John Hirst – Chief Executive, Met Office

Those members not at this recent briefing missed an entertaining – sometimes laugh out loud – and really eye-opening briefing.  John, who has been in post just over three years, was a really riveting speaker, hugely enthusiastic about his organisation and the crucial part it plays in the UK and global economy and overall well-being.

The Met Office has 1800 people 1200 in Exeter and the rest around the world.  It is generally recognised as the best weather and climate service in the world.

John feels that the biggest challenge the Met Office faces is for people to take it more seriously. ” We have a woman that calls every week to check if it is a good drying day!”   Much more than ‘just’ forecasting it makes a massive scientific contribution to UK society.  It is trying to bring UK sciences together, for example working with the environment agency to merge those sciences that affect the environment such as flooding or drought.  If the work succeeds it will be a world first.

As the first non-scientist to head up the Met Office, John has been required to consider privatisation on a fairly regular basis.  However the Met Office produces only 2% of data in forecasts and climate predictions, gaining the rest through sharing and swapping data.  For, example it doesn’t pay the Americans, or French, on what data they give it, and it is looking to access better data from India for Afghanistan at the moment.  It may not have the same access to such data (particularly from the US) if it were a private company.

So though full privatisation might be neither desirable nor possible, John is keen to bring revenue into his organisation and to give it a more commercial outlook.  He was passionate about the untapped (as yet) services he can offer and the unrecognised talent he has at his disposal among his scientists.  One example he gave to illustrate this talent was that one of his colleagues had invented a volcanic ash detection machine for airlines – in his spare time!

He gave many examples – too many to record here – of the leading edge work his organisation is doing with business already: helping food retailers manage their food wastage; working with insurance companies on flooding risk; with airlines on saving fuel; and with government agencies and rescue services on risk management.

The questions posed by members – and answered at length – covered: what John’s view was of the climate change debate and particularly his stance on the ‘deniers’;  how he felt he could value those services he wished to ‘sell’ to business; the impact of the winter snow on the economic recovery; the part amateur meteorologists play in forecasting and how encouraging them promotes science in schools; what it was like managing BBC forecasters; why he reports to the MOD and many more.

All in all John left attendees stunned by the breadth and depth of the Met Office importance to UK life and business and still talking – certainly for me, even today – about what they had learned and how differently they would view ‘weather’ in future.  A memorable session!

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