George’s View - The New Frontier: Genomics, Space and 2016’s ‘moonshot’ moment

15th January 2016

When people ask me who my political hero is, they expect me to provide the usual answers of a Conservative politician: Churchill, Disraeli, Thatcher. Even – if they know I am the great great great nephew of Gladstone – the Grand Old Man himself.

But while they were all inspiring leaders, my political hero is actually from a different country and of a different party: JFK. For me, he represents everything politics should be about: vision, ambition and the power of politics to make a difference.

That’s why it was a great privilege yesterday to set out the Government’s ambition for the UK space sector. Space, of course, symbolised JFK’s vision of the New Frontier: the ‘frontier of unknown opportunities’ he talked about at the 1960 Democratic National Convention, beyond which stood 'the uncharted areas of science and space’. Later, in his inspiring inaugural address on a frosty morning in Washington at the very height of the Cold War, he set out how achieving this vision was a collective endeavour: ‘And so, my fellow Americans: ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country.'

He launched America on a mission of internationalism. Two years on, in his Apollo speech, he announced that America chose to go to the moon, not because it was easy, but because it was hard. It was a goal forged from the best instincts of mankind. I think it is a tribute to society that on the moon is left an inscription stating that mankind came in a spirit of freedom and peace.

Over half a century later, a British astronaut is continuing JFK’s original mission. Right now, Major Tim Peake floats in orbit above us. He is the first British European Space Agency astronaut and the first British astronaut to enter the international space station.

The fact that such a mission is possible shows the power of geopolitics. In the dark days of the Cold War when JFK made his inaugural speech, who could have imagined that we would now have an international space station in which Americans, Russians and people from across the world work together for the good of all?

It also shows the strength of UK leadership in this sector. The UK’s involvement in space ranges from fundamental underpinning research into the origins of the universe, to understanding and protecting our planet, through to supporting the research behind new multimillion-pound telecommunication satellites. Some 25% of the world’s telecommunication satellites are substantially built here in the UK.

And space is serious business too. The UK space industry is an £11.8 billion industry, employing 35,000 highly skilled people. Through this Government’s activist industrial policy, we have securing £80 million for the international space station, which was crucial to securing Tim Peake’s role in it, and set out a bold Space Strategy, outlining how the Government will support the sector.

Indeed, the future of the UK space sector promises great things. In 2016 the UK will be building the main experiment on the Plato mission that will search for new earths orbiting other stars, in pursuit of answers to the profound question about life elsewhere in the universe, and will precipitate key contracts for UK companies.

There are also real prospects for the young people inspired by Tim Peake and the Rosetta mission to work in our very strong and vibrant space economy which is growing at about 8% a year, three times faster than the average non-finance sector. It is characterised by an incredibly highly skilled workforce, half of whom hold at least a first degree. Those direct jobs each support more than two jobs in the wider economy. The sector has a general value added per job of £140,000, three times higher than the UK average.

That’s why the Government’s Space Strategy is a long-term endeavour with international collaboration, industrial co-investment, skills development and considerable planning at its heart. Stability and certainty are important, and the national space policy is the Government’s expression of our long-term commitment to seeing it through and to putting in place a policy landscape to support that investment. With long-term vision and active support from Government, there is no limit to what the UK space sector can achieve.

I have always believed that politics is at its best when it tackles the major questions. Fundamentally, space exploration is about mankind’s destiny—the questing spirit deep in us all and in society to inquire, discover, imagine, explore and make possible whole new worlds and opportunities. 

When setting our his vision of the New Frontier, JFK said that 'the times demand new invention, innovation, imagination, decision’, led by 'pioneers on that New Frontier’. Which leads to a central question: alongside our continued exploration of space, where is the New Frontier for our time, the ‘uncharted areas of science’ JFK spoke about? The ‘moonshot’ moment of the 21st century?

I believe our ‘moonshot’ moment is genomics, and the ‘pioneers on that New Frontier’ the scientists and researchers changing the way we view medicine. Boldly going where humanity have never gone before and discovering the new frontier of the DNA inside every cell inside us, helping prevent disease and find new cures.

When Kennedy made his inaugural address, the idea of sequencing a genome was a distant dream. Now the UK is making it a reality with our 100,000 Genome Project. That’s why the Prime Minister and I have committed to making the UK the world-leader in this new age of bio-science, and put genomics at the heart of the Life Sciences Strategy and my work as the first ever Minister for Life Sciences.

Indeed, far from the UK catching up with the US, it is now the other way round. Last year I visited the White House to share the UK’s progress on genomics and precision medicine. Soon after, President Obama announced that the US would follow our lead, setting out a major precision medicine programme and building on this initiative in his recent State of the Union speech as he announced his goal to cure cancer.

Alongside watching Tim Peake’s remarkable adventure, we can also be proud that it is UK science and vision that is continuing JFK’s goal to ‘explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce’.

Exploring what lies beyond the New Frontier is what inspired me to become an MP, and inspires me now as Minister for Life Sciences, driving forward the vision the Prime Minister and I set out for the UK to lead the world on genomics. A vision, in the words of JFK, to ‘invoke the wonders of science’ for the benefit of all. Or as another visionary, David Bowie, once put it: ‘tomorrows of rich surprise’.

Big Tent Ideas Festival

Politics is undergoing a tectonic shift. That’s why this year I launched the first-ever Big Tent Ideas Festival, aiming to tackle the most difficult policy challenges we face. Bringing together over a hundred thinkers across the political spectrum, we discussed new ideas on everything from Brexit to intergenerational fairness, centred around three main themes: Politics, Society and Economy.

The Big Tent Ideas Festival is part of the new Capital Ideas Foundation, and will be setting off round the country over the next twelve months as the forum for the best new ideas in public policy. Click below and join us.

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