It’s very disappointing that the Met Office has lost the contract to provide weather reporting for the BBC. It’s a world-class organisation and it’s hard to see another providing the same level of service. Maybe cheaper, but better seems unlikely.
This, however, gives me an opportunity to mention two thoughts (which you can take with as big, or as small, a pinch of salt as you’d like) about the Met Office. The Met Office is not only publicly funded, but is also formally part of the Public Sector. I can see two basic arguments for why it might be better if it were to be private, even if it were still essentially publicly funded.
One is that being part of the public sector means that Met Office staff have to be careful about expressing views with regards to policy. My understanding of this rule is that it is based on the idea that public sector workers are required to implement whatever policy the government of the day would like implemented, and should do so without prejudice. Seems perfectly reasonable to me. Scientists, however, are not implementing policy, but are – at best – informing policy. Ideally scientists should also have academic freedom. Restricting those who happen to be public sector workers seems to undermine this fundamental part of the scientific process.
Furthermore, I sometimes get the impression that this restriction filters out into the broader scientific community in the UK. This could be because many have an association with the Met Office, but sometimes appears related to the whole science/advocacy issue when – as far as I’m aware – it’s simply intended as a mechanism for maintaining public sector objectivity. It’s not that I think scientists should be advocating, but I do think scientists should be free to express whatever views they would like.
The other advantage I can see with the Met Office being outside of the public sector is that they might feel less obliged to pander to the likes of Keenan, Montford and their ilk; those with a ratio of confidence to actual competence that’s approaching infinity. Being more able to say “sorry, you’re talking bollocks and spreading mis-information” would be doing the public a great service. Of course, I’m not suggesting that they use those words exactly, but being able to be more direct would – in my opinion – be quite valuable.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that it would be good if the Met Office were privatised; simply expressing some views as to possible disadvantages of being in the public sector. There are many other reasons why it may well be much better to stay as it is. It’s clearly a very important organisation that provides a crucial public service, with a wide range of different roles. Maintaining this level of service is very important and risking it would – in my view – be a huge mistake. That’s why it’s hard to see the logic behind the BBC changing its weather reporting provider. The Met Office is not only a national service, but it appears to be one of the best in the world. Apart from saving some money, what advantage can there be to changing to a provider that neither has the Met Office’s history, nor it’s expertise? Seems rather short-sighted to me.