Page last updated at 23:00 GMT, Thursday, 9 October 2008 00:00 UK

Minister wants astronaut 'icon'

By Jonathan Amos
Science reporter, BBC News

Paul Drayson
The motor racing peer would like to see a Brit in an astronaut helmet

Britain's new science minister has made it clear that he thinks the country ought to have an astronaut.

Lord Drayson said the UK needed "icons" for science, to encourage the next generation to take up subjects that would boost the knowledge economy.

Human spaceflight was one of those arenas that could inspire young people, he told BBC News.

The minister is awaiting the outcome of a formal review into UK policy. It will report in the next few months.

"I need to see what the review comes up with, but you can detect from what I say that I'm an enthusiast because I see the value," he said.

"I was nine when man landed on the Moon and I know how things have an influence on the young generation. What I need to do as science minister is make sure that the current generation of young people are as excited by science as I was."

Lord Drayson tells the story of how he took his family on a tour of the Kennedy Space Center in Florida this year, and how enthused his children became about the prospect of going into space. His 11-year-old daughter was committed to becoming an astronaut, he said.

The European Space Agency (Esa) is currently recruiting its next batch of astronauts and several Britons remain in the selection race. Whether any of them actually get called into the astronaut corps, however, may depend on the UK putting many millions of pounds into an Esa programme it has steadfastly refused to fund for 20 years.

Those UK-born individuals who have flown in space recently - Michael Foale, Piers Sellers and Nicholas Patrick - took out US citizenship to enrol in Nasa's astronaut programme.

The first and only astronaut to fly as a Briton with a Union flag on the spacesuit was Helen Sharman in 1991. Since her privately organised trip to the Russian Mir space station, the UK has been a spectator in the human spaceflight arena.

Whatever the outcome, the minister says Britain will continue to be a leader in space and he lauds its companies for their "transformational role" in turning the sector into such an important part of UK PLC.

Science enforcer

Lord Drayson is a multi-millionaire businessman who made his fortune in biotechnology.

He was asked to take up the science brief by Prime Minister Gordon Brown in last week's reshuffle.

It sees the peer return to government after taking a year out to concentrate on motor racing in the US, where he has been running an Aston Martin in the American Le Mans Series.

Columbus (ESA)
The UK does not currently fund ESA's human spaceflight programme

He said he had no hesitation in coming back to take up what he described as his "dream job".

On Thursday, he called together the science correspondents of London's leading press and broadcasting outlets, to outline his priorities for the months ahead.

"My agenda is to be a champion for science, engineering and innovation within the government and to build on the real success that my predecessors and this government has had with its science.

"We have doubled the budget, we have transformed the way science is commercialised, we have got the infrastructure of the science base into really good shape.

"My job is to defend that, to maintain that, but to take it to the next step."

New opportunities

Lord Drayson will be in the cabinet. He will be tasked with making sure that good science underpins government policy. And in the distraction of the financial turmoil that surrounds the world economy currently, he said he would press the need for the UK to maintain investment in science and innovation.

"At this time of uncertainty when other countries may be looking at cutting their science budget, or the companies in those countries are looking at cutting their science, I believe this is an opportunity for us to move up the competitive league table; because, of course, we will come out of this downturn.

"We want to position the United Kingdom to be stronger at the end of it; and this is the time for us to provide the stability such that those SMEs - hi-tech young companies - can see that we are committed to what we have been doing over the last few years."

And to those who would inevitably have to leave the financial sector because of the downturn, he said there would be opportunities for them in science.

"When I was in the biotech industry I lost a few, really excellent good scientists to the City. Now is a good time for them to consider thinking about coming back into science," he told BBC News.

"How about being a science teacher? We need more science teachers who are qualified in the sciences. ...[or] think about starting up a science-based enterprise."

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