Italy and ESA: the Titanic sinks and the orchestra plays? Speech by Prof. Ezio Bussoletti, former vice president of ASI (Italian space agency)
In recent days, the space sector has been shaken by an inauspicious series of events that have not just undermined the solidity of the evidence of an Italy with a strong, complete industrial chain supported, for the first time, by a very significant government involvement and convinced even if not yet optimized.
One of the most pressing issues is the country's positioning in the ESA chessboard.
Since 2003, the end of my friend Antonio Rodotà's mandate as general manager (we worked together to prepare the 1965 European Space Plan), Italy has no longer held this strategic position despite being the third contributor to the agency. It was in the facts and in the initial convictions of the European partners that this year the place fell to Italy after the 6 years of mandate of the German DG Woerner and the 12 years of French management of JJ Dordain.
However, unfortunately, this did not prove that it would have been necessary to prepare in time, organizing the selection of the national candidacy well in advance: a public call would have avoided embarrassing situations and easy criticism in the newspapers. This solution would also have made it possible to activate the necessary support negotiation campaign in a more serene and effective way, avoiding the embarrassing presence of two competitors, apparently strong from two different political sponsorships and fighting each other.
The future, unfortunately, is black: for four years there will be a non-Italian DG and, if the chosen one was around 60 years old or less, nothing would prevent him from being renewed in the mandate, at least for a further two years so that a new possibility for our country it will arrive no earlier than 2027 or, if it were renewed for four years, it will even reach 2029.
This if we return to the unwritten historic agreement for which the position of GM was by right only of the major contributing countries: for the 2021 budget, France (24.5%), Germany (22.2%) and Italy (13 , 5%) support ESA at 60.2% of the costs.
However, the ongoing selection has shown that the DG can also be chosen by small countries in a logic of fictitious equality between the States despite the significant differences in financial contributions compared to those of the big three.
The last interviews of the three candidates who arrived at the end of the selection of over 200 candidates were held on November 17. They are: the director of the Norwegian Space Agency, the Spanish astronaut and Minister for Science and the Austrian head of the Directorate of Earth Observations, Esrin, based in Frascati.
The three, all with excellent curricula and well known and respected internationally , are the result of negotiations that have neutralized, excluding him, the bulky figure of a fearsome competitor, the President of the French Space Agency.
The final phase will be held on Tuesday 24 November in the meeting of the heads of delegation where Italy, once again, given the caliber and professionalism of the character, will be represented by our Ambassador to the OECD, unlike the other countries that line up norm the presidents of their space agencies.
Barring unforeseen reversals, the candidates for the final choice are the Spanish and the Austrian: the first supported by France while the second is strongly supported by Germany. Presumably in the first round, the Nordic countries will vote for the Norwegian candidate pending verification of the distribution of the positions of the other countries towards the two contenders.
France already has a strong weight in the European spatial structure, it would seem strange that it decided to open yet another battle with the Germans to pass the candidacy of Pedro Duque (Spain contributes 5.1%); a softer position would instead make it possible to acquire or consolidate, as always happened in the past, positions of control in ESA which would not just sterilize the power of the General Manager. Strategy and logic would suggest this positioning but the spirit of General De Gaulle always hovers among the rulers of Paris so anything could be possible.
If the group headed by Germany prevails, the new Director General will be the Austrian Joseph Aschbacher who has spent all his professional life in ESA and in recent years has consolidated a position of right-hand man of the German Director of Earth Observations and, in the 2015, he inherited the post thanks to other mistakes made by Italy.
He is a prepared, politically capable person and can play the card of representing a small country (Austria contributes 1.26% to ESA) to which for the first time in ESA history is given the same importance as the big three.
It is to be expected that the negotiation between the delegations will be neither simple nor short, especially if there will be some sudden change of shirt following agreements on the subsequent partitioning of the royal command posts in ESA.
And here we go on another sore point: less than a year ago all the heads of the Directorates were renewed with a deadline of some in 2023 and others in 2024 so that, at most, only positions in the lower hierarchical levels are negotiable, A6 and A5 useful for the operational management of the institution but without real political-managerial power.
The serious thing is that, in 2019 when the outgoing DG presented this proposal, Italy also approved it without considering that in this way it annihilated all the possibilities of having a valid plan B if the conquest of the General Management had failed. in 2020; embarrassing demonstration of an inability of strategic and tactical vision of those who represented us at that time in ESA.
Ultimately the situation is not easy for Italy whoever will be the chosen DG.
If Duque passes, our country will remain with a single Directorate, the technical one of Estec in the Netherlands, no longer relevant as it was in the past given the new structures of the Agency, remaining with the same weak political weight inherited from the previous non-brilliant management of the ' Asi .
We will have to be content with negotiating positions at levels that are not of great value because the other countries concerned have been moving for some time, with precise ideas and with a far-sightedness that our country lacked.
If Ashbacher is chosen instead, the Directorate for Earth Observations he held will be freed.
In this case it should not be difficult, the conditional is a must given what has happened so far, to demand the position for Italy given the considerable economic contribution made in the last ministerial in Seville, 2.2 billion euros.
In the event that the Directorate is actually attributed to our country, a potentially reasonable situation but still not certain a priori since any European expert will be able to participate in the selection and recent history has shown what can happen, the problem of choosing the Italian candidate arises, which must be "unique", to be presented and supported adequately.
Someone has heard rumors that, faced with the difficulty of supporting the official candidate of the government, he would have suggested changing the horse in the race by passing to the second Italian candidate who formally presented himself independently. They have already criticized us in Europe because we were the only country with two candidates, if we had also made the leap of the quail they would have laughed at us and our already not brilliant credibility in this sector would have been completely burned.
It will therefore be extremely important that, if the opportunity arises, the selection of national candidates for the Directorate takes place in a serious and professional manner with a public call, a procedure that has long since been lost, by thoroughly evaluating the curricula. of those who show up. From personal experience, as a member of a committee that had to select shortlist of qualified candidates for top positions in national research institutions, it has already happened to me in the past two years that I had to evaluate embarrassing characters whose curricula, however painstakingly embellished, shouted revenge facing the truth.
It is necessary to try to recover a credibility that today is not a little faded that damages the national competences which, instead, exist and must be defended.
For once, you will have to really select the best one by extracting it from a shortlist of high quality candidates before proposing it to compete for a position of great international importance.
To do this, it will be necessary to choose assessors with real and certified high-level skills, up to the task and not conditioned by anyone and for any reason.
Will we be able to? Let's hope so for the interest of the country taking into account that, however, we have lost the primary target and we will have to wait at least four years starting from June 2021: Covid permitting.
This is a machine translation from Italian language of a post published on Start Magazine at the URL https://www.startmag.it/innovazione/vi-racconto-la-corsa-alla-direzione-generale-esa-agenzia-spaziale-europea/ on Mon, 23 Nov 2020 09:31:05 +0000.