Europe Looks Overseas for Space Research Participants

By | October 1, 2010 | Government, Via Satellite

 In July this year, the European Commission reached out to the United States in the space sector, inviting U.S. companies and researchers to participate in European Union (EU) funding for space research projects.

Commission officials held a conference July 21 at Stanford University to explain the ins and outs of the EU Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). Just the day before, the EU had announced a competition for 99 million euros ($126.3 million) of funding in this sector. FP7 is the EU’s main tool for funding research in Europe. It covers the period from 2007 to 2013 with a budget of 50.5 billion euros ($64.4 billion), excluding nuclear research. The space component of this budget is 1.4 billion euros ($1.79 billion) over the seven-year FP7 program.

This year’s research funding program will focus on propulsion and space transportation technologies, robotic exploration, cubesats, mitigation of impacts from near-Earth objects and exploitation of data from space missions. Cubesats are nanosatellites typically carrying scientific experiments and said to have been pioneered by California Polytechnic State University and Stanford University.

One of the first FP7 calls relating to space in 2007 contained 40 million euros ($51 million) in funding for the Global Navigation Satellite System (GNSS) research and technological development, including work on the European Galileo and EGNOS programs. Subsequent calls have added substantially more funds for GNSS projects.

The July space research call was one of 51 such calls in various areas issued on the same day. For instance, the commission also launched further calls for proposals holding out 30.5 million euros ($38.9 million) for satellite navigation. Another 6.5 million euros ($8.3 million) will be used for calls to be published in early 2011, according to the European GNSS Supervisory Authority.

The current space research call has a Nov. 25 deadline. Companies would have had to started well in advance to meet the funding criteria, set up relevant consortia and otherwise comply with the paperwork.

There is a lot of preparation in Europe for setting up appropriate teams, which must include partners from at least three EU member states. For instance, one Italian region set up a “European research and business speed-dating” event in July to help partners match up with proposals. The U.K. Space Agency held its own “U.K. FP7 Space Information Day and Networking Event” in July a few days before the call. Another Italian University in September held an official international information day for FP7 Space Call. Information days are routinely held in Brussels in relation to FP7 themes and funding.

The outreach to the United States is another manifestation of this effort to attract the best proposals. The European Commission wants further international participation in the FP7 Space Research Program, especially by space-faring countries. The best way to whip up enthusiasm is to extend information days abroad, all the way to the Stanford campus.

A small industry has arisen in the preparation of FP7 proposals, given the intricacy of the rules on how to apply and match project ideas to commission expectations. An amazing amount of detail is required. A commission official at the Stanford event explained the various steps in the project life cycle, described as preparing a proposal, submission, the review process, negotiation and contract issues. There are minimum EU partner rules, such as the requirement to have at least three independent partners from the 27 EU member states and associated states (countries that contribute to the FP7 budget such as Switzerland, Israel and Turkey). The U.S. entity must establish links to an EU consortium that will submit the proposal.

Complicated rules govern the limited opportunities for direct funding to a U.S. partner in a consortium. These are spelled out in detailed legal documents issued in 2006 at the start of FP7 and subject to annual work programs. There is also the possibility for U.S. partners to participate on a zero-funding basis, the advantage of which escapes us.

Apparently U.S. entities have successfully participated in FP7 space projects. One commission presentation at the Stanford event noted that seven American universities as well as NASA and Los Alamos National Laboratory have been included in these projects.

The home site for FP7 is at http://cordis.europa.eu/home_en.html.

Gerry Oberst is a partner in the Hogan & Hartson Brussels office.

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