services sector (of course) with the policy makers and should include the other players in the geospatial services sector including representatives of communities dealing with big data (IT infrastructure), data sources (UAS, in-situ, space) and tools (GIS, Cloud etc). Collectively, this group can then develop a strategic research roadmap to bring focus to the actions and reduce waste and duplication.

by Geoff Sawyer
EARSC Secretary General