This week I had the pleasure of taking part in a panel discussion hosted by the Royal Society of Edinburgh on Scotland’s space sector, part of the RSE’s "Curious" series of events, designed to give audiences the opportunity to gain new insights and challenge perceptions.

The choice of space as a topic for discussion is interesting, and talks to a wider need to give a broader platform to Scotland’s future economy and globally-leading technologies.

It is fair to say that public awareness of Scotland’s space sector is still limited. Five years ago the idea of a Scottish space industry was portrayed as a bit of a fantasy, or as a distraction from more substantial, and worthwhile industrial objectives. That is changing.

More than 8,000 people work in the sector, around a quarter of the UK total. With a GVA close to £1bn the sector accounts for around half a percent of Scotland’s total economic activity. Not, yet, a big player on the scale of, for example, our financial services, energy or food and drink industries, but with plans to grow at up to 25% annually the space sector has the potential over the next decade to be a real driver of Scotland’s economy and contribute significantly to the creation of well-paid jobs, and healthy tax revenues to fund public services.

Scotland has a unique "end-to-end" capability - all the way from design and manufacturing through launch to data analysis. With a well-established small satellite manufacturing cluster (more satellites are manufactured in Glasgow than in any city outside of California), a strong downstream data capability built on Edinburgh’s European leadership position in informatics and data analytics, and not one, but two launch vehicle manufacturers (that’s space rockets to you and me). All underpinned by excellent space research capabilities in a number of Scottish universities and leading edge capability in ground station technology. The soon-to-be-filled missing piece of the jigsaw is launch: vertical spaceports in Shetland and Sutherland are nearing completion, with work also under way in the Western Isles, alongside a horizontal spaceport capability being developed as part of the aerospace cluster close to Prestwick airport. The sight of rockets being launched from Scottish soil will do much to raise awareness of the sector.

Read more: Government must rise to the challenges that remote working can bring

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the sector in Scotland is the focus on sustainability, very different from public perceptions focused as they often are on space tourism or the defense and security sectors. Aligned to Scotland’s leadership aspirations in tackling net zero the space sector takes its environmental impact seriously. Not only because it’s the right thing to do for the planet, but also because it gives Scotland a key competitive advantage in the sector globally.

Without space data there is no victory in the war against climate change. Monitoring of forest degradation, climate emissions or changes in ice flows or crop patterns is only possible at scale with satellite observation.

The publication last year of the Scottish Space Sustainability Roadmap was the first of its kind globally.

This included not only a focus on how space data can increasingly contribute to battling climate change but also on how the sector itself can continue to decarbonise. Orbex and Skyrora – Scotland’s two rocket manufacturers - have world-leading technology in play using sustainable fuels and composite materials to significantly reduce the climate impact of launch.

So what needs to happen to maximise this potential ?

As with any other sector in today's economy talent is key. A strong skills pipeline - for graduate, technician and wider business roles - attracts inward investment and supports the growth of local businesses. Making young people, and their schools, aware of the opportunities that exist in the sector is something the sector has a real focus on, but more can be done to mainstream this. Attracting talent from the rest of the UK and further afield complements this and strengthens the sector as a whole.

Raising the profile of what Scotland has to offer internationally is important  to attract inward investment and the capital investment to support the growth of Scottish businesses. There have been significant successes. Mangata choosing Ayrshire over Florida to locate its 500-employee global satellite manufacturing and 5G centre is the most recent, and high profile example.

Space is but one of a number of key sectors of the future where Scotland has the capability to be world-leading: life sciences, fintech, quantum and photonics and of course renewable energy are amongst the others. Recognising and seizing those opportunities can help give our economy a solid foundation for many decades to come.

Ivan McKee is an MSP and former Minister for Business, Trade, Tourism and Enterprise