Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320 - 339)

WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2007

PROFESSOR SIR HOWARD DALTON, PROFESSOR ALAN THORPE AND ALAN DOUGLAS

  Q320  Chairman: Is there not a real issue there about who is going to drive the new technologies? If we are not doing that within our user groups, then who is going to do it?

  Professor Dalton: This question applies not only simply apply to this area of science. There are some big areas of science where we need to be able to make important contributions as European partners and as global partners. In many respects, it is time we sat down and figured out precisely how all of these major contributions and subscriptions to activities are going to take place and also how we can stimulate and punch above our weight, if we can, in terms of being able to stimulate activity that allows us to get proper industry to finance, organise and structure observation systems. At the moment, we are still a user and we will be a user.

  Q321  Chairman: You do understand the point that I am making. When you say that we need to get together, who do you mean by "we"?

  Professor Dalton: I mean industry and government together. This is a partnership.

  Q322  Chairman: Do you feel that that is not effective at the moment?

  Professor Dalton: We are not co-ordinating enough, and that is the real issue for us. We are trying to get much better co-ordination so that we all know what the problems are and how they can be properly addressed.

  Q323  Chairman: Who should lead that then?

  Professor Dalton: For example, we are taking a lead in government over GMES and GEOSS.

  Q324  Chairman: You indicate from your evidence that you do not quite know why you are doing it because you are a user.

  Professor Dalton: We are doing it because we are a user and we need this activity to take place. Who should do it? That is a good question. I will leave that up to other government departments to sit down and think about it.

  Chairman: We might come back to that later.

  Q325  Dr Harris: Professor Dalton again, with regard to GMES, is it true to say that the UK contribution has been heavily criticised by industry because the geographic return or the juste retour of ESA means that UK companies are unable to secure major contracts in this programme? Is that a true statement? We will come to whether it is fair or not. Is it fair criticism?

  Professor Dalton: It is a fair criticism. One of the things that industry was concerned about largely was that if we are going to stimulate, for example, the satellite industry, they do need to enjoy the juste retour. If you look at what France puts into this particular area and Germany and Italy, they are putting in considerably more to the GMES activities than we do. Therefore, they get a better return for their industry in terms of the technology associated with it.

  Q326  Dr Harris: You are the lead of four government funders of this. Are you accepting that that is a criticism of your funding allocation in this area within the competing priorities?

  Professor Dalton: As I have just explained, a really important part for us is using the information and getting that information. Our business is not essentially trying to stimulate the industry to be able to produce their machines in the first place. What we try to do is use those data and use that information. It was quite difficult for us to be able to come up with the sort of money that we did in order to be able to make our contributions to GMES.

  Q327  Dr Harris: So you are saying that the £2.5 million that you are putting into the £7.23 million fund is the limit. The criticism which you say is true and fair is effectively a criticism for the MoD and DTI and NERC who should be doing more. You cannot do any more because of your approach.

  Professor Dalton: In our view, we have done as much as we possibly can under the circumstances.

  Q328  Dr Harris: Which of those three should be doing more, in your view, or should there be new players putting in money?

  Professor Dalton: This is the sort of issue that I mentioned before which really needs a more cross-government and cross-industry approach to it. There are a number of government departments that could benefit from this. We are one of them that will benefit from it ultimately. Because we took the lead in terms of being able to co-ordinate GMES, we were the ones who tended to put in a bit more money as it was. It is a cross-government responsibility; it is not our responsibility. We are just stimulating it and catalysing it.

  Q329  Dr Harris: Is it your responsibility; do you think that you are the ones who should be putting in more to bridge the 75% gap compared with countries like Italy and Germany whose companies are getting these big contracts under the principle of juste retour?

  Professor Thorpe: There are two points to make. First, GMES is definitely delivering policy outcomes, so it is on the side of leading to operational satellites rather than supporting new research instrumentation, which is where we tend to focus our investment. The second point is that therefore we would not think that it would be our role to lead on GMES, for example. But it is clear that our role is to look after the basic science that needs to be carried out. Our investment and our strategy is focused on that issue. It is not focused purely on industry. It is focused on making sure that we stimulate the basic science and understanding that we need of the climate system. Our investment is in that line. We have tried to help in this case GMES with a contribution, which was significant but, compared to other countries overall, the contribution was small. I do not think NERC would have or should have taken a larger role in that.

  Q330  Dr Harris: That just leaves government departments really. Is that the DTI and the MoD? There are not here.

  Professor Thorpe: Clearly DTI have a role in technology development and industrial stimulation. It would be natural to ask the question whether the issue should lie there.

  Q331  Dr Harris: I am asking for your view of the answer. Is that a polite way of saying that that is where the answer lies?

  Professor Thorpe: It would seem natural to me that that is the place where the leadership might come from.

  Q332  Dr Harris: How do we progress this? I do not know when the next funding round takes place and how we are going to improve our position from the 5% of our current contribution. Are people talking to each other? Is there a new round?

  Professor Dalton: There is a so-called GMES Whitehall Group, which does involve a number of different government departments. We are talking about what we should be doing in the future. All we can do at the moment with the very tight budgets that we are all working towards is to find a much better way of being able to stimulate these sorts of activities.

  Q333  Chairman: In terms of this cross-cutting role, and you have all basically said that needs to be brought together and that link with industry, surely that is BNSC's role, is it not? Why are they not being proactive here?

  Professor Thorpe: I would say BNSC are proactive in bringing groups together and that it would be wrong to say that there is not interaction between industry and the research base, for example, and government departments. BNSC plays a key role there. We have active discussions with UK Space, which is an industry group, and with the British Association for Remote Sensing Companies. There is dialogue there. The issue, though, that we are talking about is the one of the level of subscription to ESA, which is a national question and involves the ministerial team for negotiation periodically. You asked when the next occasion is. They happen every several years. The GMES programme is in a set of phases. The first phase that we are in now is the early phase, but there will be subsequent points when the UK can reassess its contribution.

  Q334  Dr Harris: Professor Dalton first: do you think it is a fair criticism of GMES that there is a lack of focus on climate monitoring within the initiative—presumably that it is too security focused at the moment? Is that a fair observation?

  Professor Dalton: Climate monitoring is still an important part of it. Monitoring the environment in all its guises is a critically important part of what GMES is trying to do. Whether you put greater emphasis in one area or another is not for me to comment. As far as we are concerned, we are quite comfortable with the sort of information we are getting back from it because we use that information in order to try and develop our policy activities. The split and the break-up of it is not critically important to us at this stage.

  Q335  Dr Harris: Your view is that you do not believe that there is a relative lack of focus on climate monitoring within the initiative at the moment from your perspective?

  Professor Dalton: Yes.

  Q336  Dr Harris: Mr Douglas, that was from your evidence. Can you take the opportunity to try to explain to us, and indeed Professor Dalton, why you had that concern?

  Mr Douglas: Our concern is that we want to make sure that all of the evidence or all of the observations are being evolved and developed. I do not think we said from the Met Office side that it was all concentrated on security. What we were saying is that we need to move to sustained observations, as I have said earlier, and we do not believe that the success of GMES is on the individual missions. So it is trying to understand and maximise the way in which we can get continuity of observations. Whether it is from a GMES mission or it is part of any other mission really does not matter. It is about getting the required observations and securing those in a sustained way. We want to maximise the use of existing facilities and therefore we need equally to explore ways in which other existing groups, such as the operational capabilities of groups like EUMETSAT, are best placed to support value-for-money returns across the whole of Europe from these initiatives through GMES.

  Q337  Dr Harris: My final question is to ask whether any of your are concerned because of the obsession that we politicians have with security that too much of this GMES approach might be used for security work, or alternatively that funders might switch their money to more security-focused schemes away from a scheme like GMES, which is not solely about security? Is that a real concern you might have and is it increased with the increased obsession it has been said that governments have with security?

  Professor Thorpe: I would say that there is a lot of environment in GMES and other programmes. You say there is an obsession with security, but I would say that environmental issues are also high on the political agenda as well. Personally, I do not see a particular issue at the moment.

  Q338  Dr Turner: Howard, you have commented on the international collaboration that goes on in earth observation but collaboration begins at home. It has been suggested to us, and I quote the National Physical Laboratory: Whilst there is some co-ordination between government agencies and departments, this is very weak and leads to inefficiency and fragmentation. It leads to duplication of efforts in studies and expertise. More seriously, it prevents the development of critical mass to allow co-ordinated funding for larger scale projects which would allow the UK to take on greater international leadership roles. Do you recognise that criticism? Do you have any comments on it? If it is valid, how do you think it might be improved?

  Professor Dalton: I think it is fair to say historically that we have not necessarily co-ordinated together as well as we ought. There is a lot that can still be done. The whole purpose behind BNSC was to try and bring as many different government departments and the industry together so that we can get a clear view of where we are trying to go. I am not so sure that it has achieved all of those objectives. I think what we need to do now, and exactly what we are doing now, is to sit down, re-think, restructure and reorganise in such a way that we can meet these criticisms. I think it is important to recognise that there is a willingness on the part of many government departments to sit down and work better together. We do need much better co-ordination. I accept that. I think that is a fair thing to say. We have to sit down now and try to work out how best to do it. We are certainly doing it ourselves in-house within Defra. We are looking very closely at what our needs are going to be. Other government departments should be doing that. We all ought then to sit round the table and figure out precisely what we all want to get out of this so that there is much better co-ordination and we can take this forward in the future.

  Q339  Dr Turner: Do you think that that effort would be enhanced if the status of the BNSC were increased to that of an agency, as NASA, et cetera? Would that help?

  Professor Dalton: There is no doubt that if it was enhanced to the stature of NASA it certainly would. I do not doubt that. I just do not know whether or not Government is in a position to be able to do that at this stage.


 
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