Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 360 - 379)



  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 observation?

  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 limited perception.

  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 the Government?

  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 amount of detail you can see. Having said that, in terms of user 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 project?

  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, between objectives?

  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 resolution—so with radar, you cannot see much better than a few metres and even with optical instruments a metre—and 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 optimistic approach.

  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 different datasets.

  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 company—which is one of the BARSC members companies, the largest—and 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 that?

  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 industry—and 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 to market?

  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?

  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 company—unless it fits immediately within our own capabilities—because 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.

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