Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360
WEDNESDAY 7 FEBRUARY 2007
Q360 Adam Afriyie: Do you feel that
the Government is fully exploiting the potential of earth observation
at the moment? Obviously the words "fully" can be extended
or retracted. Do you think that the Government is doing enough
to exploit the advantages to some degree that we have in earth
Professor Quegan: Who is the Government
here? Who are you talking about?
Q361 Adam Afriyie: I was trying to
get to that. There are many different departments within government:
Defra, Environment Agency, policy makers. In general terms, if
you are looking at the Government as set of different entities
under one umbrella, do you think that overall earth observation
is being exploited to the degree that you would like to see?
Professor Quegan: In some areas
we do it well. The atmospheric scientists have a long history
of doing it very well. In other areas, partly because of the infrastructure,
partly because of resources and partly because it has not been
as urgent, the development of the user data has not been as strong.
There are aspirations; for example, Defra has an earth observation
co-ordinator. There is at the moment a very definite wish to carry
this forward. The name of the game is actually putting the mechanisms
in place and lining up what the different organisations might
want to do individually and what they can do mutually to make
sure they are consistent and focused to deliver things for everybody.
I do not think we have done that particularly well. That is my
Q362 Adam Afriyie: Matthew Stuttard,
do you share that view that there is a bit of a fragmentation
of objectives, which is not helping in earth observation, from
Mr Stuttard: Yes, there certainly
is. In terms of how the data can be used, it is important to bear
in mind that there are physical constraints and meteorological
satellites, which take an earth disc view, can repeat cover of
the earth with a 1 kilometre resolution every 15 minutes or 30
minutes, but when you are talking about the environmental monitoring
satellites, which allow you to view data down to 30, 10 or 5 metres,
you cannot get coverage with that kind of frequency and repeat.
You are looking at daily or in some case weekly coverage. So there
are constraints related to the frequency of observation and the
uptake, there is emphasis in the government policy on being user-driven,
which is absolutely correct, but users in government see things
when they are being asked what their uses are and to say how they
use satellite data. They are not foolish. They see that behind
this is the requirement that they will be asked to pay for that
use. This is a fundamental limitation to the way that the funding
is trying to be put together from a bottom up mechanism. The users
who are responsible right down at the delivery level for delivering
policy have relatively small budgets and they see a measurement
technique as a fundamental threat to their existing practices.
I think that has not come out in the evidence so far and that
is a real constraint in Government use of the data.
Q363 Adam Afriyie: What more do you
think could be done by the Government to make the mechanisms better
in the way that earth observation is exploited?
Mr Stuttard: A lot has been done.
A lot is being done by the European Space Agency in particular
in terms of developing exploitation of earth observation data
across a whole wide range of users. They have developed a rather
sophisticated process because you cannot just go to the user and
say, "Tell us your requirements" because they will say,
"What can you do?" You end up in a stand-off. The European
Space Agency has worked extremely well at bridging this gap between
what you can do and what users require, meeting their expectations
and also limiting their expectations, not allowing them to run
away with the idea that earth observation can solve all their
problems, which it certainly cannot do, and it has limitations.
For example, oil slick monitoring is something that has both commercial
and environmental application. It is not quite used operationally
yet for environmental application because of the limitations.
Under certain sea conditions, it does not work and so forth. Because
there are not sufficient satellites that can observe the oil slicks,
it is usually radar satellites that are used in all weather conditions
but not in all sea states and not all the time. The satellite
is not always hovering above any place where there is a slick
occurring. It is being used in a piecemeal way and that will be
built up. As GMES takes off and we get more satellites which are
able to observe more regularly, then these applications which
are piecemeal become more operational and the users are prepared
then to take them on.
Q364 Adam Afriyie: You sound reasonably
confident and optimistic about market pressure and the Government
sorting its act out so that these things will come to pass, so
that earth observation will become a reality?
Mr Stuttard: It is a question
of time. These things happen very slowly. There is an interesting
correlation. You will be talking to Ordnance Survey later in the
day. I think they have talked about the National Interest Mapping
Service Agreement, for example, the Pan-Government Agreement,
as a way of unlocking Ordnance Survey data right across government.
I happened to work in agricultural monitoring using earth observation
of CAP subsidies some long time ago. At that time, MAFF (as it
was) was steadfastly opposed to using Ordnance Survey data because
of the implication on the budget of licensing. At that time, we
had to scan the maps every year and digitise all the field boundaries
doing unnecessary work but when the pan-government agreement came
in, that requirement completely changed and it unlocked Ordnance
Survey data across government.
Q365 Adam Afriyie: So you would argue
that across government there needs to be a review of the approach
to funding ensuring that one conversation, where somebody expresses
interest in data, does not result in their funding of the entire
Mr Stuttard: It is taking the
high level view.
Q366 Adam Afriyie: Professor Wingham,
you are at University College London. I am sure that the decisions
that the Government makes in this area, in terms of funding research,
have an impact on yourself. Do you agree with the comments that
have been made about the mis-co-ordination, or the lack of linkage,
Professor Wingham: I think I would
give you a slightly different perspective. It is easy to underestimate
how difficult it is to use these observations as effectively as
you can do. In science, we have learned over the last 20 years
that you do not use these observations standalone: you go and
combine them with observations you make on the surface of the
ground. Satellites have strengths: they can cover the whole globe;
they can do it regularly; they can give you continuous data. They
have significant weaknesses: you can see through the atmosphere
but you cannot see through the ocean; you cannot see through the
solid earth, you can only look at the superficial surface; and
they are limited in resolutionso with radar, you cannot
see much better than a few metres and even with optical instruments
a metreand there are a very large number of problems which
bear on practical life where that is not sufficient. A very important
thing about mapping is boundary disputes between neighbours. You
cannot measure from space to boundaries accurately enough, for
example. Skilful use of these data involves bringing together
all of the data, surface data and space data, but it does not
just stop there. For example, for many years a principal blockage
to regular commercial use of satellite data was the fact that
it was not reliably there. Because it was mostly research satellites,
so it may be there some days, it may not be. There were serious
bottlenecks in the data flow systems between the satellite and
the ground segment of the data, distribution and user. Over the
last 20 years we have seen a gradual improvement in our understanding
of (a) how we use this data and (b) the distribution systems,
the ground-link systems. We are now going through a period where
the use of these data in many aspects of government and to some
extent commercial life is starting to mushroom, and it is mushrooming
because we now have all of these capabilities at one time. I would
echo something that, I think, Alan said: there is a lot of opportunity
and we are seeing this growth now because of all these problems
gradually being solved.
Adam Afriyie: Again, that is a reasonably
Q367 Chairman: A really important
issue for us, if in fact there is that level of optimism of bringing
all these different datasets together, is to know, in your opinion,
who should be coordinating that? Would a separate space agency,
for instance, be useful? Do we need something in terms of the
research councils to bring things together, should it be the Government,
in terms of a government department that does this? It will not
happen just by accident, will it? Or will it?
Professor Wingham: I suppose I
tend to take the view that if you look at the most successful
applications of these data, they have occurred because somebody
had a problem on which the data really could be brought to bear.
We are seeing now that there is an increasing number of problems
faced by government departments or agencies who are becoming aware
that the totality of this data can be brought to bear on their
problems. A coordinating activity which is not pulling from the
problem end can do so much but it is really a question of broadening
to the largest extent possible the understanding of the potential
uses of these data by all aspects of government which is likely
to make the pick-up the largest. I actually think NEC has done
a fairly good job in trying to bring understanding to the different
parts of government but it is obvious that some parts of government
are rather focused on their day-to-day regulatory functions and
so this is a rather new thing and I think it is very easy to underestimate
the learning time to move the culture of these systems into cultures
that are originally ground-based.
Q368 Chairman: Could I ask the other
witnesses to respond to that question.
Professor Quegan: This business
of pulling data together?
Q369 Chairman: Yes.
Professor Quegan: One of the major
issues we have had to face is exactly that problem. We need different
datasets from all over everywhere for our particular problem.
In fact to a certain extent we have been a driver to say, "This
is what we need from NERC"because NERC is one of the
major holders of environmental datasets for the UK's policies,
along with Defra for its research, but many of those datasets
are spread across a lot of agencies and a lot of places. For our
particular task, one of our major difficulties initially was to
pull those together because they were separated. What we have
done fairly well over the last five years, obviously with the
help of NERC and inside NERC, is to amalgamate those datasets
so that they can be applied to the problems we work on. This fusion
is something that is really happening.
Q370 Chairman: I remember when I
came to see you in Sheffield you were arguing that getting access
to some datasets is problematic.
Professor Quegan: It has been.
It has got better. We, as a NERC centre, probably have more clout
than other, say, individual researchers, so we could argue stronger
than other people. I do not know what the position is for the
average researcher in NERC as to getting hold of some of these
Q371 Chairman: Matthew, would you
echo this problem of coordination?
Mr Stuttard: Yes, not in relation
to data access but in relation to where should the leadership
come from. I think there has been very good leadership in BNSC
but the amount they are allowed to lead is constrained and that
is really the nub of this problem. Perhaps, again, I could go
back 20 years. In the downstream, before exploitation of earth
observation data, there was a programme of application development.
There was a National Remote Sensing Centre which was eventually
spun out and became a private companywhich is one of the
BARSC members companies, the largestand that process has
worked, but, in the meantime, we have kind of dropped the ball
nationally, on developing competence nationally in the exploitation
of the data not scientifically but for practical applications.
I think that has been rather dropped.
Q372 Adam Afriyie: That brings me
to my last question. From your evidence, and some very strong
words from Professor Quegan there is clearly an issue here with
regard to coordination, or an overall view or approach to the
funding, of earth observation and even the retaining of the datasets
and access to them. Would you argue that it should be the BNSC's
role to fulfil this function or should there be another body?
What would be your solution to this problem? Clearly market forces
are beginning to sort things out, but what would be your solution
to this issue?
Mr Stuttard: I do not think I
can comment on that. BNSC does have existing structures in place.
I would not want to suggest throwing the baby out with the bathwater.
I would say, also, in terms of coordination within Defra there
has been a resurgence of activity after what was a bit of a fallow
period and the reluctance of a few years ago. There is a real
change going on right now and it might be a good thing to help
that change along rather than completely adjust direction
Professor Quegan: Clearly there
is not one organisation which can necessarily take a lead on this.
BNSC clearly should have a role in this because it is an overarching
issue. For example, NERC is currently reorganising its earth observation
sector. An important element of that has to be how it will help
to get information and knowledge that it requires into the other
sectors The structures have to be built to allow what NERC is
doing to interact effectively with agency and government needs.
Professor Wingham: I do not think
I can really comment on where the responsibility should lie, generally
speaking, in government, but I do feel able to comment on this
from the point of view of a scientist with familiarity of environmental
funding. In rough terms, NERC spends 10%-12% of its budget on
satellite systems that supply environmental data. If you look
at environmental science as a total activity, that is about right
I would say, because these data account for something like 15%
of scientific activity. It is also essential from the point of
view of science funding that the science delivered by that expenditure
can be defended against the other science which is not using those
satellites. It really is important that that balance is right
from the Science Research Council point of view. The second issue
from the scientist's point of view is that long-term measurements
are clearly of importance to science. There is no question about
it. But it is equally true that if science commits itself to operational
ongoing expenditure then it is committing its future against possible
new things. My view has been that NERC's approach to this question,
particularly to what extent should it fund GMES, just to be practical,
has been, in my view, sensible and appropriate for that agency.
Q373 Dr Spink: I want to explore
the relationship between industry and academia. The British Association
of Remote Sensing Companies said that "there is low motivation
and few incentives in the environmental research world to work
with existing successful businesses on transferring know-how and
intellectual property related to EO applications." That is
pretty well nailing the blame for this lack of knowledge transfer
on the upstream side and the companies being the ones who are
suffering. What would your view be of that? Can you comment on
Mr Stuttard: Over the last two
years, the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies has
been involved in discussing with NERC over knowledge transfer.
We have had a number of meetings and we are now moving forwards
to the extent that we will have a workshop on knowledge transfer.
But the driver from this has come from BARSC and there is a reluctance,
on which I think my esteemed colleagues here will also enlighten
you, as to why that is there. There really are few incentives
to transfer knowledge into the private sector companies for a
lot of reasons.
Q374 Dr Spink: What sort of incentives
and motivations do you think there might be that would be helpful
to get the two sides working together better?
Mr Stuttard: I am sure money always
helps but I think that is relatively limited. From the academic
perspective, they are interested in scientific results. If you
are doing fairly normal science-type work, getting marginal gains
on the processes is not particularly interesting to scientists
and nor should it be. But that is maybe at the leading edge. The
five-star grade institutions are not so interested in that kind
of activity. Although it is still a very important activity to
industrialised processes, to make them more efficient because
this is where marginal gains, competitivity and profit resides,
in shaving off the inefficiencies in the process, that is not
necessarily where the great science resides.
Q375 Dr Spink: I will come to the
academia side in a moment, if I may, but, perhaps I can stick
with you, Matthew. We have looked at the incentives, the positive
side, the carrot, but what are the sticks, what are the barriers
preventing knowledge transfer?
Mr Stuttard: There is some concern
about the handling of intellectual property. I am talking about
the downstream here. It is very important to get that across.
In the upstream that is not the case because the development of
sensors and instruments is very much a role of industry in conjunction
with research institutions and that works very well, but in the
downstream what is being transferred is know-how, software, things
which it is quite difficult to put an intellectual property mark
on or to protect in any way, so the quantum of knowledge that
is being transferred and how a reward can come back is rather
difficult to work on.
Q376 Dr Spink: So we need improved
models there. I think we all agree with that. On the academic
side, you have heard what has been said. You know of course that
the research councils have now got their teeth into knowledge
transfer. It is a big issue, and they are looking at promoting
their funding decisions. Do you think there is anything you should
be doing to improve knowledge transfer, to make sure that industry
can exploit this wonderful knowledge that you are discovering?
Professor Wingham: The effective
collaboration happens between academia and industry when they
are sharing common goals. This is why, on the upstream side, the
supply side, there has been a long history of very good interaction
between academia and industryand not simply UK industry
but European industry in general. I am not certain that the problem
is really about barriers. For example, to take my case, I study
ice sheets and there is not a great deal of knowledge that we
can transfer which is commercially exploitable. On the other hand,
to come back to what I said earlier, you get success by somebody
wanting to solve a problem, so many of the potential applications
of these data are handled in university departments by folk who
themselves have yet to understand the impact of the data. For
me, the problem is a bit more subtle than simply one of making
sums of money available. The principal difficulty we have is that
we work together best when we have a commonality of interest.
Q377 Chairman: Does that also apply
in government, that government do not have the skills in order
to be able to fully exploit that data which is being produced
by the scientists?
Professor Wingham: As I said earlier,
I think there is some truth in this. There is insufficient understanding
in the Department for Transport, the Department for the Environment
and so on, especially as this whole information capability is
now maturing as well. This was not true 10 years ago.
Q378 Dr Spink: I do not have the
necessary skills and imagination to see how one could commercially
exploit the work you are doing on the thickness of the ice sheet,
but I am sure there are people around who do who could look at
geology and oil exploration and exploration of the fish stocks
and tourism and all the sorts of different ways in which that
might be exploitable if one had the imagination to do it. Do you
think that part of the problem is that it is not in our national
psyche to take our blue sky research that further step and that
is why we have so many Nobel prizes and so few products brought
Professor Wingham: No, I do not.
For me, the devil of this is in the detail. You cannot do much
with a satellite which is of direct interest to oil exploration
because most of oil exploration is concerned with what is happening
one, two, three kilometres under the ground. I am not saying nothing,
but it is not really right. In addition, if you want to have a
good interaction between academia and industry over, for example,
the oil industry, you need to be working with an academic who
is worried about geophysical prospecting, for example. Most experts
in universities who worry about transport problems do not particularly
think about satellite systems, for example. I do not want to be
negative but university departments are under very considerable
financial pressure to be very good at what they do and stay very
good at what they do. That is a true fact. It is the pressure
of the RAE. There is no question that this means that activities
that diffuse effort away from one's central focus, which is excellent
science, you simply regard to some extent as diffusions. But I
do not wish to overstate this. It is more a question of identifying
groups who have this commonality of interest and then there will
be very good interaction.
Q379 Dr Spink: Do you take that view,
Professor Quegan: I think the
point Duncan made is absolutely right: you have to define commonality
there and once you have got that you can get somewhere. From our
point of view, where there are areas in which we can see what
we want, it is relatively easy to find the funding. A classic
example is we are interested in measuring biomass in space. We
want to fly a satellite which will do that. We have supported
EADS on studies with ESA to look at, for example, the antenna
problems and we have looked at issues of inverting the methods.
The ionospheric work that needs to be done is being supported
by NERC at the moment. This will all help in the UK's capability
to get involved in the bid to ESA if this mission ever comes to
fruition, to be involved in making sure that the UK has a contribution
to make in building that instrument. We have also made absolutely
sure that the UK companies are kept in touch with the proposal
status and so on, so we are an information service. I am all in
favour of UK plc. I worked for Marconi for four years. I want
to see us do well. But there is an issue of time-scale. Our time-scale
normally in the university is not six months or a year or something
and it is actually rather hard for us to switch on a year's funding
to do a particular thing for a companyunless it fits immediately
within our own capabilitiesbecause our time-scale is two
to three years. We would have to employ someone. We do not have
spare people. We do not do project work. It is not our business.