Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents

Memorandum 7

Submission from the Met Office


  1.  High profile science based issues (eg. climate change, genetically modified organisms) generate significant amounts of science based information and interpretation. There is a significant risk however that these interpretations serve a specific agenda or particularly lobbying position. The availability of authoritative, robust and objective science information and interpretation is crucial to ensuring policy is fit for purpose.

2.  In many areas, scientific understanding is increasing rapidly and in many cases generating significant improvements in capability (eg the accuracy and capability of Numerical Weather Prediction). Emerging scientific understanding, and the capability it enables, can have an important impact on policy development. Effective communication of these, and likely future developments, is crucial to ensure policy is well formulated, "future proofed" and makes the best use of developing capability.

3.  There is increasing pressure to ensure that research adequately supports policy development. However, care is required to ensure a proper balance between these more focused activities and more fundamental research. It may not be possible to address future policy questions in the future unless they are properly underpinned by fundamental research today.

  4.  In many instances there is an expectation that science will deliver definitive and clear results. The reality in many areas is that conclusions need to be drawn based on a balance of probabilities. Some conclusions are likely to be very well founded and others less certain. Policy needs to be developed in full recognition of the associated uncertainties and, if required, to accommodate them directly.


  5.  The Met Office is a Trading Fund Agency owned by MOD. It is a world leading scientific organisation, both in the field of weather forecasting and climate prediction, operating on a 24/7 basis with the highest standards of operational resilience. Responsible for providing forecasts on all timescales (from an hour ahead to 100+ years), the Met Office is uniquely positioned to support the UK Government in its development of science- based policy in areas impacted by both climate change and severe weather events.

6.  An independent review of the Met Office Hadley Centre concluded, amongst other things, that "It is beyond dispute that the Met Office Hadley Centre occupies a position at the pinnacle of world climate science and in translating that science into policy advice".[23] The work of the Met Office Hadley Centre has allowed the UK Government—through Defra—to play a leading role in gaining global acceptance of anthropogenic climate change and developing mitigation and adaptation strategies. The major contribution made by the Met Office Hadley Centre, both to the recent Stern Review and to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fourth Assessment Report, are two recent examples of just how vital and high profile its climate prediction work now is to Government policy.

Policy focussed science at the Met Office

  7.  The UK leads the way in a science-based approach to dealing with climate change. It is at the forefront of international negotiations on mitigation and adaptation, and in providing climate change information in the UK for adaptation through the UK Climate Impacts Programme.

8.  The UK government currently invests around £20 million p.a. in climate research at the Met Office Hadley Centre through DECC, Defra and MoD. This is underpinned by significant investment in model development at the Met Office to improve weather forecasts. Exploitation of the synergies between operational weather forecasting and climate predictions strongly benefits both activities and maximises value for money. The recent merger of two separate research programmes into a joint MOD and Defra Climate Prediction Programme at the Met Office is an excellent example of a coordinated approach to climate change research that will further strengthen the quality of advice provided to government on the underpinning science. This joint programme provides a framework by which the departments can coordinate their interests while the Met Office builds on the excellent fundamental science carried out in the UK research community and translates this into policy relevant advice.

  9.  Although there is significant and close coordination with Defra and DECC, changing climate patterns and incidence of extreme weather events have far-reaching socio-economic impacts and science advice can therefore underpin policies from all Government departments—from infrastructure to energy to food supplies to health. It is also important to note that the effects of a changing climate will be felt on a global scale and may therefore have a direct impact on international investment and policy.

Scientists and policy makers

  10.  In order to ensure policy is developed and reviewed in light of the best science advice available, policy makers must first recognise how science can inform policy and then engage the science community at the earliest opportunity. For their part, scientists must not only recognise the relevance of their research to policy but, crucially, also be able to communicate it effectively.

11.  A science-based approach to policy development can only be effective if there is strong coordination between Departments and the science community—both to communicate emerging policy requirements and to ensure that science is directed towards policy. The use of inappropriate or out dated scientific advice could lead to poor investment decisions and/or ineffective policy.

Limitations and uncertainties in science

  12.  Just as policy is required to change and develop with changing socio-economic factors, policy makers must also be aware of the influences and driving factors that stem from our changing understanding of science.

13.  Science cannot, and should not, provide a fixed, prescriptive answer to policy questions in most areas and certainly not when considering climate change projections or when developing policy to deal with the impacts of extreme weather events. Science advice should be provided based on the best understanding we have now but policy must remain flexible enough to adapt to new research and developing technologies that enable the delivery of breakthrough science and increased capabilities.

  14.  Although flexible enough to adapt to improving science advice, policy must still be fit for purpose and provide a real framework within which the UK can compete and develop on the international stage. When using science to inform policy decision there are two extremes to be avoided: total and complete belief that projections are fixed and paralysis by the uncertainties presented.

  15.  Key to ensuring these extremes are avoided is direct communication between policy makers and the science community. Climate change projections, for example, have been widely reported in the media. Taking science and research findings from second hand sources without understanding the limitations and uncertainties involved may lead to policy makers having a distorted view on the exact message coming from the science community.

Confidence in policy and the underpinning science

  16.  Only through policy makers taking advice directly from the most authoritative sources can we be sure that policy is underpinned by the best science advice available. Policy makers must understand the limitations and the impacts of the uncertainties in the science and scientists must be open and honest about these and communicate them effectively. Not doing so can only undermine public confidence in Government policy as well as leading to ineffective policy and wasteful investment.

17.  In turn, confidence that the science advice being offered is the best available can only come from a recognised independent authority undertaking robust scrutiny and peer review.

Blue sky versus application oriented research

  18.  Although there is a policy need for science research to be directly application oriented (with increasing fiscal and environmental pressures for this to continue) there are significant benefits in maintaining "blue sky thinking". It is through the outcomes of this conceptual research that many major breakthroughs in science come to the fore and, when brought together with other research and influences, give rise to more high-level policy change in the longer term.

January 2009

23   An independent review of the Met Office Hadley Centre from Risk Solutions commissioned by Defra and MoD was published by Defra on 15 May and is available on the Defra website:
http://www.defra.gov.uk/environment/climatechange/research/ Back

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