Monitoring, Evaluation and Benefits Management for the UK’s investments in the European Space Agency

Space shuttle flying over the clouds, photo by 3dsculptor/Adove Stock

Photo by 3dsculptor/Adobe Stock

The UK’s involvement in the European Space Agency

The UK has been a member state of the European Space Agency (ESA) since its inception on May 30th, 1975, and has been a significant contributor to its programmes and initiatives. The UK's involvement in ESA is delivered via the UK Space Agency, providing access to European space infrastructure and collaboration opportunities with other member states. It has been critical in supporting the delivery of the present and future of the UK's National Space Strategy (NSS), which was introduced only two years ago emphasising evolving strategies and developments, aligning with the nation's broader goals in space exploration and technological advancements.

The UK Space Agency contributes approximately 70-75% of its annual budget to ESA, with £1.84 billion committed by the UK between 2023 and 2027.

The UK's commitment to ESA secured several projects, including the launch of the UK-built Rosalind Franklin Mars Rover, the VIGIL space weather mission, and the TRUTHS climate laboratory. In addition to mission participation, knowledge generation and the maintenance of national security, the UK's involvement in ESA programmes has further domestic benefits, including an estimated return on investment of 1:9.8 in terms of gross value added.

Furthermore, the knowledge generated through these programmes significantly benefits other sectors. These spillover effects stimulate economic growth and technological innovation across various industries, as well as creating new employment opportunities. Additionally, the UK follows ESA's strategy of improving our understanding of climate change and focuses on the sustainability and environmental performance of space activities.

What is the issue?

There are clear technological, economic, collaborative, social and environmental benefits associated with the UK’s investment in ESA, but there remains a need to be accountable and transparent on how the investment is benefiting the UK in public return. As an example, a UK government inquiry into UK space strategy and satellite infrastructure highlighted the need to link participation in ESA programmes more firmly to the aims of the NSS.

Despite evidence strongly supporting the UK's investment in the ESA, stakeholders emphasised the need to develop a stronger national programme. These concerns are concurrent with the progress made by the UK space sector in developing UK launch capabilities. The government's response to the inquiry emphasised the importance of delivering on the UK's objectives against the NSS through national programmes, stating that this will be a key consideration in shaping future investment decisions.

How are we helping?

RAND Europe has been commissioned by the UK Space Agency to conduct a monitoring, evaluation and benefits management study for UK Space Agency’s investments in ESA. We are leading the study with economic evaluation experts from Ipsos, two senior space technology colleagues from RAND US (Bonnie Triezenberg and Peter Whitehead) and Amanda Regan (ex-ESA engineer and programme leader).

The UK Space Agency’s investment in ESA is itself a highly complex intervention to evaluate. The M&E activity funded through this project will provide an understanding of the contribution the UK’s investments in ESA make to the UK’s overall space R&D capabilities and sector growth. This supports the optimisation of ongoing delivery and provides a justification for the large-scale investments, but with an appreciation that the benefits are highly probabilistic. To achieve this, this inception phase of this evaluation will consider the caveats of previous iterations evaluating the UK’s investment in ESA, to deliver highly informed impact, process and economic evaluations across the defined programme portfolio.

Considering the caveats identified by UK Space Agency, the impact evaluation aims to tackle uncertainties related to the returns on investment resulting from UK’s contributions to ESA. The evaluation will specifically concentrate on the probabilistic benefits that stem from certain aspects of ESA activities.