London, 24 Oct 2005
Q1 Chairman: We would like to welcome Professor Alan Thorpe to the first of our evidence sessions in terms of actually looking at the new chief executives of the research councils. Welcome to your post, Professor Thorpe. It is the role of the Committee to look at the work of each of the research councils and it has been general practice that when we have a new incumbent - and you have been there for six months now so your feet are firmly under the table - we are able to ask you the sorts of interesting and gentle questions which this Select Committee is famed for. Why did you want this particular post? You were very happy at Reading working away as an environmental atmospheric physicist. Why this post?
Professor Thorpe: I had been involved with NERC over many years because of getting funding from them for my research programme and laterally I had become Director of their Centres for Atmospheric Science, which was across university activity. I kind of already had made a move into a leadership role in terms of the atmospheric science community and I was enjoying that and felt the importance of that leadership and also the importance of the environmental science research that could be done. I saw it as a real opportunity to broaden myself into the much wider arena of the natural environment as a whole but still take that leadership role because of the scientific excitement and challenge of doing that.
Q2 Chairman: You have obviously been involved with NERC before. What is the vision you have for the next three years? What is going to be different with you?
Professor Thorpe: I suppose to answer that I need to say how the previous world was. Over the last few years NERC has made an important transition to focusing on the whole earth system. Obviously a natural environment figures right from the bottom of the oceans to the top of the atmosphere and everything in between. There had been a noticeable move towards trying to understand the whole global environment and obviously what happens in Britain and elsewhere is part of that, but you need to put all the components together and that is an excellent agenda and one that I support. For the near future I think what I have been focusing on with my team and others is to think about what really is the use of the knowledge that we are generating. If we really just set ourselves the question how can scientific knowledge in the natural environment be used for the benefit of society and the economy then one of the main uses actually is to give an early warning as to what is likely to be round the corner in terms of environmental change, be it climate change or other aspects of environmental change. Having that early warning of what is on the horizon ten, 20 or 100 years ahead allows society and the economy to react and to have the benefit of that knowledge so that they can figure out what to do.
Q3 Chairman: Does that imply that we were not doing this before?
Professor Thorpe: No, not at all. It is just emphasising the focus of the use of the knowledge which is a nuance but it is nonetheless important. Recent history, with the number of natural hazards and disasters that have happened, unfortunately has reminded us, if we needed it, of the importance of actually being able to translate the knowledge for the benefit of society. So often prediction/early warning is actually the important output of the knowledge, it is just a reminder of what we are doing the research for.