Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 36

Submission from the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC)

  1.  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) welcomes the opportunity to comment.

  2.  NERC is one of the UK's eight Research Councils. It funds and carries out impartial scientific research in the sciences of the environment. NERC trains the next generation of independent environmental scientists. Its priority research areas are: Earth's life-support systems, climate change, and sustainable economies.

  3.  NERC's research centres are: the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory (POL). Details of these and of NERC's collaborative centres can be found at

  4.  NERC's comments are based on input from Earth Observation (EO) staff, following consultation with NERC's EO Centres of Excellence and BAS.

  5.  We hope that the Committee does not mind our addressing the subject areas in a different order from that in the inquiry announcement, so that the different areas follow more logically in the NERC context.


  6.  A key challenge for environmental sciences today is to understand the Earth system as a whole. Modern research is exposing complex interactions between the planet's physical, chemical and biological components. We also know that human activity is changing the Earth system. Unravelling these interactions and feedbacks is central to NERC's overall science strategy. To help achieve this, NERC maintains a vigorous and effective Earth Observation (EO) Programme. Satellite-borne instrumentation plays a crucial role in overcoming the historical difficulty of obtaining accurate, continuous, synoptic and simultaneous measurements of the Earth's atmosphere, oceans, ice sheets, land surface and interior.

NERC's EO Programme—overview

  7.  NERC's Earth Observation Programme supports the delivery and exploitation of EO data in environmental sciences across NERC's portfolio, through funding scientific research focusing on various aspects of the Earth system. NERC's activities in EO are taken forward within the framework of a dedicated EO Strategy (2004-09), with activities brigaded as follows:

    —  the exploitation of current satellite observations; mainly taken forward through seven EO Centres of Excellence, focussing on the use of EO data to monitor both global and regional changes in the environment, and to develop a detailed understanding of these changes so that future environmental conditions can be predicted;

    —  support for new satellite observations; primarily taken forward through NERC's subscription to the European Space Agency's environmental sciences programme; and

    —  definition and support for longer-term technology for future satellite observations; taken forward (i) through NERC's subscription to the European Space Agency's technology programmes such as the Technology Research Programme (TRP) and (ii) through the development of instrumentation for planned EO missions and the preparation of science-driven concepts and technologies for future missions on a national level through the Centre for EO Instrumentation in collaboration with other government department, and (iii) through dedicated instrument development investments in collaboration with international space agencies.

  8.  NERC provides the UK's subscription (~£34 million per annum) to the European Space Agency's (ESA) environmental sciences programmes, namely the Earth Observation Envelope Programme (EOEP) and Envisat/ERS operations, and a share of the UK's subscription to the general budget, covering more cross-cutting functions (administration, technology development, archiving, at around £7 million per annum). NERC also contributes to the UK's subscription to the first phase of the Global Monitoring for Environment and Security Space Component Programme (GMES SCP, £2.2 million over three years), together with Defra (who lead on the programme and provide the biggest share of the subscription), DTI and MoD.

  9.  NERC invests approximately £10 million annually in EO activities at a national level (including direct EO Programme spend, responsive-mode grants, and facilities), the majority of which is spent on the exploitation of EO data. This complements NERC's contribution to a "global observing system" through its membership of ESA. NERC's investments within the UK on technology development aim to strengthen the UK's capability for instrument development in support of future scientific requirements in an international, mainly ESA, context. This is intended to maximise the benefits to the UK's environmental sciences community from NERC's investments in ESA.

Review of NERC EO Activities

  10.  NERC conducted a comprehensive sectoral review of EO investments in September 2005[46]. The review panel comprised both UK and international independent experts. Their report, which identified a number of challenges for NERC and potential solutions to address these, also offered broad positive support for NERC's EO activities. A particular element commended by the panel was the EO Centres of Excellence Programme, where the following summary statement was offered: "...the Centres of Excellence are an exemplary, even enviable initiative and their programmes of work are both scientifically and operationally effective. All seven were considered to be completely aligned with NERC's highest science priorities, and six were judged as being a 4/a 5..." (ie excellent or outstanding).

  11.  NERC's response to the review panel's recommendations is currently being implemented. An important plank of this is the establishment of a National Centre for EO (by February 2008). The National Centre will be led by a Science Director who will have overall responsibility for taking forward NERC's EO Centres of Excellence activities and for building strong and effective links with all other elements of the NERC EO programme[47].

Supporting the UK's skill base

  12.  Strengthening and broadening the trained community is an important objective in the NERC EO Strategy 2004-09, underlining the strategic importance of extending the use of EO techniques across a broad spectrum of UK environmental sciences. NERC's current suite of (seven) EO Centres of Excellence focuses not only on the exploitation of EO data but also on building capacity in the research community. Acting as a UK focus in their particular scientific areas, each Centre aims to strengthen and broaden the skills base, for example through providing training opportunities for PhD students. In addition to the funding of dedicated studentships, the Centres also organise and run workshops and summer schools. NERC has also supported several academic posts in EO through the Earth Observation Science Initiative and has held annual workshops for the EO community since 2003.

  13.  A recent assessment of activities and spending on EO within NERC outside the dedicated EO Programme budgets has shown that the number of grants using EO has increased considerably over time, which provides evidence of a growing community. The assessment also showed that the uptake of EO data and techniques has increased in non-traditional EO areas such as marine and Earth sciences.

  14.  NERC and DTI are jointly supporting the establishment of a new Centre for EO Instrumentation (see paragraph 22), which will provide support to Knowledge Transfer and skills development in HEIs, institutes and industry, in line with processes advocated in DTI's Innovation Review and Technology Strategy.


NERC's subscription to the European Space Agency's environmental science programmes

  15.  NERC's scientific objectives relate to a wide range of aspects of the Earth System. The global scale of these issues demands international collaboration and cooperation, both with regard to establishing a global observing system and providing an underpinning knowledge base. For example, the contribution NERC makes to ESA's environmental sciences programmes enables it to secure access to a comprehensive portfolio of observations that would not be affordable on a national basis and which makes a valuable contribution to the delivery of a wide range of NERC's scientific objectives. Essentially, such participation delivers a significant gearing of funds and allows the NERC community to draw on a very much wider pool of relevant scientific and technological expertise.

  16.  ESA's EO Envelope Programme (EOEP) represents NERC's primary means of procuring new missions. EOEP mainly funds the development and operation of innovative Earth Explorer science missions, providing EO data in support of environmental science covering a broad range of scientific subjects.[48] The scientific objectives of EOEP, as identified in the ESA EO Science Strategy[49], are substantially similar to those of NERC. NERC also supports the operations of ERS-2 and Envisat, both carrying a wide range of instruments monitoring various components of the Earth's environment.

  17.  GMES is a joint initiative of the European Commission (EC) and ESA and aims to provide independent access to information for decision makers in order to advance European and national environment and security policy agendas. GMES is also recognised as the major European contribution to the international Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS—see below).

  18.  The rationale for NERC's involvement in the GMES Space Component Programme (SCP) as a supporting partner (behind the Defra lead) is based primarily on: (i) the need for data continuity and access to long-term environmental data sets for scientific research; (ii) the active participation and influence of the environmental science community in the design and development of GMES instruments and technologies; and (iii) a recognition that the transition from research to operational missions needs some support while the customer base is evolving. The GMES SCP comprises a variety of missions that are likely to contribute to the achievement of a wide range of NERC's scientific objectives, particularly in the area of climate change and in the study of the Earth system.[50]

  19.  In addition to its value for NERC scientists, GMES offers a suitable vehicle for the transfer of NERC science and technology to operational use and for the uptake of NERC science at both national and European levels.


  20.  GEO is an international partnership comprising 62 member countries, including the UK, the EC and 43 participating organisations leading a worldwide effort to build a Global Earth Observation System of Systems (GEOSS) over the next 10 years. The GEO approach is to put in place a framework to facilitate the co-ordination of current and future global EO investments to deliver synergy and increased benefits. GEOSS will work with and build upon existing national, regional (eg GMES) and international systems to provide comprehensive Earth observations from satellite borne and in situ instruments worldwide for the benefit of science and society. GEOSS is structured around delivering to nine key societal benefit areas, all of which are relevant to NERC's scientific agenda, including in the areas of natural disasters, climate change, water resources, ecosystems, desertification and biodiversity.

  21.  NERC is actively involved in a raft of the participating organisations within GEO, and provides a wide ranging input to GEOSS through this route. NERC is also a member of the UK delegation to the GEO Plenary process, alongside Met Office and Defra. Effective engagement by NERC in GEOSS over the next 10 years is likely to deliver significant benefits through the provision of access to important global data sets, across a wide range of relevant disciplines and themes.

Collaboration with international space agencies

  22.  Historically, NERC has supported dedicated technology and instrument development in collaboration with international space agencies with major investments for three instruments: the Geostationary Earth Radiation Budget (GERB) instrument flying on Eumetsat's Meteosat Second Generation mission[51], the High Resolution Dynamic Limb Sounder (HIRDLS) flying on NASA's AURA mission[52] and the Along Track Scanning Radiometers (ATSR-1/2) flying on ESA's ERS-1/2 missions.[53] All of these instruments advance certain aspects of research in the climate change area.


  23.  NERC's primary interest with regard to its ESA contribution lies in assuring scientific excellence in the mission selection and thus maximising scientific benefits for the UK's environmental sciences community, whilst recognising that ESA's modus operandi is based on geo-return.

  24.  NERC aims to achieve the right balance and complementarity between its national and international investments in EO in terms of provision and contribution to a global observing system and the exploitation of EO data deriving from such a system (mainly through the EO Centres of Excellence Programme and the future National Centre for EO).

  25.  The UK has been particularly successful in proposing and leading ESA EOEP Explorer missions. Two of the presently approved six Explorer missions are led by Principle Investigators from the UK—CryoSat is led by Prof. Duncan Wingham from UCL and EarthCARE is led by Prof. Anthony Illingworth from Reading University. In response to the most recent call to select the 7th Explorer mission, six missions have been shortlisted as candidate missions, with a final selection due in 2008. Two of the six candidate missions are led by the UK, PREMIER is led by Dr. Brian Kerridge from RAL and BIOMASS is led by Prof. Shaun Quegan from Sheffield University. In the cases of BIOMASS and CryoSat, there is also a direct link to the EO Centres of Excellence Programme and thus to the exploitation of the resulting observations since both investigators are also Directors of an NERC EO Centre of Excellence.

  26.  The UK is promoting a concept to establish a Distributed Data Assimilation Research Centre (DDARC) across European institutions, building on the expertise of one of the NERC Centres of Excellence: The Data Assimilation[54] Research Centre (DARC). The ESA has issued an invitation to tender to determine the potential benefits of such a structure and the UK is leading a multi-institutional, multi-national, consortium bid in response.

  27.  UK scientists play an active role in the calibration and validation activities for the ESA Explorer missions and in exploiting EO data derived from ESA's ERS-1/2 and Envisat missions, which form the basis of a large number of scientific publications.


  28.  NERC and DTI are jointly supporting a Centre for Earth EO Instrumentation. The procurement process is underway. The Centre will be expected to provide an excellent, internationally competitive instrument and instrument technology research and development programme, clearly driven by longer-term NERC science objectives, the NERC Earth Observation strategy and the capabilities within UK Industry. The Centre will provide a demonstrable UK focus for scientific and technical collaboration between the academic and industrial communities and will strengthen the UK's capability for instrument development in support of future scientific requirements addressed by international Earth Observation missions. The Centre is intended to forge partnership with further users with common technology interests, such as PPARC, Met Office and DEFRA. It is geared towards supporting NERC's success in other technology programmes such as ESA's Technology Research Programme (TRP) and the cross-council Basic Technology programme.

  29.  The more focused Centre for EO Instrumentation approach was preceded by the New Observing Techniques Programme, a competitive grants scheme to encourage the development of novel EO instrumentation and techniques and aiming towards positioning the UK in an international context, with special regard to ESA. The New Observing Techniques Programme was part of a coordinated approach together with DTI's NEWTON and SMS programmes, with the aim of aligning scientific research and technology development.

  30.  A further scheme run in collaboration with DTI is the EO LINK programme. It supported innovative, pre-competitive research into applications of EO data carried out by partnerships of academia and industry.

  31.  NERC has a dedicated knowledge transfer (KT) strategy which focuses on maximising the transfer of all forms of knowledge arising from NERC-funded science to its users. NERC established a variety of tools to facilitate KT activities. The EO community has been successful in securing some enabling funding from these schemes for, for example, establishing a network for calibration and validation of EO data or funding a translator/facilitator position to support collaboration between academic institutions and government departments in the area of forestry.


  32.  As a key funder of space activities, NERC is a member of the UK Space Board, along with PPARC (currently the chair), DTI, Met Office and MoD. NERC attaches importance to the work of the Space Board and believes that the Board offers an appropriate forum for the consideration of high-level civil space issues and for the provision of a strategic steer to the British National Space Centre (BNSC).

  33.  NERC is one of the partners of BNSC[55] and works through this partnership to ensure coordination of efforts and to maximize the benefits for the UK from its investments in civil space activities. This coordinated approach enables the partners to drive international developments and programmes. Particular areas for collaboration have included:

    —  Working with PPARC and DTI to drive and influence the focus of ESA programmes;

    —  The coordination of the UK's GMES programme subscription to ESA with Defra, DTI and MoD;

    —  Joint funding and close working with BNSC partners to facilitate the UK's chair of the Committee for EO Satellites (CEOS) in 2004-05;

    —  Contributing to the Group on EO (GEO) process together with the Met Office and Defra;

    —  Supporting common technology development across the partnership through funding, together with DTI, a Centre for EO Instrumentation.

  34.  The EO sector review panel assessed the relationship between NERC and BNSC and in particular commented on the fact that "...The Director EO post is a dual NERC/BNSC appointment, and the Team voiced its support for this arrangement, considering it an important mechanism for achieving a successful BNSC partnership and enabling fulfilment of NERC's major scientific and funding responsibilities..."

  35.  Within the BNSC partnership, NERC leads on EO-related scientific activities through contributing to a global observing system, mainly via its subscription to ESA, supporting scientific research in areas such as climate change and prediction, one of the UK government's priority areas, along with other areas of public interest and benefit.

  36.  A key example is CryoSat, the first ESA Earth Explorer Opportunity Mission to be selected, which will be launched in spring 2009[56]. The mission is led by Professor Duncan Wingham from University College London and is closely linked to NERC's Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM). CryoSat will be the first satellite designed specifically to map ice thickness. A sophisticated radar instrument will determine variations in the thickness of the Earth's continental ice sheets and marine ice cover—to an accuracy of a few centimetres. Its primary objective is to test the prediction of thinning arctic ice due to global warming, which could change the climate of the Arctic and possibly other regions. In addition, it is important to understand the extent to which the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets have contributed to the global rise in sea level.

  37.  Also, scientists from the NERC's Centre for the Observation and Modelling of Earthquakes and Tectonics (COMET) and the Geological Survey of Iran have carried out substantial research into the cause of the devastation caused by the Bam earthquake. The magnitude 6.5 earthquake on 26 December 2003 destroyed the town of Bam in southern Iran and killed more than 26,000 people. COMET scientists have demonstrated (and were involved in developing this technique using radar data from ESA's Envisat satellite) that interferograms, maps showing the deformation of the Earth's surface, can be used to measure the small rates of strain accumulation that occur between earthquakes. Measurements of slow movements in the years immediately following large earthquakes provide information about the mechanical properties of the crust and uppermost mantle. The techniques developed and work carried out by COMET support the improvement of predictions for and thus prevention of further such natural disasters. This work was selected as a Top Science Achievement of NERC funded research in 2005.

October 2006

46   For a full report see Back

47   For futher details see Back

48   See and for further details on the approved and candidate Explorer missions respectively. Back

49   See for ESA's Strategy for EO. The strategy is in the process of being updated in consultation with the European science community. The updated strategy will be presented at the next ESA Programme Board meeting for EO. The new strategy-`The Changing Earth-New Scientific Challenges for ESA's Living Planet Programme' (ESA SP-1304 )- will be published until the end of 2006. Back

50   The GMES missions will provide data, which will e.g. enable NERC scientists to study and model ice sheet dynamics, support work on earthquakes and vulcanology and look at the role of the land and the biosphere in the Earth system. They will also provide long-term data sets for ocean sea-surface temperature, surface states, altimetry and ocean colour. Two of the GMES missions will be relevant to NERC in providing a route to the operational delivery of global data sets on atmospheric chemistry. Back

51   NERC funded the first GERB in a series of 4 instruments (subsequent instruments are funded by Eumetsat) that will monitor the energy balance and climate of the Earth over the next two decades. GERB was selected as a Top Science Achievement of NERC funded research in 2003, recognising its major contribution to one of NERC's science priorities, namely climate change-predicting and mitigating the impact. Back

52   NERC's investment in the development of the ATSR instruments and the follow-on Advanced ATSR (AATSR) instrument flying on board Envisat (funded by DEFRA) has initiated a 15-years time series of globally and continuously measured sea-surface temperatures from space with a high accuracy, which is demanded by the improved ability to model and the need to monitor climate trends. Back

53   HIRDLS is measuring temperatures and atmospheric composition, including ozone, water vapour and aerosol particulates in the upper layers of the atmosphere to understand processes affecting climate change. HIRDLS is delivering unique measurements, revealing processes that are unobservable by current satellite instruments. Back

54   Data assimilation: Observation data for the Earth system are obtained from a variety of sources, including satellites. The data are of different types (eg temperature, wind, ozone) and to get the maximum benefit from these data, we need to find a method to combine them. Data assimilation is such a method. It is a technique in which the data are combined with output (forecasts) from a model of the evolving atmosphere (for example) to produce an optimal representation of the evolving state of the atmosphere. Back

55   For further details on the BNSC partnership see Back

56   The original launch date for the Cryosat mission was October 2005. Due to an anomaly at launch the mission was lost. ESA's Programme Board for EO decided to rebuild the mission, strongly supported by the scientific community and international organisations, clearly emphasising the scientific and public value of such a unique mission. Back

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 17 July 2007