Socio-economic impact evaluation study of the UK subscription to ESO

Publication date: 11 March 2022 | Report language: EN

The UK’s Science and Technology Facilities Council (STFC), part of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI), operates a range of world-class research facilities in the UK and manages UK access to several others internationally. These are essential to the delivery of the Council’s three-part vision (discovering the secrets of the universe, developing advanced technologies and solving real-world challenges), while also supporting UKRI’s mission of convening, catalysing and investing to build a thriving R&I system for the UK.

One such international facility is the European Southern Observatory (ESO), which designs and operates some of the largest telescopes in the world, providing state-of-the-art facilities for astronomers and astrophysicists in its Member countries (including the UK, which joined in 2002). STFC commissioned Technopolis to undertake an evaluation of the UK subscription to ESO, encompassing an impact evaluation of the benefits of membership, a process evaluation focusing on industrial return, and the development of a framework for future monitoring efforts.

Main Findings from the Impact Evaluation

World-Class Research

World-Class Innovation

World-Class Skills

Science diplomacy

Costs and (monetised) Benefits

The pooled investments of ESO Members have enabled instruments and facilities that could not be developed by any one member alone. The UK’s 17% contribution supports the construction, maintenance and operation of the observatories, plus 700 staff, and provides the UK with preferential access to the facility. UK contributions have averaged £22.7m per year (2020 prices) over its 19 years of membership (excluding joining fees and a special contribution for the Extremely Large Telescope).
The small proportion of socio-economic impacts suitable for monetisation, resulted in a conservative estimate of £45.5m per annum in benefits for the UK (2020 prices), complemented by a wide range of non-monetised impacts across research, innovation, skills and diplomacy.

Recommendations for future monitoring

An updated monitoring and evaluation framework has been proposed for STFC to use in tracking the benefits flowing from the UK’s subscription to ESO. This would ensure a more wide-ranging and robust assessment of achievements and an enhanced evidence base.

Main Findings from the Process Evaluation

STFC plays a key role in promoting opportunities for UK companies to win commercial contracts from international facilities, ensuring a return from public investments.
Increasing the UK’s industrial return from ESO is a long-term goal, that is sensitive to ESO spending cycles and requires long-term commitment and investment. The UK’s return has been weaker in the last few years, largely due to it not leading the physical construction of the ELT. Returning the UK’s return coefficient (the ratio between its share of contract value and its share of membership contributions) to the ‘good’ levels achieved historically is a key challenge.

Recommendations for increasing the UK’s industrial return from ESO

The evaluation has put forward a series of recommendations for the UK ESO Industrial Liaison Officer (ILO) and wider STFC Business Opportunities team that may help to improve the UK’s industrial return from ESO in future. This includes suggestions for additional help to suppliers in understanding and interpreting requirements or in meeting the costs of bidding, further development of internal management tools and databases to better track industry engagement and target future support efforts, and looking for additional opportunities to leverage the capabilities, resources and activities of partners to raise awareness and support new and existing UK suppliers to benefit from the opportunities available through ESO.