Scientific advice and evidence in emergencies - Science and Technology Committee Contents

Memorandum submitted by the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (SAGE 31)

  I contributed substantial input to the part of the submission by Research Councils UK regarding the response to the Icelandic volcanic ash emergency and so this submission covers only additional points not in the RCUK submission. My role is that of Director of the National Centre for Atmospheric Science (NCAS), which is the research centre of the Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) responsible for atmospheric science. The Facility for Airborne Atmospheric Measurements (FAAM) is a joint facility between NERC and the Met Office. Within NERC it is managed by NCAS and so is my responsibility. The FAAM BAe-146 aircraft played a central role in the response to the volcanic ash hazard.

1.   What are the potential hazards and risks and how were they identified? How prepared is/was the Government for the emergency?

  My views on this point are fully covered by the RCUK submission.

2.   How does/did the Government use scientific advice and evidence to identify, prepare for and react to an emergency?

  The Government Chief Scientific Advisor convened the Scientific Advisory Group in Emergencies (SAGE) quickly. This was effective in gathering expert advice and making it available to Government departments. It was effective in developing a coordinated understanding of the risks from volcanic ash, in providing sufficiently well articulated assessments of the possible development of the risk through time, and in translating the perceived risk into a draft for inclusion in the national risk register. The Government Office for Science was highly effective in supporting SAGE and the individual scientists contributing to SAGE.

3.   What are the obstacles to obtaining reliable, timely scientific advice and evidence to inform policy decisions in emergencies? Has the Government sufficient powers and resources to overcome the obstacles? For case studies (i) and (ii) was there sufficient and timely scientific evidence to inform policy decisions?

  There were significant shortcomings in the ability of Government to gain assured access to the research aircraft response which it required:

    — there was failure of Cabinet Office and the Department for Transport to recognise that the Met Office only had access to the research aircraft via a contract with the Natural Environment Research Council, and hence an appropriate response required cooperation of parties other than the Met Office;

    — there was failure to properly engage with the owners (BAe Systems), operators (Directflight Ltd) and service providers (Natural Environment Research Council) concerning the cost of emergency operations; and

    — there was a refusal on occasions of the Department for Transport to take account of scientific advice, but instead to mandate research flight operations which were ultimately of little value and caused some opportunities to gather more genuinely useful scientific data to be missed. Political imperatives were cited as the reason for this.

4.   How effective is the strategic coordination between Government departments, public bodies, private bodies, sources of scientific advice and the research base in preparing for and reacting to emergencies?

  The satisfactory outcome to the scientific response was the result of good will on the part of the Natural Environment Research Council, Met Office, BAe Systems and Directflight, who were prepared to make their assets available with far from satisfactory guarantees that Government would meet the costs (subsequently, vague promises that costs would be covered have proved worthless). Government was therefore exposed to the possibility that had the good will been withdrawn, access to research aircraft data would have been impossible. This could also have an impact on willingness of the parties to cooperate in future emergencies. From the outside, it appeared that there was a absence of clear responsibility and authority to make the required decisions to commit resources.

5.   How important is international coordination and how could it be strengthened?

  My views on this point are fully covered by the RCUK response.

Professor Stephen Mobbs

Director, National Centre for Atmospheric Science

14 September 2010

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 2 March 2011