Select Committee on Science and Technology Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by the Natural Environment Research Council


  1.  The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) welcomes this opportunity to provide evidence to the Committee's enquiry into EQUAL.

  2.  The Natural Environment Research Council is the UK's leading organisation for basic, strategic and applied research and training across the spectrum of the environmental sciences. NERC's purpose is to support high quality scientific research, survey, monitoring and postgraduate training with the objective of enhancing knowledge, understanding and prediction of the environment and its resources. NERC achieves this through its support of scientists at universities and through its own Centres and Surveys: the British Antarctic Survey (BAS), the British Geological Survey (BGS), the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences (CCMS), the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology (CEH) and the Southampton Oceanography Centre (SOC—a joint venture with the University of Southampton).

  3.  While NERC's role in EQUAL is limited, we make a strong and growing contribution to human health both through direct collaboration with the medical research community and also through underpinning research on environmental quality. Examples are summarised in Annex A.

  4.  Our evidence, which includes comments from NERC's Centres and Surveys, and NERC's Science and Technology Boards, is structured around the nine issues highlighted by the Committee.

1.  To what extent has NERC been involved in the EQUAL initiative?

  Membership of and participation in the OST EQUAL Working Group, providing information on relevant NERC activities and plans.

2.  To what extent has EQUAL brought about new areas of NERC funded research?

  EQUAL has not specifically generated any new areas of NERC funded research. Recent initiatives and future developments in Environment and Health, although coincident with extending quality of life, are primarily driven by NERC's stated objectives of improving understanding of the impacts of both environmental change and reductions in environmental quality.

3.  How does EQUAL relate to the NERC Urban Regeneration programme (URGENT)?

  There are a number of activities within the Urban Regeneration and the Environment programme (URGENT) that relate to the EQUAL aims for a "built/better environment". Although the research is not driven by the aim to extend the active period of people's lives, it will potentially have an impact in a number of areas. A prime example of this is research into urban air pollution, particularly airborne particles. Particulate (PM10) exposure is implicated in shortening the lives of susceptible individuals. URGENT has a portfolio of projects in this area. For example, one project is tackling dissemination of knowledge about the urban atmosphere (and how it affects pollution dispersion) to areas of society without specialised training. In another project, direct health effects of particulates are being researched. URGENT is also looking at health effects associated with recreational use of water bodies, by quantification of existing disease burden levels and modelling the impact of sewer outfalls. URGENT is also carrying out research into contaminated land to investigate pollutant transfer processes; research that has already been presented to a European meeting of the Society for Environmental Geochemistry and Health.

4.  Has the initiative identified and supported the most appropriate research areas for confronting the challenges of an ageing population?

  See response to Questions 2 and 3.

5.  Is research in this area receiving sufficient funding?

  NERC would not like to see any ring-fenced research funding or "top down" initiatives for EQUAL that resulted in the diversion of funds away from more broad based research aimed at improving understanding of impacts of environmental change on human health at all ages. For example, improving quality of life in old age may be dependent on reducing exposure to pollutants in adolescence.

6.  What are the key areas of research in this initiative? What does NERC plan for EQUAL for the future?

  Some examples of NERC funded research relevant to EQUAL are set out in Annex A. NERC has no specific plans for initiatives focussed at EQUAL.

7.  Are there any highlights from the initiative so far?

  As an example of the serendipitous nature of the outcome of many research investments, an NERC funded initiative, BRIDGE (British Mid-Ocean Ridge Initiative) has found that young mussels living in the toxic waters of hot springs on the seafloor are able to repair damage to their DNA quickly. This may suggest ways to enhance DNA repair in humans.

8.  How is the initiative managed and delivered?

  The management of EQUAL is principally by co-ordination through the OST Working Group, which provides an overview of research council activity.

9.  How well has the initiative been coordinated with efforts in other Government departments which aim to address the concerns of an ageing population?

  The OST Working Group is useful in co-ordinating research council activities and the OST provides information on other government departments' activities and networks such as AgeNet and Foresight. It is difficult to comment on the comprehensiveness and effectiveness of this wider co-ordination.

10 January 2000

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