Examination of Witnesses (Questions 308
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2007
Q308 Chairman: Good morning. Could
I welcome our first panel to this inquiry on British space policy?
I start by apologising for the late start to this session. Could
we start by congratulating you, Sir Howard, on your knighthood?
It was a recommendation of our committee, so we are very pleased
that you have achieved this. We congratulate you and we are delighted
for you. Could you introduce yourselves for the record and say
what your role is?
Professor Dalton: I am the Chief
Scientific Adviser for Defra.
Professor Thorpe: I am the Chief
Executive of the Natural Environment Research Council.
Mr Douglas: I am Head of Assurance
but in this capacity I represent the Met Office in the UK Space
Board and the UK at EUMETSAT Council.
Q309 Chairman: Starting with you,
Alan Thorpe, how well placed do you think the United Kingdom is
to exploit current earth observation activities?
Professor Thorpe: I think the
United Kingdom is very well placed. In terms of NERC's contribution
to this, we lever a substantial amount of influence with our subscription
to ESA in terms of the Earth Observation Envelope Programme. The
number of missions that are being flown that are doing science
that is relevant to the needs of the science community in the
UK is very high from that influence. NERC has, over the last five
to 10 years, been involved in building capacity in the UK science
community in earth observation. We have a number of centres now
that cover quite a range of the use of observation data for climate
change and our other environmental science issues. I think we
have moved ourselves into a good place with respect to where NERC
contributes to this.
Mr Douglas: From our side, we
would support all of those. Our area is mainly in driving forward
the user and the customer focus side and getting sustained observations.
That is principally where we come. We want sustained observations
on which we can rely into future generations so that the applications
can build on those, whether that is for meteorology or whether
it is for climate, and indeed for a growing number of organisations
across the UK who are now starting to use data that come from
EUMETSAT programmes. I do believe we are now in a strong position.
Q310 Chairman: From your point of
view, Howard, would you echo that?
Professor Dalton: From our perspective,
I would agree in principle with most of what has been said. From
our perspective, it is important to realise our position in Defra
as far as earth observation activities are concerned. We are principally
a user of the information. We are not, in a sense, there to fund
and organise and set it all it up in the first instance. We try
to take the information that comes from the various systems and
use that information to guide our policy activities and really
to be able to use information that is important for a whole variety
of different purposes, particularly in the environment. We have
many needs in terms of weather forecasting, climate modelling,
air quality, flood predictions. We use the information particularly
for the Rural Payments Agency in terms of determining what land
areas farmers are using. We are really at the receiving end of
the information. So far, that seems to be perfectly reasonable,
as far as we are concerned.
Q311 Chairman: We clearly cannot
afford to be involved in all the European missions and we certainly
cannot afford to be involved in all the global missions that are
going. Do you feel that we do get good access to international
Professor Dalton: I think we have
reasonable access to international data but we could do with more.
One of the issues from our perspective is trying to get as much
of that information that is relevant to us as possible. So far,
we do get that, but my colleagues will probably tell you better
about what the international scene is more like. Our concern principally
is getting information that is going to help us in the UK, particularly
when it comes to looking at the implications that these measurements
have in terms of activities on the ground.
Q312 Chairman: How do we get access
to international data and in fact are there circumstances in which
we should pay for more?
Professor Thorpe: Access is quite
good because a lot of the data certainly that the research community
is using is available worldwide. Where we are in terms of our
subscription to ESA is to influence which instruments and which
missions are flown so that we get the best kinds of observations
of the globe. In a sense, with that involvement, we are buying
a substantial amount of influence in the kinds of observations
that are available. Once the instruments are in space worldwide,
the access to those data is pretty good. The research community
is quite skilled at drawing those data from wherever they reside.
Q313 Chairman: Is there anything
we should be paying for that we are not? Are some of the datasets
so prohibitively expensive that we cannot have them?
Mr Douglas: The policy, certainly
in all the areas that we are involved with, is that we pay for
the mission and then, on behalf of the UK, we have secured the
data for use across the UK community with no further cost. Equally,
because we are in the partnership that takes us into Europe, through
EUMETSAT in our particular case, we get access into the full global
set. It is on a shared basis because no one nation does that sort
of mission on its own. The most cost-effective way is to group
together at a European or group level and through the World Meteorological
Organization and other groups of which we are a part. The agreement
is to "cross share" the data and make it available to
the wide community. We play a large part in that.
Q314 Chairman: So, with those programmes
that you buy into in terms of the European Space Agency, et cetera,
when you get the data back, is that freely available to other
researchers throughout the UK?
Mr Douglas: It is, certainly all
the ones through EUMETSAT. That is part of the agreement.
Q315 Chairman: Previously you made
a strong point that we really have to be part of these international
agreements in order to be efficient and cost-effective, but there
is an argument which I have heard particularly when going round
your institutes, Alan, and that is: why are we not using more
small satellites to have control over our own datasets? It is
relatively cheap to put up a series of small satellites and therefore
we would get exactly the data that we want. What are your arguments
for and against that?
Mr Douglas: The argument there
is, as I said in my earlier response, that it is about getting
sustained observations of a known quality, of a known type. That
is particularly true if you need it for climate change. Small
changes in instrumentation give a small difference in the observation
and that may mask or distort that particular climate trend. You
would want consistency in the observations. You want it on a global
basis. You need to have common agreements and common standards.
If you take a small satellite, that would be fine, I might suggest,
for research in a particular area or to test out an instrumentation.
Once it is standardised, then operating on a sustained basis is
the most cost-effective way of getting that introduced.
Q316 Chairman: Is it critical that
there is an independent European capability in earth observation
or can we depend on American data or Russian, Chinese or Indian
data, which seems to be quite prolific?
Professor Thorpe: The first point
I would make, as I said before, is that UK researchers are skilled
in using data from wherever they reside, so that would be international.
It would be wrong to say that we are only involved with ESA (European
Space Agency). We do become involved bilaterally with NASA and
certainly with EUMETSAT, which is separate from ESA, where there
are missions that we feel are relevant for the UK science community.
It is a strategic question for us as to whether ESA is the right
vehicle, if you will, for influencing and getting the missions
that we want. At the moment, as I have said, we feel that we have
been quite successful. For example, in the current Earth Observation
Envelope Programme, there are six missions planned. Of those six,
two of them have been led by UK researchers. The other four are
in areas that we think are scientifically where we need to be.
Again, I would stress that one of the roles of subscribing to
ESA is to get influence over the missions that are flown. Rather
than buying the data, it is influencing which instruments and
missions are flown on those satellites.
Q317 Chairman: You would agree with
Professor Dalton: I think that
is absolutely right. One also has to realise that of course the
reason for setting up GEOSS (Global Earth Observation System of
Systems) was that there was going to be an international co-ordination
of these various activities so that all the various nations that
were doing activities in these areas could get together. Originally
it was going to be GEOS; it was not system of systems but the
Global Earth Observations System. It was recognised that there
are activities going on in the United States and in Europe, all
of which needed to join up together. That is why GEOSS was formed,
largely so that it could bring together international activities.
There are 43 participating organisations sharing data and sharing
information. It was quite clearly pointed out at the very first
meeting of GEOSS that this was really a means for understanding
and getting a health check on the planet. That is really what
it is all about, people sharing information and sharing data.
Hopefully, we are all going to take great advantage of all of
Q318 Chairman: One of the issues
that we are looking at as a committee in terms of this inquiry
is really space in the round, and particularly ESA's involvement
with the space industry, the basic research in terms of everything
from ESA's robotics in terms of instruments and what have you.
Your written evidence to the committee I think is quiet stark.
I paraphrase what you say and that is that your department is
a user of this; you are not terribly interested in who develops
the technology. You are interested in using the outputs. Is that
a fair assumption? You nod to that point. I think I am right.
I read it before I came in this morning. Does that give us a real
difficulty when we are dealing with other countries in terms of
developing space missions, and in particular our relationship
Professor Dalton: In a sense,
our relationship with ESA is very good. As Alan said right at
the beginning, we do have good working relationships with our
European colleagues. That is important.
Q319 Chairman: Are you dependent
on what they do and taking that off the shelf rather than claiming
Professor Dalton: In a sense we
are. We are a user. We are not in the business basically of developing
and supporting the infrastructure in the first place. Having said
all that, Defra did make an important contribution to GMES in
order to be able to stimulate that activity in the first place.
That is important. We are indeed a user of the information. We
are not in the business of building industries so that they make
satellites to do it. Where we can stimulate that in any particular
way, we will do so because we do need access to that information,
wherever it comes from.