UK space exploration's shoestring budget, Tories could benefit from Lib Dem surge and others

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UK space exploration cannot survive on a shoestring budget

UK space exploration cannot survive on a shoestring budget

Sir: On 14 January the Huygens space probe, with a scientific instrument from my own team as well as major UK industry involvement, landed intact on the surface of Titan, Saturn's largest moon. However, without an appropriate level of investment this could be the last time the UK participates in such a high-profile voyage of discovery. UK scientists played a key role in the European Space Agency (ESA) Huygens probe and in the Nasa-led Cassini orbiter which carried Huygens to Saturn.

However, UK space science is increasingly living on a shoestring relative to international competitors. At less than 0.02 per cent of GDP (2001), the UK civil space budget is now between two and four times less than those of members of ESA such as France, Italy, Germany and Belgium, and less than the civil space budgets of India and Japan. At around £50m, less than £1 a year per head of population, support is at an all-time low.

Nevertheless, the UK space science community was encouraged that funds are being held in a contingency line for national involvement in the ESA's Aurora planetary exploration programme. Aurora will be an outstanding scientific programme that will help explain the origins of life while creating useful spin-off technology. Equally, it will inspire young minds that science and technology can be worth pursuing as a career. A MORI poll in February 2004 showed that 70 per cent of the British population recognises the importance of space exploration.

Following the technology developed for Beagle 2 and the outstanding success of Huygens, the UK is well placed to play a leading role in Aurora.

However, government will need to make substantial new investment in both the ESA and related national programmes if the UK scientific and industrial community is to realise its potential within the broad Aurora framework. We sincerely hope this will be the case following the generous settlement for the support of the sciences recently announced - but we remain uncertain.

From the beginning of the space age, UK scientists have been at the forefront of the space-based disciplines. It would be tragic if we were unable to play a major role in this important European initiative.

JOHN ZARNECKI
Professor of Space Science, The Open University
Milton Keynes

Tories could benefit from Lib Dem surge

Sir: Your report about Charles Kennedy's optimism ("Lib Dems 'poised to break the election glass ceiling' ", 23 March) reveals that many of the Liberal Democrats' election promises are designed to appeal to the self-centred middle class electorate. Replacing council tax with increased income tax, abolishing university tuition fees and introducing free personal care for the elderly will not help the nation's poor because they are already exempt from all of these.

The plan to introduce a 50 per cent income tax rate is a classic piece of "politics of envy". As the Germans have discovered, it is unlikely to produce the predicted revenue because, in our globalised world, many high earners can choose in which country they get paid. Perhaps the Liberal Democrats want to turn the clock back to the good old days of the "brain drain" when many of our brightest sought refuge overseas.

Charles Kennedy's declaration that his party can "win the general election" is reminiscent of David Steel's notorious "go back to your constituencies and prepare for Government" speech made before the 1983 election. Now, as then, the most significant result of a third party revival would be a split in the anti-Tory vote. Michael Howard may yet benefit as much as Margaret Thatcher did from a fractured and fractious left.

BRIAN HUGHES
Cheltenham, Gloucestershire

Sir: Your editorial complains the Liberal Democrats' advertising campaign is having "little impact", and the voice of liberalism is being drowned out (23 March).

Over recent weeks we have been the only political party standing up for liberal views on Gypsies, asylum, basic civil liberties - and against the "increasingly nasty debate" for which you rightly castigate the Labour and Conservative parties. We have published specific policies on defending civil liberties and addressing the needs and rights of minorities.

The other two parties have "enjoyed" coverage for mudslinging and - in the case of the Conservatives - a clear appeal to prejudice. A fat lot of good it has done them; compared to last time, Labour has lost ground to the Liberal Democrats, and the Conservatives are going nowhere.

This week, we stepped up a gear. The Liberal Democrats' advertising campaign featured extensively on every major TV news bulletin and programme on the day, as well as being seen by millions of readers. And this is just the start - but it will stay positive, because that is what we believe is right.
The Independent is prepared to be different from its rivals - I'd hope it would welcome the fact that we are prepared to do the same.

MATTHEW TAYLOR MP
Chairman, Liberal Democrat Parliamentary Party

Sir: I share the voting dilemma of Martin Carthy and Norma Waterson - having an apparatchik, pro-war Labour MP, an anti-war Lib Dem, and a non-descript Tory (letter, 22 March). But I have come to an opposite conclusion.

Rather than voting for a party led by Tony Blair, a man they believe to be the "slipperiest, most profoundly disliked politician to hold the office of Prime Minister in our lifetime", I will vote Lib Dem even if it risks a Howard-led Tory government.

For me it is important to look at the long term. Blair's deception and invasion of Iraq (and indeed anything extreme that Howard might do) simply could not have happened if we had had proportional representation. Voting Lib Dem might risk producing horrors in the short term. But in the long run it is the only way we can challenge the irresponsibility of the two-party system, and restore some honesty and integrity into politics. Who knows - might it not even work in the next parliament?

JAMES PITT
York

Refugees want to work

Sir: We are writing in response to the article which appeared on the front page of The Independent on 14 March about the situation of highly educated and professionally qualified asylum seekers and refugees. For many years the college where we teach has run English classes in which these people can study, alongside overseas students, to prepare for exams such as the IELTS (International English Language Testing System). This is required both for university entry and for professionals such as teachers and medical personnel (doctors, dentists and nurses) to work in Britain, which many of our former students are now doing.

Unfortunately, recent changes in government funding regulations dictate that in future these so-called "home students" will not be eligible for funding for exam preparation courses for IELTS or other of the "Cambridge suite". Instead they will be restricted to enrolling to do a "Skills for Life" course, the website for which gives as a sample exam question job advertisements for a cleaner and shop assistant. A further effect of this change is that "home students" will be segregated from "overseas students".

This new measure is not only divisive and unjust but will only perpetuate the absurdity of qualified doctors and other professionals being forced to either draw benefit or work in kitchens.

KATHERINE JACKSON

SHARON WATSON
and 18 others
Birmingham

Gay but not grateful

Sir: Peter Forster (letter, 23 March) is right to point out that there has been more anti-gay legislation removed from the statute books under this Labour government than any other. He is, however, wrong to suggest we should be grateful for the removal of what should never have been there in the first place. Celebratory, yes, but not grateful.

These are our rights, not Labour's generous bestowals. We are not grateful to someone who ceases to punch us in the face unless we have internalised the idea that being punched in the face is normal.

It is under such circumstances that we now accept "marriage lite", keep quiet about sexuality being omitted from the remit of the Commission for Equality and Human Rights, turn our backs on lesbian and gay asylum-seekers being sent back to their countries and possible murder, ignore religious bodies peddling hate-speech and workplace discrimination, and think it's OK for organisations with charitable status not to be required to practice equal opportunities. This is far from a country of sexual equality.

FORD HICKSON
London SW8

Stamp issues

Sir: Donald Macleod (letter, 12 March) expressed the grievance of the Royal College of Surgeons of Edinburgh that the request 18 months ago, for a stamp issue to commemorate its 500th anniversary this July was turned down while Royal Mail is able to produce stamps on 8 April to mark the wedding of Prince Charles and Camilla Parker Bowles at very short notice. David Nowell (letter, 18 March) is not surprised at the rejection, suggesting that the Royal College left it too late to make its application.

Despite its title, it cannot be said that, in producing the wedding stamps, Royal Mail is simply pandering to the Royal Family. On 19 December 2003, stamps were issued to celebrate England's Rugby World Cup victory over Australia less than a month earlier.

There are simply too many special issues, most of which, as Royal Mail well know, are bought by collectors, and, not being used for postage, merely help to boost profits. The result is counterproductive: since very few of the special stamps are used for postage, the public is unaware of the event being commemorated.

If Royal Mail is not willing to reduce the number of special issues, perhaps it could consider withdrawing its "definitive" 1st and 2nd class stamps so that the commemorative issues would, at least, be more widely used and seen.

DAVID LAMMING
Groton, Suffolk

America's war

Sir: Under your heading "Saved by the Russians" Olaf Christiansen presents a letter that is a quagmire of ifs and buts (12 March).

Of course the Russians' contribution to victory in the Second World War was massive and at terrible cost, but it is very, very questionable that they could have won it alone. And if they had, what type of world would it have been? It most certainly would have taken them much longer, and many millions more would have been murdered in the death camps. And then what, Mr Christiansen? Would we not have swapped one evil empire for one that was just as rotten?

No, warts and all, we should be very thankful for America's contribution to the history of the 20th century and the freedoms we have today. Having lived through 76 years, I most certainly am.

JOHN HAYWARD
Buckhurst Hill, Essex

Political questions

Sir: The Conservative Party's poster campaign seems no more popular in north London than it is in Longsight (letter, 23 March). The poster in Bounds Green that reads "It's not racist to impose controls on immigration" has been amended with a large "Tories are racist". In nearby Crouch End, the poster that reads "I mean, how hard is it to keep a hospital clean?" has had "You should know, you privatised it" added underneath.

The ending question on this poster campaign is, "Are you thinking what we're thinking?", to which I find myself mentally answering "No", every time I see it.

KATHRYN QUINN
London N13

Grounds for concern

Sir: If Chris Partridge really thinks it exciting when leaseholders lose their entire investment in their homes through failure to pay just the ground rent ("Freeholds can be fun", Property, 16 March), he must positively salivate at the pleasure he experiences when seeing homeless people on the streets.

NIGEL WILKINS
London SW7

Death certificates

Sir: In respect of the tragic death of Luke Day (report, 23 March), and other sudden deaths in infancy or otherwise, the coroner is responsible for the signing of the death certificate, on the advice of the pathologist who conducts the post-mortem. The signing of the certificate in this case was never in the hands of the hospital. Since the cause of death was suspected, then confirmed, we have been completely open about the cause of death and have been at the greatest pains to establish how it may have come about.

Dr MICHAEL BAMFORD
Department of Paediatrics, Ipswich Hospital

Solemn commitment

Sir: Philip Hensher attributes the remark "We prepare our boys to face death" to an Abbot of Ampleforth (Opinion, 23 March). In fact, it was originally said by the headmaster (later Abbot) of Downside, Dom Wilfrid Pasmore, in about 1950. He used to relate this story to us boys quite frequently. If an Abbot of Ampleforth said it later he no doubt borrowed it from Dom Wilfrid.

ANTHONY CAMPBELL
London N14

Health care dilemma

Sir: Mark Doran (letter, 21 March) has hit the nail on the head. It was the American C Everett Koop who, when he was Surgeon General of the United States, said that we cannot provide first-class health care to all comers and control the cost. We can do any two of the three, but not all of them.

ROBERT L BRATMAN
Llwydcoed, Mid-Glamorgan

Call-centre etiquette

Sir: Terence Blacker ("The harsh truth about modern manners", 22 March) criticises the manners of the "half-human, half-Dalek" who speaks to you from a call centre. Surely the real test of good manners lies in the words with which you reply before hanging up?

JOHN HORNE
Windermere, Cumbria

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