Written Evidence Submitted by Earth Observation (EO) Network, Imperial College London

(SPA0031)

This response has been coordinated by Dr Helen Brindley on behalf of the Earth Observation (EO) Network at Imperial College London.  The EO Network is a group of circa 80 academics, post-doctoral researchers and PhD students from across Imperial College who produce or utilise EO data for their research.  The response focuses primarily on the application of EO data for climate change research.

Dr Brindley is a Reader in Earth Observation at Imperial, is PI on EUMETSAT’s GERB instrument, leads UK scientific involvement in ESA’s Earth Explorer FORUM mission, and was part of the Science Definition Team for NASA’s CLARREO mission.

What are the prospects for the UK’s global position as a space nation, individually and through international partnerships;

1. Climate change is an international issue and the Earth Observation Network at Imperial College London wishes to recognise that as such it can only be addressed through strong international partnershipsFor space-based climate EO, this means participating in internationally recognised, coherent, long-term monitoring programmesWe believe there is also a place for national and bi-lateral initiatives, but these must complement and enhance the global climate observing system, noting a special need for free and open data access.  In all of these endeavours there is certainly a role for UK leadership, but we believe that acting in isolation would not be the most productive option both in terms of scientific and societal impact.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of the current UK space sector and research and innovation base;

2. The UK EO research sector has a tremendous track-record of success in terms of proposing successful space missions.  For example, four out of the nine selected ESA Earth Explorer missions have UK leadership, with more under consideration for future selection rounds.  There is also strong UK scientific involvement in many current and future non-ESA bi-lateral and international missions (e.g. GPM, Libera, MicroCarb). In this sense we do punch above our weight.

3. Satellite observations have transformed our weather forecasting ability, with the development of new mathematical techniques (data assimilation, DA) to optimally combine EO data with state-of-the-art computer modelling.  Recent investments in high-performance computing for the weather and climate prediction area will only be maximally realised if the global observing system keeps pace with these developments.  Indeed, much of the recent push towards using machine learning techniques in analysing EO data and climate model output has commonality with DA, which is now being extended, for example through the Twin Earth concept, in the direction of climate, or long-term, prediction. Specifically, the UK can exploit (and further develop) DA approaches to identify key gaps in our observing capability: what do we need to know better in order to improve forecasting skill across different temporal and spatial domains?  The UK has a strong base to build from in this area: using this to explicitly inform where we should focus our ambition in developing (or enhancing existing) technological capability, and hence instrument build, would be beneficial. 

4. A key weakness is translating our scientific success to instrument build.  We have lost a substantial part of our technical EO instrument development skills base (at least in the university sector) over the last 20 years or so, with a translation more to exploitation of the data delivered.   We believe this reflects both the difficulty in accessing long-term funding and hence in retaining suitable staff, and a diminishing suitably qualified workforce. 

What needs to be done to ensure the UK has appropriate, resilient and future-proofed space and satellite infrastructure for applications including:

We see four key themes that should be addressed by UK Government, working in collaboration with Academia and Industry:

5. Investment in training in Earth Observation: encompassing the pathway from the upstream to downstream sectors. A basic understanding of how an instrument works is highly beneficial to its scientific (and potentially commercial) exploitation.  This link has been weakened due to the loss of build skill, highlighted above in paragraph 4.  Similarly, training to understand user needs and market developments helps break down barriers to data use and to encourage creativity in developing originally unforeseen applications for a specific dataset or group of datasetsThe NERC SENSE CDT is a welcome step in this direction of training but is limited to specific institutions.  An alternative model could be employed, perhaps coupling resources from across UKRI (e.g. EPSRC, STFC, NERC, Innovate) to link generic training in space instrumentation and mission realisation to specific applications.

6. Encouraging Partnerships: both at the international level, as noted above, but also at the national university/industrial level.  This enables a better understanding of the constraints on both sides but essentially allows ideas to become reality, fostering innovation. Such an effort is intrinsically linked to the above point on investment in EO training.

7. Sustained funding and support for mission development (including both leading and partnerships with others) with appropriate timescales: space missions can take decades to come to fruition. While we welcome initiatives to provide seed to larger scale funding through organisations such as CEOI, often relevant funding opportunities are either too short-term or require huge spends in an unrealistic timeframe.  Better phasing of available funds would likely garner a wider, or at least a more considered response. A longer-term funding model for UK Government funded research (e.g., STFC, DSTL) projects would be welcomed, allowing guaranteed funding for more than 12-months at a time, to enable project planning and development and to enable excellent staff to be attracted and retained.  We also note that because developments in planetary observation science can strongly complement developments in Earth Observation and vice-versa, it would be beneficial to establish dedicated funding streams for both.

8. Protection of frequency bands for current/future EO applications:  While we appreciate that this is not completely in the gift of the UK, the impact of bands being put to alternative users (e.g. communication) should be considered in the light of future proofing the EO monitoring system.

(June 2021)