Written Evidence Submitted by the National Oceanography Centre (NOC)
The National Oceanography Centre (NOC) is one of the world’s top oceanographic institutions with a remit to deliver research from the coast to the deep sea. Its activities span numerous disciplines, from ocean physics to numerical modelling, marine biology, climate change, marine geophysics and technology innovation.
The NOC manages the UK national fleet of research vessels and serves the needs of the greater UK marine science community through the National Marine Equipment Pool and the British Oceanographic Data Centre. The NOC is a not-for-profit independent organisation with charitable status, whose research is disseminated openly for public benefit to inform public debate and support decision-making.
The following evidence was prepared by Professor Christine Gommenginger, Leader of Satellite Oceanography in the Directorate for Science & Technology Marine Physics and Ocean Climate Group, National Oceanography Centre.
The UK has world-leading capability in space, notably Earth Observation (EO). EO is an essential component of the global Earth System and climate observation network, and recent years have confirmed EO as a major growth sector for the UK. Nations with recognised global positions in EO are characterised by a high-skilled research base, strong national coordination and sustained long-term strategic investments both nationally and internationally.
Recruitment and retainment currently pose a critical threat to the UK’s ability to realise its potential in EO due to severe skill shortages, lack of established research career pathways in the UK and massive loss of skilled personnel some of which may be linked to Brexit.
International partnerships through membership of the European Space Agency, the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) and Copernicus remain the optimal way to address important global challenges - particularly in relation to environmental and climate monitoring - by helping to mitigate the large investments and high risks associated with space.
Bi-laterals or multi-laterals with other nations provide additional routes to space but bring greater risks through exposure to changing political and financial circumstances in partner countries.
Small satellites and new space also offer promising space solutions, but the success and prestige of these ventures tend to remain associated with the private individuals and companies that initiate them, rather than the nation where they operate.
The UK is a world-leader in the development of new Earth Observation instrumentation and missions, the production and exploitation of large satellite datasets for Earth science and climate research, and the transformation of science into public good and new commercial services.
This capability depends on:
a research base with the capacity to respond quickly and over the long-term, and the skills to innovate across multiple disciplines (environmental science, engineering, data analytics, social sciences…)
appropriate funding structures that support cross-disciplinary research and risk-taking across different parts of the sector.
Unlike other leading space nations (USA, France, Germany, Japan etc.), national funding for EO in the UK is fragmented, short-term and opportunistic, lacking coherence and strategic direction.
At present, there is little or no effective coordination of Earth Observation research across research councils (NERC, EPSRC, etc) and other space-related organisations (UK Space Agency, Satellite Catapult, Innovate UK). The apparent wealth of funding opportunities for space is often undermined by complex restrictions (eligibility, Intellectual Property conditions, low overhead rates, industry Private Venture contribution…) that put up barriers across different disciplines and actors in universities, NGOs, industry, government bodies, etc.
The UK Space Agency (UKSA) has brought major benefits compared to its predecessor (BNSC) but its remit remains limited to the needs of industry to promote economic growth. The UK could strengthen its position as a world-leader in EO by consolidating all aspects and funding of EO under the central governance and strategic direction of a single independent agency like UKSA.
Broadening the remit and funding of UKSA for EO would allow it to operate seamlessly across all sectors of the community, including academia and NGOs, enabling it to link up areas of UK strengths from EO technology to climate science and environmental services. This would provide greater national coherence and appreciation of UK capabilities, to better identify the UK’s national strategic priorities and improve the representation of UK EO strengths internationally.
The UK should continue to strengthen its position as a leading nation within the European Space Agency to drive technological innovation through Earth Explorer and SCOUT programmes.
Recent UK successes within ESA (EE10 Harmony, EE10 HydroTerra, SCOUT EPS-MACCS, SCOUT HydroGNSS, EE11 SEASTAR, EE11 WIVERN) are directly traceable to recent national investments by UKSA through the Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation (CEOI) to support collaboration between academia and industry with funding and expertise to respond to these ESA opportunities.
The CEOI programme should be extended and broadened beyond its current remit (low Technology Readiness Levels and Science Readiness Levels demonstrations; TRL/SRL 0-1) to also support the raising of TRL and SRLs to end of Phase A (TRL/SRL 5).
The UK should intensify its EO doctoral training activities for EO to establish long-term routes for capacity building in this sector and grow new generations of EO scientists, engineers and entrepreneurs. Long-term routes are essential to increase diversity, notably the representation of BAME and low-income communities in STEM disciplines.
Existing Centres for Doctoral Training like the NERC Centre for Satellite Data in Environmental Science (SENSE; https://eo-cdt.org) should be extended beyond their initial four-year duration to take maximum benefits of the training, processes and governance structures put in place. The remit of Centres for Doctoral Training (CDTs) like SENSE would nevertheless be reviewed at regular intervals to ensure it continues to address the evolving needs of the UKSA strategy for EO and the EO sector as a whole.
There is urgent need to consolidate and simplify Earth Observation research funding structures, to see them managed under a single independent organisation like the UK Space Agency. UKSA would need to be equipped with the technical knowledge, means and authority to coordinate research activities nationally across all sectors. Such consolidation would bridge the current gap between EO technology innovation and climate science, provide greater national coherence and strategic direction and improved representation of UK interests and capabilities on the international stage.
The UK is at the forefront of satellite EO technologies and should also ensure it is at the forefront of exploiting satellite data through creation of information products and that use of EO information is integrated into decision making at all levels thereby ensuring that the UK gains full benefit of the entire value chain of EO information from satellite sensors through to decision support. It is noted that satellite derived observations of the ocean need to be complemented by in situ (in water) observations in the surface ocean (calibrate and validate satellite data) and in the subsurface (which cannot be measured by satellites). Hence a more holistic strategy should acknowledge the non-space-based Earth Observing necessary to realise the benefit of the full value chain of information.
The UK should strengthen and expand its engagement and participation in international organisations like ESA, EUMETSAT, Copernicus and Galileo to benefit from the pooling of investments across nations, and ensure the UK has access to world-leading technical capability in navigation, operational weather satellites and earth observation satellites, at minimal financial risk for the public purse.