Scientists fume as state shirks space race

Scientists in Latvia are angry that the government is again preparing to postpone its ruling on whether to join the European Space Agency (ESA), leaving the national high-technology and research sector isolated from its counterparts in other EU member states, reported LTV news program Panorāma Sunday.

Thus it seems that Latvian scientists may again be having to blush with shame amongst their colleagues from the other EU member states which have paid their dues to the ESA and long since been participating as full partners in the lucrative R&D sector tied to space technologies developed by Europeans.

Uģis Cābulis of the Latvian State Institute of Wood Chemistry told Panorāma that his group of researchers are developing cryogenic isolation materials for spacecraft in cooperation with the industry giant Airbus, with a modest €250,000 budget plus a proposal drafted for a further €200,000. However, the proposal will likely languish on the shelf because Latvia must be an ESA member-state for its teams of scientists to qualify to receive the same advantageous terms available to their European colleagues’ projects and commissions.

“Year after year like some gullible patsy I keep promising – yeah, yeah, not this year, but definitely the next and I’ve been promised it will be a top priority. And in the end it looks like I’m the one who’s the fraud,” Cābulis lamented.

The membership fee of €1.3m was supposed to have been paid to the ESA already last year, but the government ruled to postpone for another year due to budgetary constraints. Now the Cabinet is proposing to push the payment back another three years, again unable to find the money anywhere in the budget.

“Here we’ve predicted all sorts of economic growth and high-tech innovations. Where will you find a higher-tech sector than space? And if they bury this, sweep it under the rug, then it’s just incomprehensible to what then is this economic growth spurt supposed to apply?,” he asked.

President Ojārs Spārītis of the Latvian Academy of Sciences was even more caustic, accusing the government of deliberately dragging its feet on economic development.

“This is no capricious scheme by which scientists hoped to increase their wages, rather these are profits bypassing the Latvian economy, that we are letting slip away. And look further at the losses in human resources. Recipients of the doctorate degrees earned at the Ventspils University College’s International Radio Astronomy Center, about nine of them, are all working in Tartu and bringing economic benefits to the Estonian national economy,” Spārītis said.

Scientists in the sector could be earning back the €1.3m membership fee many times over. It would encourage entrepreneurship and develop linked sectors, as space technologies are more frequently finding their way into daily life applications. The membership fee is due by January 31.

“If a decision is taken not to support the procurement this time, the next chance will be the mid-term budget meeting. We’re then talking about the year 2018 at the soonest,” explained the Ministry of Education and Science innovation department head Agrita Kiopa.

Last week Prime Minister Laimdota Straujuma spoke out in support of Latvia’s long-anticipated joining of the ESA despite the Cabinet having struck the item from its working agenda this week.

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