Dr Alice Bunn
Director of Policy
UK Space Agency
"You had Russia, US, China, Japan, India, you name it, all these different countries around a table who in ordinary circumstances have quite a lot of political differences. But space programmes can quite often transcend those political differences and people tend to work together and co-operate."
By Isabella Ford
Interview from 2015
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A-Levels: Maths, Physics, Chemistry
University of Leeds, with year abroad
Degree: Metallurgy, 1st (specialised from Materials Science)
University of Cambridge
Researcher and Exhibition Developer, Science Museum
Earth Observation Science Coordinator, Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)
Head of Earth Observation and Future Missions, NERC
Assistant Director of Earth Observation, Department of Business Innovation and Skills
UK Location Programme Manager, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs
UK Space Agency, Swindon
Why did you decide to take a gap year?
Because I wanted to travel - I applied for university, made sure I got my place, and then deferred for a year. So I had the assurance of knowing I had something to come back to, but I bought myself a year to work abroad.
I went to Italy, not knowing a word of Italian. I remember sitting in a taxi, trying to get the taxi driver to teach me ‘good afternoon’. I worked for 11 months as an au pair and then spent a month travelling around.
Would you recommend it?
Totally, totally, totally - I enjoyed working in my gap year in one place because I think that kind of immersion gives you a real insight into living in another country in a way that just travelling doesn’t. You’ve got to live there, you’ve got to live the system and work the system.
It’s also a fantastic way to discover your own independence and it equips you very well for university. I don’t think it phases you in any way afterwards, and actually when I came back, I just wanted to travel again. In the second year of my degree, I went traveling.
And you also did a year abroad?
Yes, it was part of the ERASMUS scheme. I went to Leeds University and although I did my first year at Leeds, I did my second year in a town called Tampere in Finland, before coming back to Leeds for my third year.
It was actually by nature of going to university in Finland that I was able to make an informed choice about my course because of the way the university is run in Finland is completely different, so you are able to duck in and out of subject areas. It's so much more flexible – you can drill down into the detail of subjects in a way I had never been able to do had I just stayed in the UK education system.
What made you want to go on and do a PhD?
It was the subject matter really. I enjoyed the discovery element of science and, like with most things, there was a bit of serendipity along the way.
In my final year of Leeds, I went to a conference where there was one talk by a German researcher that I found really interesting. So in the bar afterwards I got chatting to him and said, "Oooh, you know, that was really interesting," and a few minutes later, Professor Lindsay Greer walked round the corner.
The German researcher spotted him and said, "Ah! This is my supervisor!" and I was still chatting away. Then Professor Greer started to say, "You should come down to Cambridge, we should meet and you should come visit my lab."
And at that point, I was thinking, ‘I should probably put down my beer, he is really serious - time to start listening, Alice.’ It literally happened like that.
I felt very lucky that I managed to make those kind of personal connections. I think that that’s quite important, otherwise you don’t quite know what you’re going into with a PhD.
The fact that my research was sponsored by a metallurgical company was helpful too. I spent quite a lot of my time up in great big heatproof suits and steel-capped boots in a metal works, pouring molten aluminium around and things like that.
The intense study in the lab was quite a handful but quite a lot of people were interested in the outcome of my research, which isn’t always the case with PhDs as they can be a little abstract.
Why did you choose to work for the UK Space Agency?
The international aspect is a real appeal. That’s not just because you get to travel the world – nowadays, I travel so much that it can be quite wearying - but because there’s something very inspiring about working with international corporations.
Partly the reason the nature of the job is so international is because of the point that no one owns space, we all have to share it and we all have to work together. Space missions are typically very expensive, so it makes sense to share the costs of missions.
But I do find it very inspiring, very heartening, when you see these huge international collaborations working together.
One of ones that I’ve worked on, not in this job but in a previous job, was a collaboration of space agencies to make observation data free after any natural disaster. I found that an inspiring set-up because you had Russia, US, China, Japan, India, you name it, all these different countries around a table who in ordinary circumstances have quite a lot of political differences. But space programmes can quite often transcend those political differences and people tend to work together and co-operate.
What does a director of policy do?
I have five teams: The first team is looking at European space policy. 80% of our budget is still spent through the European Space Agency (ESA) and the EU-run space programmes as well, so our work with Europe is incredibly important.
I have a second team which is an international team - by this I mean exports and inward investment. More and more different countries are now getting involved in space programmes, when it used to only be two: the US and Russia. Now, there’s about 67 different countries that have their own space programmes.
The third area is communication, by which I mean corporate communications. Space is one of those subjects that really attracts public interest and we try and do quite an active outreach campaign to highlight that the UK is playing a really important role in space.
This will be especially true this year when we have our first UK astronaut going up into space at the end of the year, Tim Peake, who’s due to launch in December. My communications team are currently planning a whole load of outreach campaigns to make sure that we make it a national celebration. This is with the hope of inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers.
The fourth is security and regulations - we issue licences in the same way that other bits of government deal with tax cards, and we issue these licences for spacecrafts. For a spacecraft to get its licence, it has to prove that it has technical integrity, that it can be operated safely and that the company owning it can meet many years of operating obligations. This is because missions tend to be a long time, so in part that’s around licensing, but it’s also around the security of the space-operating environment.
I’ll explain this a little bit more: so in much the same way as cars drive along the M25, satellites orbit in certain orbits, but unlike the roads, the legal frameworks for space are quite fragile because no one owns space. So we do a lot of work in making sure that everyone adopts the same kind of code of conduct - you can think of it very broadly like everybody driving on the left hand side of the road, otherwise we’re all going to crash.
Finally, the fifth area is more to do with special projects, which at the moment is largely focused on the spending review, so the budget-setting across government that has been playing out and will continue to play out towards the end of this year.
You obviously have a lot of contact with international space agencies, how do you find that genders are represented across different space programmes in different countries?
In truth, the sector is very male-dominated, and I think that’s true for most countries - I can’t recall a country where that balance is reversed.
I did have a fantastic meeting in Columbia once where there was about forty different government departments and agencies in the room, almost all male, apart from this absolutely rocking female.
It was hilarious - in theory it was a meeting among equals, but it was so clear that this woman was the person in charge of everything going on. I had been so warned about her, that she terrified everybody, and she was absolutely brilliant.
By the end of the day, she gave me a big hug and said, "We girls must stick together." It was just a brilliant moment and all the guys were standing back, saying, ‘how on earth did that happen?!’, looking at me and the woman we’d all been terrified of. It was a real moment for the sisterhood.
What do you like to read?
I like biographies. I also quite like light-hearted, off-the-wall, Jonas Jonasson - The Girl who Saved the King of Sweden. That’s the book I’ve read most recently and I enjoyed that.
Do you consider yourself to be a feminist?
Oh blimey, I am a humanist. I think that I’m a feminist, I’m a humanist, I’m a masculinist. I suppose the word implies a bias or prejudice and actually I’m much more about equal rights for all.
What is the one piece of advice you have picked up over your professional life that can apply to any career and you would like to pass on?
Hold your own. Resilience. Hold your own and don’t doubt yourself as quickly as others might doubt you.
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