Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


The importance of understanding the oceans

1. The United Kingdom is an island nation that has through its history looked to the sea for its food, wealth and security. Even today, 95% of the UK's trade is sea-borne and the maritime sector has been estimated to be worth about £35 billion annually to the economy.[1] Within this overall figure are reflected the many different purposes for which the ocean is used, including transport, fishing, the exploitation of oil and gas reserves and recreation. It is vital that the oceans are studied and understood in order to sustain existing industries and to exploit newly emerging opportunities, for example, in marine biotechnology or renewable energy.

2. The importance of the oceans, however, is much wider than these national or economic interests. Many of the problems faced by the world at this time require greater understanding of ocean processes in order to help predict the future or to identify solutions. The oceans play a key role in climate change and extreme weather events. For example, the major floods of earlier this summer have been attributed to a change in the pattern of ocean currents. The experience of Hurricane Katrina and the Boxing Day 2004 tsunami highlighted the vulnerability of the growing section of the world's population who live in the coastal regions to what happens out in the open ocean. These people may also be increasingly affected by health hazards from the sea which also need much further research. In addition, there is growing awareness of a need for the oceans to be managed in a sustainable fashion.

3. It is clear that in many respects human understanding of the oceans is still in its infancy. Seventy-five per cent of the planet is covered by oceans and therefore affected by the interface between the atmosphere and the ocean; 80% of biodiversity is found in the marine environment. Yet just 10% of the ocean has been explored and only 5% of the estimated total species in the ocean have been identified. Modern technology enables scientists to explore this world in startling new detail, and the urgency of their task to increase our understanding is underscored by the seriousness of the questions which they are trying to address.

4. The UK has long experience and well-established centres of excellence in many disciplines relevant to marine science and technology. To enable the sector to reach its potential and to provide the information policy-makers need to tackle ocean-related issues, marine science in the UK needs to be properly resourced and co-ordinated.

Our inquiry

5. We announced our inquiry into marine science in the polar and non-polar oceans on 27 November 2006. Our terms of reference focussed on:

6. We are grateful to all those who gave written and oral evidence during this inquiry. Transcripts of the oral evidence sessions are published alongside this Report, together with written evidence submitted to the inquiry.

7. Our inquiry was also greatly assisted by informal meetings and visits. We launched this investigation with a public seminar hosted by the Plymouth Marine Science Partnership and a visit to the organisations involved in that partnership. Later in the inquiry, we visited two other UK research institutes with specialisms in marine science: British Antarctic Survey in Cambridge and the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. We also visited relevant institutions in Boston, Cape Cod and Washington DC in the United States. Finally, we visited Lisbon, Portugal to coincide with a port call of the new NERC research vessel, the RRS James Cook, on its second research cruise and met members of the Portuguese Government Task Force responsible for the co-ordination and funding of marine research in that country. Our thanks go to those who arranged and participated in all these highly informative and useful visits.

8. Our special adviser for this inquiry was Professor Laurence Mee, Director of the Marine Institute at the University of Plymouth. We are grateful to him for his advice and expert knowledge.

Relevant reports


9. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee published a report on Marine Science and Technology in January 1986. The report concluded that "UK marine research suffers from fragmentation, together with lack of funds".[3] The Committee identified the main consequences of this as "(i) inadequate levels of funding; (ii) lack of coordination of the national research effort; (iii) absence of a forward-looking strategy as a framework for research; (iv) failure to clarify the roles and responsibilities of bodies in involved".[4] It recommended a substantial increase in funding both from the Science Vote and from commissioned funding; the establishment of a Marine Board sited with one of the research councils to promote and direct UK marine science and technology; and a national strategy for marine research. It also called for closer civil-military links and closer collaboration between research institutes and universities.

10. In its response, the Government rejected the central recommendation for a Marine Board but accepted the case for more co-ordination between the different bodies with an interest in marine-related research. As a result, in 1988 the Co-ordinating Committee on Marine Science and Technology (CCMST) was established to "provide an essential framework of basic, strategic and applied research priorities strongly linked to technological developments and industrial need". The CCMST reported in 1990, setting out recommendations to create a national strategic framework. These included a new co-ordinating body with representation from the public and private sector, including universities. The CCMST also estimated that there would be a need for increased funding of £20-30 million to meet the objectives which it had identified in its plan. In 1991 the CCMST was wound up and replaced by the Inter-Agency Committee on Marine Science and Technology (IACMST) which excluded businesses and the universities and had a narrower remit than that envisaged by the CCMST (see chapter 4).


11. In June 2006 the European Commission published a Green Paper entitled Towards a future Maritime Policy for the Union: A European vision for the oceans and seas.[5] The aim of the paper was "to launch a debate about a future Maritime Policy for the EU that treats the oceans and seas in a holistic way"[6] and to meet the European Commission strategic objective for 2005-09 to establish an "all-embracing maritime policy aimed at developing a thriving maritime economy, in an environmentally sustainable manner … supported by excellence in marine scientific research, technology and innovation".[7]

12. The Green Paper is a wide-ranging document, as befits the ambition of its holistic vision, covering all aspects of maritime policy. The consultation period closed on 30 June 2007 and it is anticipated that the Commission will present a Communication to the Council and Parliament at the end of 2007, summarising the results of the consultation process and proposing the way forward.[8] On 27 July 2007, the UK Government published its own response. Co-ordinated by the Department for Transport, it expressed the UK's support for "the development of a healthy, sustainable maritime economy that delivers both socio-economic benefits and environmental protection".[9] However, it expressed reservations about several aspects of the Green Paper, particularly as relates to awarding additional powers and responsibilities to the EU itself.

13. The Commission is already pressing ahead with the "second pillar" of its approach to maritime policy, which is to maintain and improve the status of the ocean (the first pillar is the Lisbon Strategy agenda of an integrated approach to industrial policy). This is being pursued through the proposal for a directive establishing a Framework for Community Action in the field of Marine Environmental Policy (the Marine Strategy Directive).[10] The main objective of the directive is to achieve "Good Environmental Status" in all EU waters by 2021 through the application of the "Ecosystem-based Approach", a management strategy originally developed for the Convention for Biological Diversity (ratified by the UK in June 1994). The Directive has been supported by the UK, albeit with amendments that have brought accusations of watering down by a number of NGOs. "Good Environmental Status" has been defined in very general terms in the draft Directive approved by the European Council in December 2006 and more precise definitions will be proposed by Member States for their waters (this can be linked to the Marine Bill in the case of the UK). The Directive will have profound implications for marine research and monitoring in the UK and will require greater effort and integration across sectors.


14. The Government department with lead responsibility for marine science is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra). In May 2002, Defra published a report, Safeguarding our Seas, which set out the Department's vision for "clean, healthy, safe, productive and biologically diverse" seas and described its strategy for the conservation and sustainable development of the marine environment. Safeguarding our Seas was followed in 2005 by Charting Progress: An Integrated Assessment of the State of the Seas which was intended to provide the scientific basis for policy development and evaluation in this area. Of particular relevance to this inquiry, Charting Progress highlighted "a number of gaps both in our knowledge and understanding of the seas and in our arrangements for gathering and co-ordinating information".[11] These two papers led to the formation of the United Kingdom Marine Monitoring and Assessment Strategy (UKMMAS), which aims to "to make most efficient use of UK resources, in terms of all existing obligations and to be prepared for emerging requirements, e.g. the EU Marine Strategy Directive [and to] provide us with the power to answer questions about the state of our marine ecosystem and document ecosystem trends".[12] Most recently, in March 2007, Defra published A Sea Change: A Marine Bill White Paper which contained proposals for legislation to provide a strategic approach to the protection and use of the marine area.[13]

Structure of Report

15. In this Report, we look first in Chapter 2 at why the world's oceans are important and need to be studied. In Chapter 3 we then examine how UK marine science is funded and organised, while in Chapter 4 we discuss whether alternative mechanisms for co-ordination are needed. Chapter 5 looks at facilities and government support for research, including the provision of research vessels and the role of the Government's Foresight programme. Chapter 6 addresses one of the most commonly cited concerns of the marine community: the availability and sustainability of monitoring and datasets. Chapter 7 asks whether the impressive UK research effort in the Antarctic should be matched by a similar programme in the Arctic. Chapter 8 moves on to look at marine ecosystems and biodiversity, including the provision in the proposed Marine Bill for the designation of marine protected areas. Chapter 9 examines issues specific to the technology and knowledge transfer aspects of marine science. Chapter 10 turns to the health of the research and skills base and considers the place of education and outreach work within marine science. Chapter 11 acknowledges the key importance of international collaboration in investigating the oceans and how the UK contribution could be improved. Chapter 12 returns to co-ordination and whether the UK needs an overall strategy for marine and maritime affairs. Chapter 13 presents our overall conclusions.[14]

1   Ev 140 Back

2   Press Notice No 3 of Session 2006-07.  Back

3   Second Report from the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, Marine Science and Technology, HL47, Session 1985-86, para 9.1  Back

4   Ibid Back

5   COM(2006) 275 final Back

6   Ibid p 4 Back

7   Ibid p 5 Back

8   Ibid p 48 Back

9   Government Response to the EU Maritime Green Paper: Contribution from the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland on the European Commission Green Paper: Towards a future Maritime Policy for the Union: A European vision for the oceans and seas (COM(2006)275 Final) p 2 Back

10   COM(2006) 275 final, p 6; COM(2005) 505. Back

11   Charting Progress, iii Back

12 Back

13   Cm 7047 Back

14   It is customary to include an annex of acronyms and abbreviations in reports and we have done so in this case (see after the summary of conclusions). This list is very long and includes references to many institutions, organisations and programmes which in many cases are known to the community only by these shortened forms. We have found marine science to be plagued by acronyms. Where programmes in particular are concerned, there has to be a suspicion that the acronym came before the title of the research project, but the names of organisations are also generally unwieldy. We have tried to keep our usage of shortened forms to a minimum but we apologise in advance to the general reader for the proliferation of acronyms and abbreviations in this Report. Back

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