brian hoskins

Encouraging a climate of good science

1 August 2011

Professor Sir Brian Hoskins FRS CBE is recognised as one of the world's leading meteorologists and climatologists. As a Non-Executive Director of the Met Office he plays a crucial role — not only in raising awareness of the challenges the organisation faces — but also in promoting the strategic importance of academic collaboration.

Following a first degree in mathematics at the University of Cambridge, Sir Brian completed a PhD on the formation of warm and cold fronts - at which point his life-long interest in weather and climate processes began. He became a fellow of the Royal Society in 1988 and he was knighted in 2007 for his services to environmental science.

His involvement with the Met Office began over 30 years ago when he joined the Research Sub-Committee of the Met Committee. He later became chair of this but it ceased to exist when the Met Office became a Trading Fund. A year or so later the Chief Scientist at the time, Paul Mason, asked Sir Brian to set up the Met Office's Scientific Advisory Committee (MOSAC), which helps the Met Office determine which Research and Development programmes to invest in each year.

As well as acting as Chair of MOSAC, today Sir Brian combines his work for the Met Office with one day a week at the University of Reading (where he's been since 1973) and three days as Director of the Grantham Institute for Climate Change at Imperial College London. He is also one of five world-class experts appointed to the Government's new Climate Change Committee.

Firm scientific basis

With more than 40 years of experience to offer, Sir Brian makes a unique contribution to the Met Office board. He is deeply involved in the development of the organisation's long-term strategy and helps the executive team deliver effectively against Business Performance Measures. He is very careful to make sure these are set within the parameters of existing scientific knowledge, as he explains: "What's important to remember is that we don't set business targets that go beyond the science required to fulfil them. We should never promise to do something, in forecasting for instance, if there's no solid scientific basis to suggest we can deliver on that promise."

"The time gap between the advance of the science... and the help it offers is very short indeed."

While the Met Office is well known for its world-class expertise, Sir Brian is also keen to champion the many successful research collaborations it has created around the world. For example, in recent years, there have been several partnerships that draw on the Met Office Unified Model - a system that uses a single set of models to predict the weather across a range of timescales. "People are excited by the opportunities the model gives," Brian says.

A model of good science

One recent example demonstrates how academics can use Met Office models to perform forecasting and climate experiments. The objective was to gain further understanding of some of the crucial 'ingredients' that make up the global climate system - and how sensitive the atmosphere is to particular changes.

ocean surface temps

Satellite image showing North Atlantic Ocean surface temperatures

To achieve this, they devised an aqua-planet version of the Met Office model - that involved stripping out all the continents of the world and putting in a very simple underlying distribution of sea surface temperatures. Then, by adding simple changes to these and also adding simple continents, the basic ingredients that affect the Atlantic storm track can be determined.

"We used the Met Office model like a laboratory experiment - simplifying the weather system then gradually building it back up to make it more like the real one."

While experiments like this are academic to begin with, the findings can suggest improvements in models and can also have a very real impact on businesses. They could help the shipping industry, for example, understand how much future investment in infrastructure is needed and help insurance companies quantify risk over the coming decades.

Academic partnership

Brian also encouraged the formation of the Met Office Academic Partnership in November 2010. This joining of forces between the University of Reading, University of Exeter and University of Leeds has helped create a stronger collaboration between research and development.

The MOSAC annual meetings present another opportunity for scientists from meteorological services around the world and UK academics, including Sir Brian, to get together and share knowledge. For example, MOSAC has recently been discussing the accuracy of modelling systems - including the very fine resolution, 1.5 km scale UK model for future rainfall measurements. They also examined the performance of the atmospheric composition prediction system for the 2009 Icelandic volcanic eruption - with a focus on how better observations might help in future.

Advancing the knowledge front

Ultimately, as far as Sir Brian is concerned, weather and climate will always be a fantastic subject to study - and one that deserves greater investment - because, unlike other areas of scientific advancement which can take decades in development, understanding or enhancing a basic theory in meteorology can have a real and important impact on the world in just a few years' time.

"The world is hungry for this information and the time gap between the advance of the science in our subject and the help it offers is very short indeed."

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