Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 380 - 386)



  Q380  Dr Spink: Could I come in on one final question on coordination again. Is the Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation a good idea or not?

  Mr Stuttard: Perhaps on the upstream side we have lost, in the UK, sensor development capability, so, yes, it is a very good idea.

  Professor Wingham: Yes. In the past I was somewhat responsible for it. I am a bit concerned that our level of expenditure on skills in the higher education sector involved in construction, testing, flight of aircraft, for example, of this instrumentation, has got a bit low in the past few years and I am of the view that we need to build back up the skills base.

  Professor Quegan: I think it needs to be done because our influence in instrumentation across Europe is actually weakening. Something needs to be done and this is at least part of a step along the way.

  Dr Spink: Thank you very much.

  Q381  Dr Iddon: BARSC have been rather critical that we do not have a coordinated programme. It says that is needed now in order allow our companies to become competitive with the best in the rest of Europe, in Germany, France and Italy particularly. Do we have the balance right between the amount of money we are feeding into the earth observation programmes through ESA? Would you like to comment on this need for a national, coordinated programme rather than taking that route?

  Mr Stuttard: Yes, indeed. One way to win European Space Agency money is to be able to bring something of your own competence to the party. ESA bids are extremely competitive and the UK national competence in the exploitation of earth observation data—which was once supreme in Europe actually—has really been eroded over the last 10 years by neglect of the downstream application development areas. As I have already mentioned, there is basically no national programme of any magnitude. There are very small amounts of money which the BNSC tries very hard to make available and when it does spend that money it gets huge results from even quite small sums of money. There is the International Cooperation Programme (ICP) which has had a tiny amount of budget that has been used for little bits of application development here and there. That has been greatly welcomed by the downstream industry but it has not been enough compared to where we were. There used to be a programme called Link. There used to be a programme called the Application Development Programme. The two GMES services in which we are involved now nationally and in leading them you can trace directly back to that Application Development Programme over 10 years ago and there has really been nothing since then putting other things into the pipe. There are other areas in which we need to be involved and I would particularly point to the atmospheric monitoring, which is the one that has not been claimed yet. In atmospheric applications, such as sunburn index, public health in relation to boundary layer pollution and that sort of thing, there are great opportunities there within GMES, and it also leads into the climate change agenda which the UK is wanting to lead on. I would point to that area as a very good one for the UK nationally to focus on and develop real applications which have good science—there is very good science to be done there which the UK wants to lead on—but also potential spin-offs into the real societal benefits and possibly even commercial benefits.

  Q382  Dr Iddon: What are countries like Germany, Italy and France doing which helps their industries to be extremely competitive, more so than ours, it appears, which we are not doing?

  Mr Stuttard: They establish priorities very early on and they then go for them. In GMES, France claimed the oceans very early on and said, "We want to do everything marine." It was a very smart move because that is the next operational application after meteorology in terms of using earth observation in an operational context, not a scientific research context, because there will be sufficient observation platforms providing streams of data on sea surface temperature, roughness and so on, which allow modelling of the whole ocean system and the French claimed that area. Land, which of course is commercially very valuable—that is where the people live, that is where the economic activity by and large takes place—the land and land cover monitoring was claimed by Germany very early on. They put their flag on it and said, "We want to do that." The UK did not claim any area as a priority.

  Q383  Dr Iddon: It seems we have been elbowed out by France and Germany, is that right, or is there a niche that we can find and exploit?

  Mr Stuttard: Atmosphere.

  Professor Quegan: The first statement is correct: we were elbowed out.

  Q384  Dr Iddon: Are we going to be bullied by these two countries? Why can we not claim a bit of the oceans? Why can we not claim a bit of the earth?

  Professor Wingham: It depends on what you regard as fixed. I myself have long supported the fact that much of our space expenditure is being directed by the agencies who need the results. I am not sympathetic to building a strong single space agency because there is a tendency for them to commit money on launching programmes in man space flight programmes. I think the UK has been very good about this. I would make one comment: our experience has been that if you pay for satellites you must invest 40% of your budget in the downstream application of the data if you wish to be successful. It is not altogether clear to me that we are doing that with GMES.

  Q385  Dr Iddon: NERC's earth observation sector is being reorganised at the moment. Professor Wingham and Professor Quegan, how is that going to affect your work?

  Professor Quegan: At the moment the details of that are being thrashed out. We have to submit our bid on 1 May. The original centres were based on, basically, opportunities to do things you wanted to do, so there were particular lead scientists in certain areas. Duncan led on the ice, I led on carbon, other people led on tectonics and so on. The new centre is very much more to try to integrate those capabilities together, which is a very sensible thing to do, so that means the basic centre structure that exists is not as clear cut any more, so the actual way that works when we set up the new structures has to be thrashed out properly. The new centre will be much more integrated to make sure that the pieces fit together in a more consistent way, shall we say, and that you take strength from the various centres to make a more coherent approach.

  Q386  Dr Iddon: You are involved in and also behind this reorganisation. That is the message I am getting.

  Professor Wingham: The idea is to produce more integration. There was certainly a NERC view that the centres we had were slightly balkanised and that we could get more by integrating to a degree. The balkanisation, on the other hand, has had its strengths too. My view is a positive one. I think we will benefit from it. I do not regard it as threatening. I hope that we will have a better outcome and I think there are lots of reasons to imagine that is true. Of course the final print is yet to be written but I am in favour of it.

  Chairman: That is a very positive note and on that positive note we will finish. Matthew Stuttard, Professor Duncan Wingham and Professor Shaun Quegan, thank you very much indeed.

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