Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 308 - 319)



  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 data?

  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 that?

  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 that.

  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 with ESA?

  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 it.

  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.

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