Category Archives: Science

The value of scientific opinion?

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has published guidance on how to incorporate uncertainty in to scientific assessment[i].  On the plus side, this is a thorough attempt to bring objectivity to the description of uncertainty and to minimise subjective opinion. On the negative side it could eliminate the opinion of scientists from the policy debate. Where uncertainty exists, this could result in risk-aversion in policy-making.

As a scientist, I believe it is vital that public policy is underpinned by a foundation of evidence. However scientists must also acknowledge that policy makers look through many lenses when making their decisions and science needs to play its part as one of these lenses. It is therefore important that the relationship between uncertainty in the evidence and risk to policy is understood.

While scientists are used to dealing with the uncertainties inherent within their evidence, these uncertainties present a real tension when being used to underpin the more black and white, yes or no, world of policy . Government departments, like Defra, use evidence to guide rather than to determine policy in areas of uncertainty.

Scientific uncertainty comes in two basic forms – aleatory and epistemic. Aleatory uncertainty is the natural variability in a system and is often irreducible even through research. For example, the yield of wheat per hectare from British farms has a tendency to vary among years. In contrast, epistemic uncertainty is what we don’t know, or gaps in our knowledge and is amenable to being reduced through research. For example, wheat yields from British farms have been, on average, static for about the last decade and we don’t know why. It is important to understand the difference between these forms of uncertainty in the context of evidence assessments for policy making.

This is well illustrated by the recent EFSA document which is aimed mainly at documenting epistemic uncertainty. Evidence assessments are now used widely to produce ‘scientific opinion’ in an attempt to advise policy-makers about the scientific consensus view on a subject. EFSA uses them a lot – e.g. for assessing the safety of pesticides or GM organisms. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) is another body that has done this on a massive scale to provide an assessment of the evidential basis for anthropogenic climate change.

These assessments needed to include opinion because we know that the way evidence is generated through the scientific process is itself subject to aleatory uncertainty. For example, the results from many experimental studies carried out in the fields of psychology and biomedicine are known to be unreliable[ii]. Including just the epistemic component of uncertainty using this literature could produce a biased assessment. Among all the studies done in a particular field, it can be impossible to discriminate the reliable from unreliable studies using systemic, rule-based assessment. In the environmental sciences, where studies are often impossible to replicate and where less reliable inferential methods are often used, this problem is probably even more profound.

Within this context, the EFSA attempt to corral and upgrade the assessment process by being clearer about how uncertainty is being dealt with is commendable. However, nobody should imagine that this will solve the problem about how scientific evidence is used to define the risk associated with food in Europe. Beliefs and values are as prevalent within scientists carrying out assessments as they are in non-scientists. The kind of processes being suggested by EFSA, while necessary, still should not ignore scientific opinion. The EFSA guidance carries the risk of systematising the expression of uncertainty by focussing purely on the state of knowledge, the epistemic component of uncertainty. Recognising the existence also of the aleatory components of uncertainty in scientific assessments is essential. It brings humanity to the discourse between science and society, and science and policy.

[i] Guidance on Uncertainty in EFSA Scientific Assessment, EFSA Scientific Committee, doi:10.2903/j.efsa.20YY.NNNN, http://www.efsa.europa.eu/sites/default/files/consultation/150618.pdf

[ii] Nosek, B.A. et al. Estimating the reproducibility of psychological science. Science: 349  DOI: 10.1126/science.aac4716

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UK’s Cutting-edge science informs government response to ash dieback

The government often has to deal with difficult problems, and ash dieback disease has been no exception. Ash Dieback is a fungal disease likely to have arrived in the UK from a mixture of infected planting material and spores blown over from infected trees in continental Europe.

The pathogen causing this disease, Hymenscyphus fraxineus, was not formally identified until after it began seriously affecting trees in Eastern Europe in the early 1990s. Even then little was known about the pathogen that might help develop management strategies. Meanwhile, the disease continued to spread across Europe before being identified in East Anglia in 2012. Its arrival and the subsequent public interest demonstrates that trees, woodlands and forests hold a special place in our nation’s hearts.

There are an estimated 126 million ash trees in British woodlands over half a hectare in size, and many more in our parklands, hedgerows and cities. Ash is the 3rd most prevalent broadleaved species in GB woodlands, at 9%, and the fifth most prevalent of all trees at 4%. The economic benefit of forests is estimated to be £1bn to the UK economy, with even greater environmental and social benefits. As one of our native trees, ash is an important part of the forest ecosystem, supporting a huge range of biodiversity from lichens and mosses to invertebrates and birds. Forty-six species are only found on ash trees. So protecting ash trees is about more than just protecting a single species.

After the disease was discovered, Defra worked with the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, to establish two research projects to improve our understanding of it. The experience in Europe showed that some trees were more susceptible to the disease, developing symptoms and dying more quickly, while others were less affected. This gave hope that some of the trees in the UK might be tolerant to the disease and their identification became one of Defra’s commitments in response to the disease.

The Nornex project, which published its final report last Friday (22 April) used molecular approaches to improve not only our understanding of the disease, but of the ash tree itself. The research has meant we have been able to develop genetic markers that signal tolerance to the disease, just as quality of plumage can signal biological fitness in birds. The tolerance was assessed using a selection of 182 Danish ash trees, scored for visual signs of disease which was then assessed against the extent to which specific genes were active. Three genetic characteristics appear to be important signals of resistance. Variability in susceptibility may be caused by how two genes interact.

This new knowledge is a great step forward and illustrates the benefits that cutting-edge science can bring to real-life problems, made all the more impressive considering the project ran for only about two years. One of the huge advances that has made this possible is the reduced time needed to sequence a genome, from years to hours and at a fraction of the cost; and the open and collaborative approach taken by the research team.

The project also made use of a Facebook game, Fraxinus, designed to use human pattern recognition skills to identify DNA sequence variations. The game was played more than 63,000 times and resulted in many reliable new sequence variants.

The research, led by Professor Allan Downie from the John Innes Centre in Norwich, was delivered by a consortium including: the University of York; the Genome Analysis Centre at the University of Exeter; Fera Science Ltd; the University of Copenhagen; Forest Research; the Sainsbury Laboratory; East Malling Research; the Forest and Landscape Institute Norway; and the University of Edinburgh.

The Nornex project’s research report can be found here: http://oadb.tsl.ac.uk/?page_id=964

A forensic approach to the environment

Nearly one quarter of the UK’s net worth is accounted for by the environment and so understanding how we assess it, understanding its benefits as well as the risks, is vital to preserving it.  This process – which we call ‘environmental forensics’ – was the subject of my recent contribution to the Government Chief Scientific Advisor Sir Mark Walport’s annual report on forensics.

In my chapter I summarised the recent work under the National Ecosystem Assessment and the Natural Capital Committee in improving how we evaluate the environment. We all carry the costs of the environmental decisions of those around us – for example we eat, drink and breathe other people’s pollution on a daily basis. At the same time we rarely think when driving our cars or firing up the wood burning stove that our actions could lead to premature deaths. We take the benefits without thinking of the costs. That is why regulation is important. Without it there would be large asymmetry between the private benefits gained from the environment and the public costs. It has become the responsibility of governments to sustain an appropriate balance between these public and private costs and benefits. But as government are often reluctant to place cost burdens on those who cast votes, we need a mechanism that transfers responsibility for paying the costs to the individuals who benefit.

The rationale for setting environmental standards and measuring compliance is strongly driven by the concept of equity. Around half of air pollutants in the UK come from other parts of Europe – and, of course, the UK contributes to the air quality problems of other European countries. Water contaminated by sewage washed out to sea has the potential to contaminate seafood which could be distributed widely through the food chain. The choices people make about how to dispose of waste can have widespread effects, sometimes with long time lags between the release of pollutants and the ultimate effect, and this has become an issue driving global politics when it comes to different national responses to the need to reduce carbon emissions.

Government regulation to prevent the misallocation of environmental resources is therefore a very blunt instrument. Regulation has spawned an industry in environmental data measurement. The UK is mandated to measure an immense amount of information about everything from the chemistry of rivers to the number of birds on farmland and the noise emitted by human activity in the ocean. Efforts to focus attention on only measuring those features of the environment which matter has been hampered by a lack of underlying knowledge of how these relate to the benefits gained from the environment. The rationale for actions like this hinges on the risk-avoidance approach commonly used today. This approach suggests that changes caused by human presence need to be avoided even if the changes lie within the normal range of natural variability.

Seen in this context, the direction of travel in environmental forensics towards measuring and controlling more and more – at finer and finer levels of detail just in case this might be important in future – is clearly untenable.

The need for the measurement or monitoring of environmental indicators was initially driven by a sincere search for those surrogate indicators within the environment which most effectively represented societal valuation. But this has gradually mutated in to a process of measurement and reporting of data as an end in itself.

In future, the balance needs to shift towards risk and market based methods. New technology has the capacity to drive this change because it puts the power of information in the hands of individuals so they can make informed decisions.

There will always be a need for regulation and statute in this field and a strong role for government, but the nature of environmental forensics needs to change. The current system is arguably unaffordable in the future.  Technological innovation will come to the rescue to some extent by delivering more precise data at the point it affects behavioural choices.

The down side associated with the interpretative nature of decision making needs to be addressed through sophisticated information delivery processes. Micro-innovation at the source of environmental variables needs to be matched by macro-economic innovation to build market-based solutions. Internalising the economic costs of alternative actions for the environment and accounting for these, including the provision of the forensic evidence to support this method, is most likely to be the way forward.

Earth Observation: on the cusp of a revolution

New technology  tends to trickle in to our lives. It arrives with an explosion of excitement and promise but a steady journey then ensues as the much vaunted tech becomes developed and ubiquitous enough to transform our expectations and truly revolutionise our world. When it comes to satellites and the data we get from them, we have made stunning progress on many such journeys, with pause-able high definition TV and navigation systems on phones now very much the norm. However, after its beginnings in the 70s, the Earth Observation journey – the journey to use data from above clouds to revolutionise our understanding of our planet – is so far less travelled. But this may be about to change…

A few TV sets ago I took the plunge and installed a satellite dish on my roof (mine is discretely hidden behind a vigorous Clematis montana). Satellite TV was new and exciting but in truth, when I plugged the dish into my TV and turned it on, the fundamentals hadn’t changed – it was still more or less the same experience but with more channels and marginally better picture quality. But now, in 2015, the massive increases in the data we can get from satellites, coupled with vastly increased data flow on the internet has meant our TV watching experience has been transformed – it’s now the norm to have hundreds of channels of high definition pictured beamed to our TVs, we can pause and rewind live TV and we can catch up on programmes ‘on demand’ whenever we want. While the fanfare came as satellite dishes were fist installed on our roofs, it is far more recently that satellites have ‘revolutionised’ our TV watching.

It’s just the same with satellite navigation. In the early days it was just a privileged few who could (just about) rely on sat nav systems built in to their high end cars to get them from A to B.  But now, in 2015, the sat navs most of us have built in to our smart phones have capabilities far exceeding the original cumbersome in-car systems, from telling us when the next bus is coming to integrating live traffic information to tell us at each turn the current quickest route to our destination. To me, the revolution really came when sat navs became ubiquitous, reliable and highly featured, not when they first arrived on the scene.

So satellites have steadily transformed how we access information and how we get around, but communications and positioning are just two of the three major functions supplied by satellite space technologies. The third is observation, and this is an area where we haven’t yet seen the same sort of seismic shift in capability, the same revolution.

Generally known by the jargon term Earth Observation, or just EO, this revolution is one about using data from satellites and even from unmanned aerial vehicles (drones) to help us understand more about our world.  The journey began with the launch of the  US ‘Landsat’ system of satellites in 1972. Once positioned, it began collecting pictures of the surface of the planet that gave an eagle-eye view of what covered the surface of the Earth – crops, grasslands, forests, lakes, rivers, mountains  and ice  – like we’d never seen before.  The possibilities, and opportunities opened up by this data seemed limitless, providing invaluable information about natural resources, land, roads and infrastructure to help us build capabilities in the most efficient ways possible and help us to protect tour environment.

But while the journey started in 1972, we’ve been struggling ever since to know how to deal with this avalanche of data and to turn it in to useful information. We have launched more and more EO satellites in the belief that, one day, our ability to assimilate and process all the data that they chuck at us will catch up. Now, finally, I think we have. The reason? A willingness to share.

A willingness to share

In the past, the only way to access the information within the data transmitted from EO satellites was to obtain a digital image, often by paying a lot of money for it, and then give it to another kind of techno-geek to process the information it contained. This was expensive, and the end result did not always answer the need. However, the world of EO has changed. Thanks partly to enlightened attitudes on the part of those now responsible for operating these EO satellites, most of the data from them is now being made free at the point of use. For example, all the data from the new Copernicus satellite system funded by the EU, the updated Landsat system funded by the US is now freely available to anybody who wants it and they are taking a similar approach in China. While previously this data would have just lead to the problem of data overload (or ‘data poisoning’ as I sometimes call it), the simultaneous revolution of cloud computing enables the multiple petabytes of data that emerge from these systems (Copernicus chucks around 8 terabytes of data at us each day) to be stored on-line and beCloudSat_-_Artist_Concept available, anywhere in the world, at the press of a button.

The new culture of ‘sharing’ has of course not emerged solely as a result of ‘caring. ’ The market, including many small companies but also some of the big international aerospace and data companies, are latching on to new business models for delivering the data. In the past, when one accessed an image of the surface of the Earth most of the data you bought was irrelevant and would be thrown away. In the near future the user will only need to pay for the data they actually use. This could reduce the cost of the same piece of information by many thousands of times. The development of new apps will mean that there will be many more users so, rather than charging a very small number of specialist users a lot of money for access to the information, the business model is for those supplying the services to recover their costs by spreading micro-payments across many millions of users – payments so small that each individual user will hardly notice them. Information that probably cost many tens of thousands of pounds to produce in the past and was in the hands of just a few people, will costs fractions of a penny in the future and be in the hands of millions of people.

A simple change of attitude and approach has turned EO on its head. While the Earth Observation revolution may have officially started in the 70’s, I think it is now, thanks to the new spirit of openness, that Earth Observation data can truly start to revolutionise our understanding of our world.

A different angle on diversity

I strongly believe everyone should have equality of opportunity in our society regardless of their gender, age, ethnicity, class, disability or sexual orientation. There is clear evidence that societies which have lower income inequality enjoy better mental and physical health, higher life expectancy, achieve more in education and their work lives and are generally happier, than those societies which, even though they may be wealthy, have a greater disparity between the richest and the poorest.

Discrimination – on any basis – is the antithesis of equality and we have to work hard to counter issues that foster unconscious bias. Being a middle-aged, white, heterosexual male from a pretty comfortable middle class, northern European background, it’s not often I feel that I am the subject of discrimination, but a couple of recent experiences have opened my eyes to some forms of bias that I believe need to be put on the table for discussion. I believe they were genuinely unconscious in nature but they reflect something that is deeply rooted in the world within which I work.

Diversity at work

I am a civil servant and an academic. I have two jobs, one in Defra as its Chief Scientific Adviser and another as a professor in biology at the University of St Andrews. Straddling the divide between these two cultures gives me a useful perspective on the extent to which these two cultures tackle inequality in the workplace. As a scientist, I like numbers and indicators and the proportion of women in the respective organisational structures I work for is a convenient indicator.

In Defra, 53% of the work force is made up of women, although at senior levels this drops to 37.9%. Universities, as many know, have a steeper hill to climb. Although 45% of the work force is composed of women, only 27% of academic staff are women and only 17% of professors are women.  At least both these sectors slightly better reflect our society than our Parliament where only 29% of MPs are women!

However statistics do not say much about underlying biases in behaviours. I have said in the past that government has a tough job. Commerce tends to tackle solvable problems that lead to profit. In academia, one can choose the problems one tries to solve; some academics will focus on those that are tractable while others might take a few more risks but in that case failure has few consequences.

In government, however, there is rarely a choice about the problems one chooses to tackle. Civil servants have to pick up the problems that often have no clear solution, that nobody else wants, and that are often ‘wicked’ in nature. The insolvability of many problems of this type requires the cultivation of a special form of intellect and capability.

An unfair view

The policy and evidence professionals in the civil service are excellent at what they do. Part of my job is to scrutinise the civil service and advise about how it can better generate the evidence it needs and how best to use it. I would be the first to say that the system of government is far from perfect, but I object to the view sometimes projected from academia that government is second class. I came across this attitude recently in two contexts, (I won’t give details to spare the blushes of those involved) and although I’m sure they had no idea of the implications of what they were doing or saying, nevertheless it betrayed a prejudice.

In essence they said that government could not possibly be excellent at its work. These guilty parties were so entrenched in a way of thinking that they could hardly even bring themselves to use the word ‘excellence’ in the general context of government. The Research Excellence Framework, one of those much-maligned civil service initiatives has both strengths and weaknesses but it has perhaps reinforced a false view within the academic community that academia has a majority on the word ‘excellence’. This is, of course, rubbish.

The thoughts and acts that fuel this kind of discriminatory attitude are rooted in the same behaviours that drive discrimination of all types. They concern self-interest from those of low self-confidence. They are a close cousin of schadenfreude but are about denigration for the purpose of self-aggrandisement. Civil servants, who often have skins of leather, tend to take this on the chin, but I see the constant, low level disparagement of the work of civil servants, whether policy officials or  scientists, as an issue that needs to be highlighted and resisted.

While this kind of pernicious bias persists, it is difficult for academia to improve its diversity record and get its own house in order. My point, of course, is not about eliminating criticism and challenge of the work of civil servants, but about making sure that it is founded on achieving the joint objective which is to make things better. Diminishing the credibility of others based on unfounded bias is as unfair and malevolent as any other form of prejudice.

Join the charge against plastic bags

I have spent much of my research career in far-flung places across the world. While there are some places where it is quite hard to find the imprint of man, in general, one does not need to look very far before the signs start to appear. More often than not a piece of plastic signals this imprint. I have even seen plastic debris on an iceberg in Antarctica – for me this was the tip of the iceberg in more ways than one.

 

My interest in marine mammals and seabirds has brought me up close and personal with the impact plastic debris has on our planet. The scale of the problem can be startling. I have studied whales in the tropics and sometimes it looked like the whales around me were swimming through a thin soup of plastic.

 

A recent study suggested that around 90% of seabirds had plastic in their stomachs and I have seen first-hand the other consequences plastic has on our wildlife. I have removed fishing nets from around the necks of seals. I have seen the plastic debris regurgitated by albatross chicks littering their nest sites, a seabird washed up dead on a beach because it had an elastic band around its bill, and others strangled by the plastic from a six-pack. I have even removed a young Arctic fur seal from a carrot sack. I have seen how these plastics gradually cut through the skin around the necks of these animals, leading to infection and a slow death, often from starvation.

 

The effect that plastic debris has on our environment goes beyond what we can see. While it’s hard to precisely quantify the full effect, we know that plastics reach far and wide within the ecological systems of our world. It’s not just larger pieces of plastic that are a threat to our planet. Microplastics are the microscopic break-down products formed once ultraviolet light and environmental abrasion get to work on plastics. These end up in the stomachs of zooplankton, like copepods, that are unable to distinguish between them and their real food. As the zooplankton gets eaten by bigger species – fish, squid, whales and the like so the microplastics move up the food chain. If we look at the harm macroplastic can have on some larger animals we shouldn’t turn a blind eye to the possible effects of microplastics.

 

So, with this visible and invisible damage being done to our world, I support plans for retailers to start charging for plastic bags in October, because I’m sure that the charge is going to have a real impact on the amount of plastic that enters the marine environment. It will give me and others across England that nudge we need to remember to bring that bag with us next time we head to the shops and recycled where possible when it comes to the end of its life. My confidence in the impact that the charge will have is grounded in solid evidence. In Wales for example, carrier bag use has dropped by nearly 80% as a result of their 5p charge. It has been a similar story in Scotland and Northern Ireland who have also introduced the charge. In future, those economies that are going to thrive will be the ones that have learned the art of resource efficiency and, in my view, this starts with sensible, proportionate measures like this charge, to reduce the unnecessary generation of waste. This is not ‘anti-growth’, as I suspect some people might suggest, but it is making the case that growth doesn’t require the wasteful use of resources.

 

As a scientist, my job it is to weigh the evidence and provide dispassionate analysis. But setting aside my duty as a scientist, there are some things that we should just do, because we have a moral duty to do so as a citizen of this planet. For me, protecting our environment and fellow inhabitants of the planet is one of those duties, and we can help to honour it simply by cutting down on our plastic waste. I find myself getting annoyed when I hear people saying what the overall cost of this very small individual sacrifice will be to the economy when they do not, at the same time, assess the benefits that will accrue if we all help just a little amount. The benefit from us doing our bit will far outweigh any cost. And in time, I hope there will be no need to charge for a carrier bag because the very idea of avoiding the creation of unnecessary waste will be deeply engrained in our culture.

 

The most important thing to remember here is that this really is one of those times where each and every one of us can make a real difference. When disposing of these horrible plastic collars that come with six-packs, I take a pair of scissors to cut them up because never again would I want to walk on a beach and find a strangled bird and have to live with the idea that maybe it was my carelessness that had led to such suffering. And next time I head to the shops I’ll do my best to remember to bring a bag along with me. As a fellow citizen of this planet, I ask you to join me.

Eye in the sky is hope for the future

When the Chancellor announced a few weeks ago that some government departments might have to make budget savings of 25-40% many will wonder how this can be achieved. Many functions of government will need to be done differently but, for people like me, the challenging question is what does ‘different’ really mean and how can we turn this in to real, meaningful change?

Professor Ian Boyd in the clean room at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited

Professor Ian Boyd in the clean room at Surrey Satellites Technology Limited

This week I visited Surrey Satellites Technology Limited (SSTL) a medium-sized company run by a brilliant engineer and business-man, Sir Martin Sweeting. It is a success story of the leading edge of British Industry. Having emerged as a small company from the University of Surrey, it is now one of the world’s leading manufacturers of small satellites; with annual revenues exceeding £100M and total export sales in excess of £600M to 18 different countries. When I was there, I saw the latest satellite they are building for the UK.

SSTL have an imaginative business model. They are adapting the kind of mass-produced electronic innovations that we all have in our smart phones to deliver satellites at a small fraction of the historical costs. Until recently, only whole nations or massive telecoms companies were rich enough to be able to buy and launch satellites. Now, cities are beginning to buy their own satellites to help them do their business.

Satellites do three basic things for us; help us navigate around our world, communicate across the globe, and see what is going on across the surface of the Earth and in its atmosphere.  GPS-type systems and phone systems are such an integral part of our daily lives , we do not really know (or care) when we are using satellites. But the story is not quite the same for the benefits of Earth observation (EO) because of the complex nature of the data that satellites provide about the surface of the Earth and the atmosphere.

There are a remarkable range of applications of EO information and many of us probably are aware of very few of these. From providing information about the height of waves in the sea to measuring the amount of oil in oil tanks, seeing if planning consents have been complied with or understanding the extent of tree diseases, the array of things one can do with information from space is remarkable. It is changing our ideas of what woodland is and where it is located because we find that many urban areas and suburbs have so many trees along roadsides and in gardens that they are effectively woodlands.

Satellite Earth observation is a potentially disruptive technology that can completely change the way we do things and government is no exception. I believe the challenge set out by the Chancellor can be partly met by the rapid adoption and expansion of Earth observation in Government. This is not to say that Government has been slow to use EO in any way. Defence is a leading user of EO as is Defra when it uses it to help monitor agriculture, forestry, habitats and flood events, but more could be done.

What has changed to make me say this? The lessons from Surrey Satellites Technology are only part of the story. The other part comes in the form of new satellite constellations, like the Copernicus  sentinel satellites I saw being built when I visited Airbus in Stevenage a few weeks ago. They will provide a continuous flow of freely available data which we need to use in business and in government.

At Surrey Satellites Ltd headquarters in Guildford

At Surrey Satellites Ltd headquarters in Guildford

Many years ago I was a student travelling on a train between Peterborough and Edinburgh and got into conversation with a technology sceptic. He proclaimed that although our train was averaging over 100 miles an hour, nothing had really changed since the Flying Scotsman travelled from Edinburgh to London averaging over 100 miles an hour many decades before. I pointed out that the Flying Scotsman record was a one-off and now trains regularly achieve the same speed several times a day.

The same principles apply to EO from satellites. We have been able to photograph the surface of the planet from space with useful precision for decades, but it is only now that this imagery is collected regularly and with sufficient reliability and accessibility to the every-day user, at a reasonable price, that it can start to replace older ways of working.

Encouraging people to adopt new ways of doing things can be difficult and government is no different. Defra is taking a lead by establishing a Centre of Excellence in Earth Observation which will lead the necessary discussion with those who develop policy and delivery communities about how satellite EO can change our ways of working. This is also aimed at helping to stimulate the businesses sector to take up this challenge because the real benefits will only truly accrue when EO becomes a part of the daily life and decision making in our productive and service industries. For example, supplying data about the distribution of nutrients within fields and feeding this in to the sophisticated robotic systems used by some of our best farmers is likely to be with us very soon. This can reduce costs for the farmer and potentially reduce fertiliser use and the environmental problems this causes.

I see EO as a transformational technology making us look forward to a better future. Its potential applications when placed in the hands of imaginative people are vast and almost limitless. A cross-Whitehall group, chaired by the Permanent Secretary of DECC with me as his deputy, has been assembled to help drive the uptake of EO technologies to help government improve its ways of work and to make the kind of step changes in efficiency envisaged by the Chancellor.