The oceans are fundamental to climate and weather patterns across the world; they provide minerals, foods and chemicals; they are major sources of energy resources, in the form of both hydrocarbons for current needs and renewables for potential development; and they provide services in the form of transport, trade, communications and recreation. They also provide unquantified (or perhaps unquantifiable) services through the maintenance of biological and landscape diversity, the importance of which may only be fully appreciated by future generations. For all these reasons, the oceans need to be explored, monitored, studied and understood more thoroughly than has been the case up to now.
In 1986 the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology examined marine science and technology in the UK and concluded that it was poorly co-ordinated, fragmented and underfunded. We echo those conclusions today. We have been greatly impressed by the research efforts of UK institutions and individual scientists but we have found these to be inadequately supported in terms of co-ordination and overall levels of funding. We have made many recommendations aimed at improving this process.
Our central recommendation is that there should be a new marine science agency, replacing the current inter-agency co-ordinating committee. The responsibilities of this agency should include co-ordination of marine science throughout the UK, promoting marine science education in schools, universities and to the wider public, undertaking a strategy to tackle skills shortages in marine science and technology, engaging with industry and facilitating UK involvement in international organisations. It should also take on the role of co-ordinating ocean monitoring and observations, with direct funding for operational observations where appropriate.
An important task for the new marine co-ordinating body would be ensuring the balance of research effort between the different strands within marine science. Climate change work and policy-related research into marine ecosystems and management are vitally important but this should not crowd out the opportunities for blue-skies, curiosity-driven science. A further area where we see a need for a better balance of research effort is in the crucial polar regions. Here we wish to see more effort expended in the Arctic, albeit not at the expense of the excellent work conducted by the British Antarctic Survey in the Southern Ocean.
We are concerned that there may be insufficient research vessel capacity available to UK scientists provided by NERC, especially for coastal research. Research vessels are not a luxury but a vital necessity in marine science and we recommend that NERC prepare a case for a new coastal vessel.
The Report also examines Defra's plans to establish marine protected areas under the forthcoming marine bill. We have concerns about the place of science within the designation, monitoring and objectives of these sites and about Defra's ability to deliver what is required. We recommend that Defra brings forward the draft Bill without further delay and commit to a timetable which would see the bill enacted by the end of the next parliamentary session.
Finally, and most importantly, we address the need for a new strategy to cover marine science in the UK and to form part of a wider national plan for the oceans. We recommend that the marine science strategy be implemented on a day to day basis by the new marine agency but that overall responsibility for both the strategy and the plan should be invested in a designated minister within Defra.