Science and TechnologyWritten evidence submitted by Cambridge Environmental Research Consultants Ltd


1. CERC is a Company (currently 25 employees) for environmental research and consulting set up in 1985 to utilise research done at the Departments of Applied Mathematics and Theoretical Physics (DAMTP), Engineering, and Earth Sciences at the University of Cambridge, and at E.P.A in USA (where Prof. Hunt was a consultant). It expanded significantly when it took on a key job of developing software for air pollution dispersion suitable for the main UK government agencies (UKAEA, Met Office) and companies (eg National Power) through the coordination of the (then) National Radiological Protection Board in 1990. The aim of this software was to make use of available environmental, meteorological and GIS data, to provide air pollution prediction systems to be used by non-experts.

2. The intellectual property of the software (ADMS) was retained by CERC. The software was subsequently developed in 1995, through internal investment, for use by local authorities for air pollution planning, permitting and forecasting. Some development contracts were provided by DEFRA, and Dr Carruthers sits on the advisory body of DEFRA for air pollution (AQEG). The software serves as a basis from providing consulting services by CERC and is used by other UK companies (e. g. AEA Technology). It is also used by universities for teaching.

3. Research from UK and overseas institutes was used to develop the software further to include such aspects as atmospheric chemistry, use of meteorological forecasts and satellite data for air quality forecasts, dispersion from traffic and aircraft exhausts, wind energy prediction, planning urban environments and atmospheric pollution associated with carbon capture and storage. The software is accepted and used all round the world. It is formally approved by China’s Ministry of the Environment and the US-EPA (as an alternate method).

4. The marketing of the company is through its website, scientific publication and presentation at conferences, etc. The company has made many foreign visits and has set up a small subsidiary in China. No funds are available in the UK for developing technology for exports, unlike our partner organisation in France. US government agencies are also very active in this area.

5. The UK Government does not issue any formal approval of any commercial environmental software, though it acknowledges its use (eg by Environment Agency), nor does it state the standards it expects, which is an important way to encourage high level commercialisation. The Cabinet Office did however issue a statement describing the AIRTEXT air pollution forecasting system in Jan 2011, as a good example of the use of data and IT systems. This joint project developed by CERC with ESA and European government and local authority agencies sends messages to people who have breathing difficulties when the air pollution in their locality is high. It is advertised on London buses. Because it is based on fundamental principles of meteorology and dispersion it can be applied in other cities; it is currently use in Budapest and Vienna.

6. But the Government did not mention CERC in its press statement which developed and still operates the system which is based on ADMS. (Many small companies and even ministers comment that UK civil servants are reluctant to name UK companies if they are small, while openly supporting and publicising the big companies such as those in banking, oil and aerospace).

7. The UK Department for Transport instituted a comparison between the UK ADMS code and the US code for air pollution at airports, and concluded that the UK system was more accurate and fit for purpose for the Project for the Sustainable Development of Heathrow Airport (PSDH). This was announced in Parliament, though the company that developed the UK code, CERC, was not mentioned.

Answers to Questions

A. Difficulties of funding

8. There are problems of uncertainty about UK and international demand for technological products, uncertainty about their competitiveness and about the level of UK government support for new high tech products. Since 70–80% of the market for high tech projects are governmental (especially environmental/energy products), the funding depends on confidence in government policies and long term intentions. Where new developments are funded and adopted by UK government for use in the UK, there is almost no effort to promote these abroad (as many small companies from the UK have commented).

9. Indeed the UK Environment Agency is not permitted by Defra to promote UK environmental technology and products, unlike the Environmental Agency of the USA, which for example has an office in Beijing. So when CERC with ESA was invited to provide air pollution forecasts in Beijing for the Olympics-a considerable achievement since the US was not invited- there was no publicity or help provided by the UK government.

10. Prof Hunt is a former Chief Executive of the Met Office; as with other chief executives of agencies it was not part of his job description to promote UK environmental technology though after requests from the UK private sector he did involve UK companies in UK activities at the UN agency WMO- again an action where the USA government agencies are engaged much more vigorously).

11. There has been a decline in the numbers of big government and industrial labs with clear motivation (eg Shell, CEGB, British Gas, Water Research Council etc.) who used to have large R and D budgets for the application of research. They often provided contracts to small high tech companies, and funded applied research projects including those in Universities. Other countries continue to have such major centres. Also the applied research budgets of Government Departments have declined (over the past 20 years). Although Research Council and Royal Society budgets have increased, their method of funding—with academic referees showing little understanding of the contributions of commercial companies to applied research—is not generally suitable for developing commercial projects. EU research revenue projects are managed more suitably for private companies, for example using referees who seem to understand about applied research and the contribution of small companies in delivering products based on research. (CERC had one good experience with a EPSRC project involving several universities that certainly led to practical as well as good research results).

12. The US government funds “challenge” projects to apply US or foreign based research-including one of the papers of Prof. Hunt (The MoD in the UK has done this for some critical problems, but the approach could be expanded).

13. Another area of difficulty for small companies is the trend to increasing length and complexity of tender documentation and requirements for references of very recent work above specified value thresholds. This greatly favours larger established companies even when they are not the best for the tasks required.

B. Difficulties in commercialising research

14. Environmental services are provided by a mix of commercial and publicly funded organisations which varies between countries. This creates some difficulties in the commercialisation of research. For example the software for air pollution processes is developed and issued freely by the US Government. This is then sold on as commercial packages by US and other companies, including some in the UK. Inevitably it is cheaper than products which have to be developed commercially. So CERC has to compete with the US AERMOD code-which it is happy to do so on scientific and technical grounds. The US government publicises its environmental software (including that for weather forecasting) and openly provides information about its own and other software on its web sites, so that users can choose. More could be done by the UK to recognise this situation and to support UK public and private organisations engaged in environmental technology.

15. The UK Government has reduced its funding of base levels of research in commercial (formally public) environmental organisations. By comparison Dutch and Danish Governments have funded their hydraulic and wind energy labs at about 10% of their turnover. They are leading in this research, and they now dominate the world market for technical consultancy and collaborative projects with foreign research bodies and governments.

16. Academic Research Council grants or short period DTI, TSB etc. research projects do not take the place of long standing applied research laboratories, which also play a role in the development of small companies. Indeed where they have existed in the UK some have been closed down such as the NE wind energy centre. The policies of the present UK Government for technology centres announced by the present government may provide some stimulus to commercialisation of research, but they do not have the same focus or continuity or labs based on a specific industrial objective.

17. Another critical influence on commercialising research is the policy about data availability and the commercial role of government bodies. In Europe (including in UK) environmental data from Government bodies (despite the Aarhuis Conventions) is charged at rates much higher than equivalent data in the USA. That is why, it is argued, there are many more US companies. Indeed in Europe government agencies compete with Universities and private companies for commercial research funding, including E.U. projects. Instead these agencies should be encouraged to work with UK high tech companies. This would not only lead to more rapid commercialisation of the research coming from Universities and government/research laboratories, but would enable the UK products and services to be more widely exported. Exporting by UK government agencies is often difficult. It seems to many companies that HM Treasury (like Finance Ministries in other European countries) is deliberately ambiguous as to whether it wants to encourage the US model of free data and no commercialisation of agencies, or the Colbert model of government commercialisation leading to direct rather than indirect revenues to the state.

18. These ambiguities do not help small companies working with or in competition with government and university departments engaged in commercial services.

February 2012

Prepared 11th March 2013