Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 340 - 356)



  Q340  Dr Turner: How effective is BNSC's current Earth Observation Programme Board? Can it be said at the moment that the UK has an identifiable earth observation programme?

  Professor Dalton: There is a programme that we have and it has been co-ordinated to some extent through BNSC and various government departments. How well organised and how well structured that is open to question. More work clearly needs to be done.

  Professor Thorpe: I think that is a slightly negative outlook. From a NERC perspective, we have a substantial earth observation strategy, a published strategy. BNSC's partnership via the UK Space Board is consulting on an overall strategy at the moment. In terms of investment, NERC invests something like £45 million in earth observation in terms of subscription to ESA and we invest £10 million in basic research in the UK on earth observation. I think it would be wrong to say that we do not have a strong earth observation activity, particularly on the research side, in the UK. We do exercise a considerable amount of influence on what happens in ESA with the missions. I am not saying that co-ordination could not be improved. The UK Space Board, which is a relatively new structure, is the forum where I believe that will be effective and it is being effective in making the most of those investments.

  Q341  Dr Turner: So the programme is evolving?

  Professor Thorpe: It is definitely evolving and I see good signs in the right direction.

  Mr Douglas: May I make one observation? I support all of that. Again, from our perspective, in terms of the amount of investment, the UK is putting in an average of £32 million into EUMETSAT a year as a further contribution. On your original question about the agency, one of the reasons why potentially the partnership approach can be very supportive is that you run the risk, if you make all of the agency just on satellite, of removing the part of other forms of observation. One of the strengths, certainly from ourselves, is that we have an integrated observing system where satellites play an important part but so do other remote and earth-based observations. It is crucial to make sure that that is kept together. Therefore, it will be a balance between partnership and agency for BNSC, but there are arguments for a strong partnership allowing the user to draw out, going forward, their particular needs as groups.

  Q342  Dr Turner: Howard, Defra has suggested having a climate equivalent of the Ordnance Survey. Could you put some flesh on that suggestion and tell us exactly what you mean by it?

  Professor Dalton: The idea is principally that we need to have an organisational structure that allows activities to take place. They can either be funded through various private activities or funded through government activities. A lot needs to be done from the Government's point of view in terms of the public good but also to encourage individual organisations to be able to put money into it and to resource it. The biggest problem we have right now is resourcing. As long as we can find ways of being able to get resources into that system, so much the better. It is a way of organising in the same way that Ordnance Survey does. Work is commissioned from them; they do it; and they also do public good work as well. It is a mixture of the two.

  Q343  Dr Turner: So we will not be able to buy our hiking equivalent of a map from this?

  Professor Dalton: You might and there may well be a way of being able to stimulate it.

  Q344  Dr Turner: That puts real meaning into The Hitchhiker's Guide! Another criticism that has been made to us—these are not our views so we are not levelling accusations, we are simply passing them on—is that the take-up of earth observation research outputs by government departments is patchy. Do you agree? Do you have any comments on that?

  Professor Dalton: Are you saying that take-up by government departments is patchy?

  Q345  Dr Turner: What use are government departments making of the data?

  Professor Dalton: We make a lot of use of the data. That is the whole purpose behind it. We have a major programme on climate change, as indeed have the Natural Environment Research Council and other research councils and other government departments. We make tremendous use of it. From our perspective, the information we get is extremely valuable and necessary in order to be able to do all the predictions we are doing. I do not say it is patchy from our perspective.

  Mr Douglas: Equally, there is a wide range and an increasing range of government departments and organisations taking up both the original data and indeed the output. There is so much of government departments, both in UK and in its international responsibilities, for the UK Government to make use of in the outputs, whether they be forecasts or climate predictions to help develop policy. I really do not see the basis for that particular observation.

  Professor Thorpe: I would say that we are at an interesting point in the sense that there is a huge expansion in the ability to observe from space a whole set of new properties of the environment under the clouds. There are real opportunities. Those could be used in a number of areas that previously have not been involved in using those data. I hope that more departments pervasively start to see that opportunity. There is definite scope for seeing that opportunity and it is just becoming available because of the plans for a whole range of new instruments to be flown in space.

  Q346  Dr Turner: So we can expect to see a much greater use of the data?

  Professor Thorpe: I really hope so. I think there is a real opportunity.

  Q347  Dr Iddon: This is to Alan Douglas first. Given the Met Office's heavy involvement in the Group on Earth observations, are you happy that Defra is taking the lead in that area?

  Mr Douglas: I think it is right that a government department rather than an agency takes the political lead in something as important as Group of Earth Observations which both the Prime Minister, Gordon Brown and others have all been supporting. There is more that we can do within the UK still to co-ordinate and make the arrangements across the UK more effective. We will be having discussions later today on that and there will be some further discussion when we will be trying to improve that working relationship across the UK to maximise our involvement in GEO.

  Q348  Dr Iddon: Does Professor Dalton have anything to add to that or are you happy?

  Professor Dalton: At the moment, we are happy to act as a co-ordinator and catalyst for these activities in government, yes.

  Q349  Dr Iddon: Sir Howard, you have been very critical of the apparent domination of the British National Space Centre by the DTI. Your written evidence talks of a conflict of interest for DTI. Could you explain that for us?

  Professor Dalton: I think there is a concern. Effectively in the British National Space Committee we are wondering in many respects whether or not the agenda that has been set by BNSC is coming from the DTI or from the membership as a whole. That has been a concern of ours. It is quite important, we think, possibly to put the BNSC outside of all of that and have them as an independent agency, as we talked about earlier. That would give it a greater degree of independence and would allow it to be able to come in and involve itself in government activity as well. Independence is an important part of it. I do not think it is very sensible to have BNSC associated with any government department particularly. Independence is a good part of it.

  Q350  Dr Iddon: You have also said that you would like to see more user representation in BNSC advisory boards. Why do you say that and which users do you mean?

  Professor Dalton: I mean the various users within Government, the people use it. We are a user of the information that comes out of this. There are a number of government departments that are users of the data and there are number of private concerns that are users of that information. It is important that those user groups are engaged and involved in the activities.

  Q351  Dr Iddon: Have we got the balance right between the private users and the public users?

  Professor Dalton: It is probably about right but it needs a much closer investigation and much careful thought going into try to look at what should be done to develop all the independent organisation That should be made up largely of the industry and certainly of government activity as well but do not align it with any one government department.

  Q352  Dr Iddon: How do the private users pay? Do they pay on the basis of information received or do they support—

  Professor Dalton: I do not how they are paying at the moment.

  Q353  Chairman: Are we just talking about private companies here, EUMESTAT[1], the Surrey satellites and things like that?

  Professor Dalton: Yes.

  Q354  Dr Harris: This is a question to Professor Thorpe. Are you aware of the UK Ionospheric Monitoring Programme? It monitors global warming through measuring the ionosphere from a series of space ships around the world?

  Professor Thorpe: I am.

  Q355  Dr Harris: I understand that it is something that NERC does not fund because you see it as on the edge of the atmosphere; it is a space thing and that is PPARC and not you. PPARC might argue that it is monitoring the environment and so it is your job, assuming the science is good enough. Is this a basis for cross-council funding and co-operation?

  Professor Thorpe: There are many bases for cross-council funding and co-operation. In this Spending Review we are coming together in a new initiative called Living with Environmental Change, which involves all the research councils, and government departments, to address what are strategically critical science questions on environmental change. NERC's strategy has to be focused on where we see the main scientific opportunities. As part of our strategic development process, there has been a question about space weather, which leads into the area you are talking about, the upper atmosphere and charged particles, et cetera. Where we think those issues are relevant to the big issues associated with climate change, they are funded by NERC because we think it is an important scientific area. Our responsive mode grant schemes are open anyway, but in terms of our directed and strategic research, we have to focus on where we think the critical questions are. At the moment, we do not feel they are predominantly in that area.

  Q356  Dr Harris: In another setting, in another inquiry, almost another universe, talking about CEH and the importance of long-term datasets, you accepted that there was merit in supporting long-term datasets, even if they were not looking at the cutting edge, new science questions because they are long-term datasets which we need to collect. There is a real risk, if the obsession is with cutting edge science, that things that have gone back decades which are still providing useful information are going to be lost because no one will fund their continuation?

  Professor Thorpe: I think I have been clear with this committee and with CEH that it is critically important for NERC to continue long-term monitoring of environmental factors, but of course, as I have said before here, we have to make choices about priorities and which are the critical datasets. We do not monitor everything to do with environmental change at the moment. We have to make choices as to what the critical areas are. I am telling you that we have to make that scientific judgement as to whether monitoring certain aspects of the environment are more high priority or of lesser priority. We cannot monitor everything.

  Chairman: On that note, thank you very much indeed to Alan Douglas, Professor Alan Thorpe and Professor Sir Howard Dalton.

1   Note by the witness: EUMETSAT is an intergovernmental organisation, it is not a private company. Back

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