Whatever dividends might accrue from Brexit, British science looks set to lose its key role in the Copernicus project, reports Dermot Martin.
It was a tweet which sent ripples of anguish through the climate change research community: “Just received the most disappointing news of my career. The #EU Copernicus Climate Change Service are preparing to terminate UK partners, including the polar ice sheet measurements I supply. More or less my life’s work. In the middle of a climate crises. FFS.”
It was posted recently by Professor Andy Shepherd of Leeds University’s School of Earth and Environment.
The Brexit stalemate, over issues such as the Northern Ireland protocol, has indirectly led to the EU withdrawing 115 grants for UK scientists and academics. The Copernicus Climate Change Service (C3S) looks to be in for a similar fate unless there is a quick solution, which seems unlikely.
Shepherd told Laboratory News: “Our work for C3S will cease from March next year, unless we can find a way to stay in the programme. We were founder members and I am the lead for the gathering of data for the cryosphere. We deliver data on how the polar ice sheets and mountain glaciers have reacted to climate change at a time of rising atmospheric temperatures.”
The decision has come at a time when we need to understand what is happening in our atmosphere. There is a climate crisis. The politicians need to get their heads together quickly
Although Copernicus itself was launched only in 2014, Shepherd has spent his academic life studying the geological features of the ice caps and glaciers of the polar regions. Among the groundbreaking research papers which have added to our understanding of the issues is Mass balance of the Antarctic Ice Sheet from 1992 to 2017.
This paper , which indicated that the rate of Antarctic ice melting had tripled since the 1990s, has been accessed 34,000 times since publication and is among the top five impact earth science publications of 2018, attracting 492 news reports in the wider media.
The Copernicus C3S is part of the EU’s Earth Observation Programme which comes under the stewardship of the European Space Agency (ESA).
Copernicus generates and collates vast amounts of global data not only from ground-based, airborne and seaborne measurement systems, but from a growing satellite network co-ordinated to produce timely and quality information, services and knowledge.
C3S provides vital autonomous and independent access to information in the domains of environment and security to help service providers, public authorities and international bodies. When it was formed, its aim was to improve the quality of life for Europeans by pulling together all the information obtained from these resources to provide a comprehensive picture of the planet’s health.
The UK’s contribution to this work has been crucial, but for Shepherd and his team at Leeds, the future suddenly looks bleak. His tweet did not go unnoticed by the powers that be here in the UK. Shepherd received a tweeted response from the then Science Minster, George Freeman. The minister blamed the EU for the decision and stated that the Government was ready to ringfence Copernicus funding and create a “UK uplift” for a major Plan B replacement with “global partners”.
However, a few days later Freeman was gone, in the puff of political smoke surrounding Boris Johnson’s resignation. He had told the BBC in an interview that the instability in the Government “is damaging our international reputation. I’m trying to negotiate major international agreements on science and technology and you can’t do that with this chaos.”
In his resignation letter pulling support for Johnson, Freeman also stressed the need to resolve the UK's membership in Horizon Europe. But there was no mention of Copernicus .
In 2020 the budget for the European Earth Observation programme was €553 million. Since it was formed in 2014 it has cost €6.7 billion with around €4.3 billion spent from 2014 to 2020 and shared between the EU (67%) and ESA (33%). The benefits of the data to the overall EU economy have been estimated at €30 billion – projected to 2030.
The ESA, as a main partner, has performed much of the design and oversees and co-funds the development of the Sentinel mission which consists of a growing and successful satellite network. ESA will also provide the instruments for Meteosat Third Generation and MetOp-SG weather satellites, creating the most comprehensive climate monitoring systems ever. ESA and EUMETSAT (European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites) will coordinate the delivery of data from upwards of 30 satellites that form the contributing missions to Copernicus.
If UK contribution to Copernicus is indeed sidelined next year, with instructions to wind down the UK arm of the project, Shepherd warned: “The decision has come at a time when we need to understand what is happening in our atmosphere. There is a climate crisis. The politicians need to get their heads together quickly.”
1 https://www. nature.com/articles/ s41586-018-0179-y#- author-information
2 https://tc.copernicus. org/articles/ 15/233/2021/ tc-15-233-2021.html