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Leap Seconds - background

The specification of the timescale used throughout the world, currently Co-ordinated Universal Timescale (UTC), must be agreed internationally. Responsibility for this currently resides with a United Nations body - the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). The 2012 Radio-Communications Conference of ITU considered a proposal to end the intermittent insertion of Leap Seconds in UTC. UK policy was to oppose this arguing that claims that continued use of Leap Seconds caused technical problems for electronic systems were overstated, and that people considered it important that the very long held linkage between time and the earth’s motion should be retained. International views were strongly divided and there were a large number of countries which had not considered the issue. The Conference therefore postponed the decision until the World Radio Conference in 2015 (WRC15) to allow further studies to be carried out.

UK representation at WRC15 will be led by OFCOM but policy responsibility for issues concerning the timescale lies with the National Measurement Office (NMO), an Executive Agency of the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills. The Government’s decision on how the UK votes at the WRC15 will be based on advice from NMO to Minister of State for Science and Universities, David Willetts. The Minister has endorsed the proposal for NMO to seek public views in the form of a Sciencewise Dialogue to inform its advice.

Following a 2012 meeting, the International Telecommunications Union (ITU) study groups have resumed discussion of the technical issues concerning the effects of leap seconds on electronic systems and the ease of mitigating them. These have however been largely unchanged over the 13 years since the proposal was first raised. It has been noted that although a significant part of the objection to the proposal is people’s expectation of a link between time and the earth’s movement no objective evidence of this has been presented. The ITU study groups consider that this aspect is outside of their tightly defined technical remit.

In order to provide some evidence of the public’s considered thoughts and feelings about the link it is proposed that we should carry out a public dialogue with the help of Sciencewise. The ability to table some objective evidence in support of the UK Government’s policy could strengthen our ability to persuade those countries which are so far undecided to vote in favour of retention of Leap Seconds. It is also possible that the results may indicate that the public are indifferent to the linkage with solar time or even that they say that the linkage is less important than the worries of some in the IT community. Such evidence would be used to inform the advice to Ministers.

Aims and objectives

The key objectives for the elements of the public dialogue covered by the Sciencewise grant are:

•    Create an informative and inclusive dialogue process appropriate to our initial findings about the concerns of religious and scientific communities.

•    Share between different stakeholders and the public the impacts of a change, or no change in the inclusion of a leap second – both philosophical and technical

•    Explore the public view on the importance of a linkage between time and the earth’s movements.

•    Explore whether the views of particular religious groups differ from those of the general population

•    Explore whether specific communities, e.g. astronomers, navigators or IT specialists have differing views.

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