Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


Definitions and characteristics

16. Marine science is the study of the workings of the seas and oceans, including the coastal waters, the continental shelf and the open ocean. Oceanography specialises in the latter area. Tradition has it that marine science in its modern form began with the British Government's sponsorship of the voyage of HMS Challenger in 1872, which surveyed 68,890 nautical miles across the oceans and produced a 50-volume report of the voyage and its findings. In more recent times, three factors have transformed marine science: first, the introduction of new technology, including new computer modelling techniques which have enabled it to move from being an observational discipline to one which can make predictions; second, the availability of remote-sensing data from satellites and aircraft, as well as from autonomous measuring devices that transmit their data to scientists via satellite, which enables scientists to survey vast tracts of the ocean in minutes and has revolutionised knowledge of circulation and biological processes; and third, the radical change in perspective to see the sea as part of the earth's systems, rather than as a separate hostile entity. Nevertheless, the main elements of the marine science conducted on ships—examining the composition of sea water, the movement of water, sea-floor processes and marine biological systems—would be recognisable to the scientists on the Challenger, even if the techniques for studying them and the purposes for which they have studied have changed dramatically.

17. The fundamental characteristics which mark out marine science as different from many other disciplines were usefully set out in evidence to us by the National Oceanography Centre, Southampton (NOCS). Marine science is:

We note that NOCS' list is weighted towards oceanography and that there are other issues which affect coastal seas which should be added. These include the human element, such as economics and sociology which are also core disciplines of marine science. The division of marine science into deep ocean and coastal studies is a long-standing one which needs to be addressed if a holistic approach towards marine, or indeed earth, science is to be successful.

18. The areas of marine research which are being undertaken at present and which will be needed in the future can be broken down under the broad headings of: the role of the oceans in climate systems; biological diversity, including the development of sustainable management systems; human exploitation of the oceans, including the provision of goods and services; and basic or blue skies research.

Climate systems and climate change


19. The oceans play a key role in regulating climate systems. The oceans act as a heat reservoir, which slows the rate at which the atmospheric temperature rises and falls. Ocean currents redistribute heat around the planet, a factor of particular importance to Western Europe. The ocean is the main source of water vapour to the atmosphere, determining the pattern of droughts and floods. It also affects cloud formation. Importantly, the ocean also acts as a major sink of natural and man-made carbon dioxide (CO2).


20. Changes in the temperature, salinity and acidity of the sea have occurred throughout history, as shown by core samples taken from beneath the seabed and in polar ice. However, the speed and severity of current changes in the characteristics of the ocean are, to the best of scientific knowledge, unprecedented. There is now near unanimous agreement that human activity is a key factor in these changes, but there are gaps in scientific knowledge of the exact cause-effect relationship, as well as of the processes by which it operates and the baseline against which measurements should be taken. The table below, taken from the climate change annex to EC's maritime Green Paper, sets out current developments linked to climate change and their impacts.

Table 1: Developments linked to climate change

Source: European maritime Green Paper, Background Paper No. 7, pp 4-5

21. The impact and existence of rapid climate change has been recognised in the work of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). In February 2007 it adopted a major assessment of climate change science in the form of a report on the physical science basis for climate change which was produced by around 600 authors from 40 countries, including the UK. Among its other observations, the report concluded that average ocean temperatures had increased to a depth of at least 3000m, that there had been widespread changes in precipitation amounts, ocean salinity and wind patterns and that the annual average Arctic sea ice extent had shrunk by 2.7% per decade with decreases in summer of 7.4%.[16] [17]


22. The state of knowledge regarding climate change has improved considerably in recent years as a result of concerted research effort by many nations, but evidence to this inquiry argued that there are still significant gaps in our understanding of the ocean processes as they relate to, and are affected by, climate change and in data on normal and abnormal readings. For example, IMarEST told us that "How the oceans influence natural climate variability and long term anthropogenic change and how these changes impact on the oceans are still not understood".[18] The Challenger Society agreed that there were "great uncertainties in ocean-climate linkage". The society also stressed the two-way relationship between the oceans and the climate: "Future climate change will undoubtedly affect the ocean, altering temperature, circulation patterns, sea level, ocean acidity and the distribution, abundance and productivity of marine life. However, the ocean will also affect the rate and scale of future climate change. Marine research must cover both aspects".[19]

23. The UK Government's Marine Climate Change Impacts Partnership (MCCIP), in its first Annual Report card last November, pointed to insufficient evidence on the impact of changes in, and on, ocean salinity, potential changes to storminess and waves, the effect of climate change on large scale oceanic processes, the impact on fish and marine mammals and changes to seabed ecology. The Head of Science Programmes at BAS told us that in the southern hemisphere, the uncertainties relate to carbon drawdown, how the ocean interacts with ice shelves and the way in which climate change is affecting the eco-system.[20] To this, IMarEST added that "Knowledge of the impact of climate change on [marine] commercial activities is also limited, which means we don't know what the implications of climate change are for shipping, ports, offshore structure design criteria and effects on aquaculture."[21]


24. Our knowledge of climate change with respect to marine science depends upon: long term observations (including paleooceanography) and datasets, research into processes and accurate modelling. Looking at and recording what is there is essential for giving scientists the baselines against which to measure changes in the key climate change indicators. Process-based studies then allow scientists to investigate how ocean systems work and how changes occur. Accurate modelling, validated using data from the past, enables researchers to predict what may happen in the future. The three types of research work together to create deeper understanding of the oceans and climate change. Within this structure, there is also an important role for the study of paleo records of how the oceans coped with and responded to large changes in the past (for example, through the Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme). As UK IMAGES, one such programme, told us, "modern monitoring and modelling studies, which aim to assess potential future climate change, cannot deliver without the context of a sound understanding of past climate variability".[22]

25. There are many UK and international marine science research programmes addressing climate change. At the UK level, NERC is funding related work under all three of its current strategic priorities: earth's life support systems, climate change and sustainable economics. Examples of the questions being asked by NERC-funded researchers were set out in evidence to us.[23] Many of the large-scale programmes of research in this area are international collaborations. These include EU-funded programmes[24] and projects with wider participation[25], as well as international observation systems such as GOOS and Argo, set up to monitor the physical characteristics of the oceans.


26. The rise in atmospheric levels of CO2 and the possible link to global warming has received much publicity but ocean acidification or the impact of rising CO2 on the chemical balance of the oceans, has only recently been recognised as "the other half of the anthropogenic CO2 emission problem".[26] Put at its simplest, the oceans absorb CO2 from the atmosphere on a large scale: over half of man-made emissions of CO2 in the last 200 years have been absorbed by the oceans. As CO2 dissolves, it combines with water to increase slightly the acidity of the sea water. As increasingly large amounts of CO2 become absorbed, the oceans become less efficient at absorbing the gas and at buffering the acidity. In addition, global warming may lead to less mixing of the water within the water column, with a further detrimental impact on the ocean's ability to absorb CO2.[27] The resulting acidification could potentially have a significant impact on marine biodiversity, particularly on calcifying organisms which take up inorganic carbon, but also on other organisms such as phytoplankton and aquatic mammals, thus affecting the food chain as well as the climate.

27. There is much that is still unknown about the processes and possible impacts of ocean acidification. Even the extent to which it is taking place is not clear: the IACMST pointed out, for example, that "there is little evidence of observed pH changes in coastal waters, partly due to the natural variability of the region".[28] The Royal Society of Chemistry suggested a series of key research questions which have to be addressed.[29] Despite these uncertainties, all witnesses agreed that acidification is a serious problem. The Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership have attested that "understanding the impacts [of acidification], predicting what future marine ecosystems will look like and determining feedbacks to the functioning of the Earth's life support system will undoubtedly be one of the biggest challenges for marine scientists in future decades".[30]

The oceans and the environment

28. The oceans are now known to be very rich in biodiversity with an estimated 80% of the world's species found in marine ecosystems, but there is a lack of data on many of the species in the sea and on the oceans themselves. The IACMST perceived the sparseness of "data on the biological resources of the seabed and some components of the water column" as "a major constraint on biological resource mapping" and "a major strategic issue for UK marine science".[31] Dr Vincent of the Joint Nature Conservation Council (JNCC) estimated that "in terms of biological data, we have about 10 to 15 per cent of what we actually require to take any practical action to regulate human activities in relation to the UK continental shelf waters".[32] One international project which aims to assess and explain the diversity, distribution and abundance of marine life in the oceans is the Census for Marine Life. The Census is based in Washington DC and involves researchers from more than 70 countries. Its UK partners include NERC, SAMS, SMRU and the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton. The Census aims to "assess and explain the diversity, distribution, and abundance of life in the ocean and explain how it changes over time".[33]

29. There is growing international interest in protecting marine biodiversity and marine environments more generally. The trend is towards the development of sustainable management systems based on an ecosystem approach. This is exemplified by the EU Marine Strategy Directive and by the proposed UK Marine Bill. However, there are acknowledged to be significant gaps in the science needed to underpin the formulation and implementation of policy in this area. A Defra report, Charting Progress, compiled "an initial list of science evidence gaps" in "understanding of the marine ecosystem and its various components, how it can be defined, how it functions and what indicators are needed to see whether it is in good shape".[34] These "evidence gaps" were in areas fundamental to the ecosystem approach to managing the health and sustainability of the marine environment.[35]

30. We heard concern from several witnesses that the emphasis on the deep oceans was distracting attention from marine biology or work to underpin policy on coastal regions. The JNCC, for example, complained that "Current publicly-funded UK marine research is largely focussed on oceanographic studies", while data on marine biology was sparse.[36] This is despite the fact that, as Gardline Environmental Limited argued, "coastal and territorial waters are the location of both the greatest productivity and the greatest pressure on the marine environment from a wide range of factors including resource removal, global warming, pollution and recreational use."[37] We return to the need for a greater balance within marine research later in this chapter and discuss the application of marine research in the proposal for marine protected areas in the UK in Chapter 8.

Exploitation of the oceans

31. The European Commission has estimated that between 3 and 5% of Europe's GDP is generated by marine-based industries and services, not including the value of raw materials such as oil, gas and fish.[38] Within the UK, the value of marine ecosystem goods and services has recently been estimated to exceed £52 billion.[39] A study for the IACMST in 2002 (the Pugh and Skinner analysis) estimated the contribution of marine-related activities to the UK economy in 1999-2000 to be £39 billion or 4.9% of GDP.[40] The amount of research required to underpin development of the sectors included in this total is variable and is sourced widely: in some cases such as oil and gas exploration, fisheries or offshore renewable energy, the role of research is vital.

32. The most long-standing of all such industries is fisheries. Many communities around the world are still dependent upon fishing for their livelihoods and for food, but there are a large number of fisheries which are now accepted to be fully exploited or overexploited. Use of research within the fisheries sector is vital for management and conservation and for the development of new technologies which exploit fishing areas in a less damaging, more sustainable way. We have heard extensive comment about the destruction of marine habitats by commercial fishing and we recommend that greater research effort be directed by UK public sector funders towards the understanding and mitigation of the impact of fishing on marine environments, and the coming Marine Bill must address this issue.


33.  Increasing attention is now being focused on the ocean as a source of renewable energy, from tides, currents or waves, and a background paper to the EC's maritime Green Paper describes the marine environment as representing "a potentially vast reserve of yet under-explored natural resources".[41] However, exploitation should be approached carefully in an environment and medium which is still poorly understood.

34. An emerging area which may be highly significant in future is marine biotechnology or "blue biotech", the global market for which is forecast to grow by over 10% per annum from its current value of $2.4 billion.[42] The EC describes this area as "one of the most exciting emerging technology sectors" which will "contribute to nearly every industry sector, from healthcare to bioremediation and from cosmetics to nutraceuticals".[43] IMarEST described the sea as "a biotechnological frontier waiting to be explored"[44] and saw "potential for marine biotechnological products to be used as anti-cancer agents, for bulk chemicals such as adhesives, for feed additives for aquaculture and for remediation of environmental damage".[45] One group of microbes from hydrothermal vents has already been found to have a compound which inhibits MRSA. 90% of this group of deep-sea microbes that have been collected from deep-sea sediments are newly discovered species. This implies a rich source of biodiversity and of marine biotechnology products and applications.[46]

35. At PML we saw some interesting work involving culturing micro algae through CO2 absorption in a photobioreactor. As well as potential application to capture carbon at point of emission, the cultured algae can be harvested and processed to produce a biofuel. This science also has potential applications in treating sewage and contaminated water. With emerging concerns about the impact of land-based feedstocks for biofuel on the price of agricultural products and the environment, this area of marine biotechnology is yet another illustration of the potential of the oceans to provide solutions to climate change issues.

36. Research and development into marine biotechnologies in the UK is funded largely by the BBSRC, which has a special interest in marine organisms. It has also been facilitated in the recent past by the NERC-funded Marine and Freshwater Microbial Biodiversity (M&FMB) programme (2000-2005) and by one of the NERC institutes, SAMS, which has expertise in this area, including a "growing business cluster exploring for novel compounds in marine organisms".[47] SAMS observed that to exploit this field of research, they need collaboration across Europe (for example, the Marine Genomics programme) to address the low level of UK investment in the expensive analytical facilities needed for molecular biology and genetics.[48]

37. Another possible future use of the oceans might be in mitigating the impact of climate change, for example by storing carbon dioxide in geological formations under the ocean floor. Carbon capture and storage was the subject of a report from this Committee two years ago which concluded that there is significant scope for such technology to contribute both to reducing CO2 emissions in the UK and abroad and to enhancing the security of the UK's future energy supplies.[49]. In the course of this inquiry, we heard that there are still many questions to be answered about carbon capture and storage, such as those listed by the Royal Society of Chemistry.[50] These questions will have to be addressed by scientists before carbon capture and storage can be safely adopted.

38. Finally, a "very significant growth area" identified by the IACMST is operational oceanography (ocean forecasting).[51] This was recognised in the Foresight Panel's report of 1997 which suggested that the development of operational oceanography could lead to the creation of 5000 jobs and an environmental forecasting business with an annual turnover of some £400m.[52] The markets for operational oceanography were identified as (i) the oil and gas industries, (ii) coastal zone management, operations and forecasting services, (iii) global transport, (iv) navies, (v) fisheries, and (iv) science and technology in academia and Government.[53] Dr Bell of the Met Office told us that "operational forecasting has gone up the agenda a lot in the last ten years … because it is only in the last ten years that it has been seen to be feasible."[54] A scoping study for an MSc course in Operational Oceanography has recently been completed by the IACMST, with the aim of increasing the UK skills base in this area.[55]

Blue skies research

39. Blue skies research addresses fundamental, curiosity-driven science. This is particularly important in marine science where knowledge is still at such a relatively early stage of development. Dr Horwood of Cefas admitted that "There is a very significant list of things that needs to be done at sea. We really do not understand how the sea works at all".[56] Professor Boyd of SAMS agreed that "the deep oceans are largely a mystery to us, for example, and the microbiology in the oceans is something that is only just being unfolded".[57] At the most basic level, scientists and policy-makers need to know what is there and where it is.[58]

40. It is important that blue skies (or more appropriately, blue seas) research can continue to find funding. It is only through curiosity-driven science undertaken in the past that information is now available to measure the impact of climate change on the oceans and therefore on the earth, or to begin to understand the questions involved in studying the earth's processes. As the Marine Environment Information Centre at the UKHO pointed out, "the release of old data is useful in climate change studies but the data has rarely been gathered with that use in mind".[59] It is impossible to predict what questions will need to be answered in the future, but continuing to fund blue seas research now is likely to place scientists in a much better position to address them when they do emerge. We were therefore pleased to hear NERC's assurance that not all research has to be conducted in pursuit of a central strategy: "we need there to be mechanisms just for taking excellent proposals in any area of marine science".[60] This thinking should also apply to the other Research Councils with marine interests (EPSRC, BBSRC and ESRC).

Priorities for marine research

41. Professor Hill of NOCS observed that "there is an interesting convergence" of views on priorities for research, emerging from the EU framework programmes, NERC, the European Science Federation and the NERC marine centres' Oceans 2025 programme (see below), with "the same things cropping up time and time again": "climate, biodiversity, natural resources including bioresources and energy, the issue of environment and health and technologies".[61] The importance of climate has been recognised in the restructuring of research effort to focus on this key theme which cuts across many disciplinary boundaries. For example, NERC has moved towards a thematic approach for funding research, eschewing a marine programme for the integration of marine science within a more holistic examination of key questions. Its new strategy recognises the link between climate change and other environmental work. This is also the approach taken by Cefas, which "recently re-organised our science into thematic areas of work to give more emphasis on developing tools to assess the impact and develop methods to mitigate the effects of climate change."[62] Cefas told us that "the principal research objective of the Climate Group is to understand the effects of climate variation and change on species, communities and ecosystems and the consequences for humans, in order to improve environmental management".[63]

42. It is important that within this approach the balance is maintained between different aspects of marine science, especially between oceanography and marine biodiversity or with regard to the geographical division between the deep oceans and the coastal shelf. Marine science covers many diverse, cross-disciplinary themes, such as marine biology, marine chemistry, pollution studies, fisheries science, systems science, marine physics, marine technology, and many others. The urgency of the questions which marine science is addressing in the area of climate change, in particular, can make other research seem dispensable in comparison. It is undoubtedly true that climate change concerns have radically transformed the standing of marine science, including oceanography, as the role of the oceans becomes ever more apparent. Nevertheless, there are risks in recasting marine science as "climate change science" or even as seeing it only through the prism of informing policy on economic or environmental sustainability. The Biosciences Federation cautioned that:

    The growing focus on this topical, socially and economically relevant, and increasingly well-funded research area [of climate change] should not be allowed to further distort the UK's marine research base. Vigour and cohesion can be achieved only by maintaining various critical balances—between organismal and molecular, evolutionary and ecological, macroscopic and microscopic, nearshore and deepwater, applied and blue-skies. Imbalances and asymmetries that have developed through the last two decades have helped constrain the speed and impact of the UK's response to climate change.[64]

Natural England too expressed its concern that core research, such as taxonomy, might be "lost in the desire to fund what may appear to be novel, new and more 'exciting' aspects of investigating the oceans."[65]

43. In general, scientists and policy-makers need to understand the oceans as systems coupled to human development and activities. This should not preclude the essential building blocks, such as basic skills in taxonomy or molecular biology, for example, but they should be integrated more closely with overarching aims at various levels. Within the UK, Professor Sir David King spoke for all witnesses to this inquiry when he told us that "we have not, despite being a maritime nation, fully recognised the importance of marine science in the overall picture."[66] He added that "we will have to have a much greater focus of attention on marine science as we move forward".[67] The world's oceans are fundamental to the continuing ability of human beings to survive comfortably on this planet, and it is vital that efforts to understand them are pursued with clarity, co-ordination and purpose, but also with an open mind as to future areas of importance.

15   Ev 168 Back

16   Working Group 1 of the IPPC 4th Assessment Report, 2007 Back

17   Estimates of the economic cost of climate change vary but all agree that the impact will be considerable. The European Commission listed factors such as increased coastal protection, adjustments in fisheries, considerable losses due to the impact on tourism and the loss of opportunities for marine research and bioprospecting.The Commission quotes figures from the Association of British Insurers which under the most extreme scenario would see the costs of flooding in the UK rise by 15 fold by the 2080s, resulting in losses of over $40 billion. There would also be loss of life due to increased heat and considerable damage to agriculture and forestry. The Munich Re Group estimated that global losses in the 1990s attributable to major weather-related catastrophes amounted to $430 billion. There were four times as many such catastrophes in the 1990s as in the 1960s. In the UK the Stern report, published in October 2006, concluded that based on the most recent scientific evidence, the dangers of unabated climate change could be equivalent to 20% of GDP or more each year. A shift to a low-carbon economy, on the other hand, could bring world-wide benefits of around £2.5 trillion each year. Back

18   Ev 230 Back

19   Ev 120 Back

20   Q 428 Back

21   Ev 230 Back

22   Ev 115 Back

23   Ev 179 Back

24   The EU programmes include HERMES (Hotspot Ecosystem Research on the Margins of European Seas), MARBEF (Marine Biodiversity and Ecosystem Functioning Network), Damocles and Carboocean. Back

25   Examples include the NERC-led RAPID (Rapid Climate Change), WOCE (World Ocean Circulation), the Global Sea Level Observing System (an IOC/UNESCO programme, hosted by the Proudman Oceanographic Laboratory), CLIVAR (Climate Variability programme), IMAGES (International Marine Past Global Change Study) and the IODP (Integrated Ocean Drilling Programme). Back

26   Ev 169 Back

27   This process is explained in detail in the memorandum submitted by the Royal Society of Chemistry, Ev 104 Back

28   Ev 131 Back

29   Ev 106 Back

30   Living in a high CO2 world - How increased atmospheric CO2 is affecting our oceans: What is ocean acidification?, leaflet by Plymouth Marine Sciences Partnership  Back

31   Ibid Back

32   Q 374 Back

33 Back

34   Charting progress, p 113 Back

35   The gaps included: a set of tools to help demonstrate whether, taken together, the various human uses of the sea are having adverse effects on the marine ecosystem; the effects of contaminant mixtures on marine species and whether such mixtures affect the long-term viability of populations; impacts arising from changing uses of the sea such as new offshore developments of windfarms, extracting aggregates from new areas and new fishing regimes and practices; the degree of human impact that the marine environment can safely tolerate; the lack of a basic habitat map of UK waters hinders the assessment of the current ecosystem 'state' and the effects of impacts on a wider scale; natural variability of ecosystems and distinguishing this from anthropogenic pressures; longer term changes to ecosystems associated with pressures such climate change and what can be done to adapt to such changes; andthe impacts which over-fishing has on the food web and overall ecosystem stability (see Back

36   Ev 133 Back

37   Ev 232 Back

38   COM(2006) 275 final, p 3 Back

39   Defra and PML, Marine biodiversity: An Economic Evaluation 2006, cited in the Government response to the EU Maritime Green Paper  Back

40   This figure is derived from official statistics relating to the turnover of sectors as diverse as oil and gas (£20.60bn), leisure and recreation (£19.29bn), the Royal Navy (£6660m), business services such as law and insurance (£4535m), shipping industry operations (£5.2bn), ship building and repairs (£3172m), marine equipment (£2326m), fisheries (£2447m), ports (£1690m), marine environment (£1050m), marine construction (£497m), research and development (£609m), submarine telecommunications (£497m), safety and salvage (£316m), crossings (£155m), aggregates (£69m) and education and training (£48.7m). Back

41   Background paper No.8 on Marine related research and the Future European Maritime Policy, p 5 Back

42   Ibid, p 5 Back

43   Ibid Back

44   Ev 232 Back

45   Ibid Back

46   See POSTnote on the Deep Sea, No. 288, July 2007 Back

47   Ev 232 Back

48   Ev 166 Back

49   First Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, Meeting UK Energy and Climate Needs: The Role of Carbon Capture and Storage, HC 578, Summary  Back

50   Ev 107 Back

51   Ev 128 Back

52   "Progress Through Partnership", 16, Office of Science and Technology, Department of Trade and Industry, May 1997 Back

53   Ibid Back

54   Q 136 Back

55   Ev 131 Back

56   Q 157 Back

57   Q 371 Back

58   Ibid Back

59   Ev 96 Back

60   Q 62 Back

61   Q 210 Back

62   Ev 101 Back

63   Ev 101 Back

64   Ev 146 Back

65   Ev 210 Back

66   Q 505 Back

67   Ibid Back

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