Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


Research Vessels

134. The availability of research vessels is fundamental to marine science. As POL told us, "Without large ships the UK cannot participate in international marine science".[251] The NERC marine directors stressed that the value of scientific cruises is measured not just in the immediate outputs but in their operation as "a major platform for bringing together interdisciplinary science teams and for providing strong cohesion within the national and international marine science community as a whole".[252] At present, NERC has two dedicated research ships operated by the NMF from Southampton. This is a reduction from the three vessels in operation prior to 2002 when the RRS Challenger was taken out of service. NERC also has the RRS James Clark Ross and the RRS Ernest Shackleton operated by BAS, and use of the privately operated RV Prince Madog. Further ship time can be obtained for scientists through bartering, chartering or more novel approaches.


135. The latest research vessel purchased by the UK, the RRS James Cook, was launched in February 2007, having cost nearly £40m, and has recently completed its second research cruise in European waters. There are some concerns amongst scientists who have used the James Cook over certain design problems that have come to light. For example, 'bubbling' (cavitation) from the ship's bow interferes with the sophisticated acoustic equipment and the vessel is considered to be difficult to operate in heavy seas. However, scientists are generally pleased with the RRS James Cook and its facilities which are a huge improvement on its predecessor, and we welcome the James Cook as a significant addition to the UK's research capabilities.

136. The second research ship, the Discovery, was built in 1962 and converted in 1992 to maximise its operational flexibility. The NERC marine centre directors expressed concern that it was becoming increasingly unreliable and therefore jeopardising the UK's position in international bartering negotiations.[253] This was supported by the Challenger Society who told us that "in the past year, three research cruises (each of ~ 1 month duration, involving 20-25 researchers and a total investment in excess of £1M) have been either abandoned or postponed for a further year or so due to severe technical problems" with the Discovery.[254] The NERC directors argued that "This creates gaps and uncertainties in the UK science programmes and demotivates our leading researchers".[255] The ship will be retired in 2011 but a replacement will not be available before then. NERC's ocean-going vessel capacity has therefore been reduced to one new ship and one unreliable one, which inevitably has a detrimental impact upon the amount of marine science which can be undertaken in the field.

137. There is also concern about the lack of a coastal vessel. The Challenger Society pointed out that:

    With the reduction in the NERC fleet and with Cefas and FRS Aberdeen now possessing only one suitable vessel each, we have lost significant capacity for near-shore work. This is arguably as important as open ocean studies for detecting the effects of climate change—for example, changes in river flow, flooding and sea level are likely to deliver more nutrients and sediments to coastal waters, hence affecting planktonic and benthic biodiversity, fishery productivity etc. For these reasons, we need to expand monitoring and research in coastal and shelf waters, the opposite to the present direction of travel.[256]

This was supported by Natural England[257] and NOCS who told us of "concern that coastal and shelf sea marine science is currently compromised by lack of a research vessel".[258] The problem dates back some years. A former Chief Executive at NERC, Professor Sir John Lawton, told us that he had "had at least two requests to fund the provision of new inshore research vessels by good UK laboratories. No doubt the science they would have carried out would have been excellent, but NERC did not have the funds to support these bids."[259]


138. In 1996, a tripartite agreement was signed between NERC and counterparts in France and Germany for managing the respective fleets of scientific research ships and major marine facilities, primarily through the use of bartering mechanisms for ship, equipment and crew time without involving the exchange of money.[260] Other organisations from a number of nations have since joined the scheme (including Norway, Spain, Netherlands) which is now known as the Ocean Facilities Exchange Group (OFEG). The OFEG meets twice a year to synchronise the annual planning cycle and bartering possibilities. NERC has also had bilateral arrangements with the NSF in the US since the 1980s.[261]

139. From NERC's perspective, these arrangements offers two significant advantages:

  • They allow scientists access to a wider range of facilities and equipment than would otherwise be possible. This includes 44 research ships and other facilities such as manned submersibles, remotely operated vehicles, towed arrays and shipboard surveying systems. Such facilities are required to carry out "cutting edge" research, but are frequently so expensive that it makes little sense for each country to purchase their own facilities.
  • It reduces wasted time and money spent on long passage legs between areas of scientific interest, and allows scientists access to a wider range of geographical areas in a given year. In these ways the agreement promotes more efficient and cost effective use of each country's national resources.[262]

140. We support NERC's policy on bartering and believe that it should be pursued wherever possible. However, the relationship between bartering and national capacity is a complex one. Bartering only works where NERC has something to offer. As POL told us, "This arrangement is only possible if the UK can continue to offer berths to international scientists on its own ocean going research vessels."[263] This means that the UK must retain sufficient, attractive capacity of its own, with a good offer of facilities and cruise schedules. Bartering is also unlikely to be the solution to any additional pressure on NERC's research vessels in the next few years: Dr Williamson, representing NERC, explained that "For the next two or three years the NERC schedule is pretty booked up, so any additional demand on that would not be solved by a bartering arrangement, although some of that might be region-figured because of that, but then we have to talk in terms of the full economic cost of buying in time on other people's research vessels, and that is expensive".[264]


141. The relationship between the civil research community and the Navy is much closer in the US than in the UK. This would seem to imply potential for greater use of MoD vessels by UK scientists. NERC gave evidence on the existing arrangements and commented that "the RN appears keen to provide a service to the marine science community where possible but the RN is not as large as the US Navy and the availability of vessels for research is inevitably limited".[265] The MoD stated that it "provides access to Royal Navy vessels for research purposes on a case by case basis whenever possible and practicable within the limitations of the operational employment of the ships concerned."[266]

142. At the moment, the Navy is involved in efforts ranging from the deployment of Argo floats (see below) to offering support to BAS in the Antarctic and the British Geological Survey in UK waters. Both parties have also made use of one-off opportunities, such as the use of HMS Scott (a MoD hydrographic vessel equipped with high-resolution multibeam bathymetry) after the December 2004 tsunami.[267] NERC reported that "BGS gained the impression that future joint exercises would be possible if the ship was available and if the imperative was significant" and that "the ship's complement during the Indian Ocean survey were very appreciative of having scientists aboard who could actually interpret the data they acquired."[268] The MoD said that "the experience on both sides (Royal Naval and scientific) was very positive".[269] The Oceans 2025 directors have met MoD to discuss the possibility of enhancing the use of the Royal Navy and their platforms.[270] Asked whether a lot more could be done, however, the Deputy Director, Science and Innovation at NERC, answered simply "yes".[271] A recent report from a NERC working group on polar science gave particular prominence to the role of submarines in this, recommending that "the potential for increased opportunistic use of UK Navy submarines should be exploited to the full".[272]

143. The fisheries laboratories also have a research fleet. The FRS, for example, operates two vessels, the FRV Scotia and the FRV Clupea. Cefas operates the Endeavour. There was agreement amongst witnesses that these vessels "are difficult to access by the wider NERC science community on account of their full commitment to statutory monitoring duties." [273] Professor Hill told us that "there is ultimately an issue about capacity here, and I suspect what could be achieved by bartering in some internal flexibility is rather marginal".[274] We are pleased that following the NERC directors' comments to us on the lack of a coastal vessel, Cefas approached NERC to see whether the Endeavour might be made available to NERC scientists.[275] We believe that there is scope for better integrated management of the coastal fleet although this may well be limited in view of the demands upon it. A new marine body could act as a clearing house to co-ordinate research cruises and spare capacity on marine science vessels.

144. There is also the potential for greater sharing of vessels across Europe. Gardline Environmental Limited argued that the James Cook was joining "a European public sector research vessel fleet that is already oversupplied … where each individual EU member state, and each research institute within it, feels the need to have its own, dedicated resource".[276] In preparing the Business Case for the replacement for the Discovery, NERC investigated co-ownership options with its barter partners to see if it were possible to provide the same number of sea days as the Discovery through a partnership. NERC reported that at that time there were no opportunities to co-own any large ocean-going research ships because no partners had any immediate requirement and/or funding in place for new ships.[277] However, we believe that the possibility must be kept open, particularly in the light of the large-scale collaborative efforts between European scientists in marine science (see Chapter 11).


145. Private vessels can be hired for research purposes. NERC has used Joint Infrastructure Funding to provide the University of Bangor with the privately-operated Prince Madog, which is used as a "pay as you go" facility for coastal and continental shelf work.[278] We note, however, Professor Willmott's caustic comment that "she is okay as long as you do not operate off northwest Europe or the Scottish shelf or in the Celtic Sea where, quite frankly, she is not capable of operating in the inclement weather conditions there."[279]

146. Marine scientists have also long taken advantage of ships of opportunity, chiefly to provide data and take measurements, rather than to conduct scientific experiments in the field. The oldest example of this is the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) hosted at the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for Ocean Science (SAHFOS) in Plymouth. The CPR survey monitors near-surface plankton and has a unique 70-year data record of plankton distribution, seasonal cycles and annual changes. This allows scientists to detect evidence of the reality and impact of rapid climate change on marine life. The aim of the CPR survey is to monitor the near-surface plankton of the North Atlantic and North Sea on a monthly basis, using Continuous Plankton Recorders on a network of shipping routes that cover the area. There are plans to promote the establishment of a CPR programme in all the oceans of the world to evaluate biological changes in the oceans on a global scale.[280] We welcome the world-wide extension of the Continuous Plankton Recorder concept as an excellent initiative and we urge the UK Government to take the lead in promoting it to fellow Governments at the next GEO Ministerial.

147. Commercial ships of opportunity are also being used in the North Atlantic, funded as a demonstration project under FP6, to measure the take up of carbon dioxide by the oceans. Professor Watson of UEA described this project and its possible extension to other areas in positive terms, although he called for Government support for some "slight incentive" to shipping companies, "because at the moment they will move their ships at a moment's notice, and this can be quite annoying if you have spent six months putting instrumentation in and then the ship goes off to the other side of the world".[281] Other examples of the use of commercial vessels include Ferrybox, under which programme NOCS have been fitting ferries with underway sampling systems.[282] They have also approached "container vessel operators who are really quite enthusiastic about operating underway systems like this and also probably the cruise liner business will get into this game as well."[283]

148. Professor Thorpe told us that "we are contemplating an extension of making measurements on the commercial fleet of the more routine variety."[284] On the Committee's visit to the US, we heard a proposal from Professor Rossby of the University of Rhode Island for using commercial ships as an extra tool in taking measurements of the oceans. Marine scientists need repeated high resolution observations from which to undertake meaningful data analyses.[285] Ships making multiple sweeps could collect such data through a range of instruments that can be towed or carried by ships. Professor Rossby intended to take this concept forward through the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR) but it requires participation by industry and ports authorities, as well as government support. We recommend that NERC investigate the costs and benefits of a scheme for the widespread use of commercial vessels to take ocean measurements, with a view to providing UK leadership on this project.


149. There is some dispute over whether NERC is currently providing sufficient capacity through its fleet. At present NERC schedules around 550 science days at sea per year and it forecasts that "demand for ship time is expected to remain at current levels".[286] NERC told us that "in a typical year up to 350 scientists, engineers and students gain research training and experience on NERC's research ships".[287] NERC believed that it is meeting current demand and that "there is not strong evidence that NERC is not able to provide access to the ships which the science is demanding".[288] The Prince Madog, for example, has "availability year on year" for coastal and continental shelf work.[289] NERC also believed that "there is capacity at the moment in the UK to charter what we would call more coastal ships".[290]

150. Evidence to us indicates that there is demand for more ship capacity. NOCS, who is responsible for managing the ships, told us that "high quality science demand is outstripping ship capacity"[291] and called for continued investment in major capital infrastructure and facilities for the support of marine science (particularly research ships).[292] The Directors of the NERC Centres also observed that "heavy demand for cruise time from funded marine science programmes already suggests that NERC may have to explore novel approaches to meet demand, such as adding capacity though charter arrangements as well as supporting initiatives to enable use of other ocean going vessels."[293]

151. The historical pattern of use of research vessels is worth noting in this context. We have been told anecdotally that in the recent past, difficulties over funding research cruises meant that vessels were underused. In June 2000, this policy was changed, with the result that there was "a significant increase in ship-time usage".[294] Operational funding was then increased from 2004-05 to allow both ships to operate at full capacity, and the demands of scientists have fully met this supply of ship-time. We found persuasive Professor Hill's argument that "It is very difficult to provide evidence for this but I do think that a lot of marine science is partly platform driven. If there is a ship capable of doing it you will find proposals coming in in that area, and because of the lack of capacity of ships for coastal research I think we have seen proposals for coastal science tend to dry up".[295] Research vessels are not a luxury but a vital necessity. We conclude that there is greater demand for ship-time than the current arrangements are capable of delivering and that vessel capacity is a limiting factor in marine research.


152. The importance of the UK retaining its own capacity in research vessels is not limited to their use by UK scientists since the availability of such facilities is a crucial factor in attracting international collaboration. NERC told us that in the last five years, "50% of NERC's research cruises have involved collaboration with international scientists, from 49 institutions and 17 countries".[296] In addition, UK scientists benefit from the bartering arrangements which have been developed with other nations. This would not be possible if the UK did not have its own vessels to offer in exchange.

153. The cost of building new vessels is very significant, although the IACMST urged us to remember that "the vessels have a lifetime as a research platform of 20 years or more and still have a market value beyond that so it is important to apportion the large one-off costs over a long period."[297] The next big project will be the replacement for RRS Discovery, for which a bid to the Large Facilities Capital Fund for £38.5m towards the £60m cost was approved in 2006. POL voiced concerns that "the cost of building new ships continues to rise rapidly and we are concerned that there will be insufficient funds to build a vessel with capability similar, if not greater, than the RRS Discovery".[298] POL argued that "The challenge for the UK Government, and in particular the NERC, is to develop a long-term funding model to support large-scale infrastructure such as aircraft and ships."[299]

154. We commend the use of private vessels and encourage bartering and co-operation between scientists and Government departments to make full use of fisheries vessels and MoD ships. We are concerned that these arrangements at the moment lack overall strategy and foresight. We believe that a review of NERC's capacity and arrangements for managing bartering, chartering and co-operation would be helpful. This review should investigate how NERC could increase the value of its current fleet, as well as extract greatest benefit from the vessels of others. For example, we received evidence from a private operator of survey vessels that the private sector could operate government research vessels for around 20% less than current practice.[300] The review could build on NERC's previous work in this area. We note that "as part of the evidence base which NERC had to build to submit a case to OSI for capital funding for the replacement of The Discovery, we had to make a compelling case that we were using our existing facilities effectively and that there was the demand there to use them".[301] We recommend that an independent review be conducted of the cost-effectiveness of NERC's operation of its research vessels and management of alternative arrangements for access to vessels.

155. This review should take as given that the replacement for the RRS Discovery will be provided. We fully support the development of the new vessel planned for 2011 and recommend that the Government and NERC commit to ensuring that this vessel is delivered on time and to specification. We also accept that there is a need for further vessels beyond this, especially for coastal work. This need is likely to intensify with the new demands made by as a result of the Marine Bill and the European Marine Strategy Directive. We recommend that NERC develop a case for a new coastal vessel for submission to the large facilities roadmap and that DIUS look sympathetically upon such a bid.

Other facilities

156. The challenges of the ocean environment makes heavy demands on marine science in terms of expensive equipment and infrastructure. There is therefore great pressure on marine scientists to pool resources and co-ordinate the use of facilities. For this reason, NERC provides centralised marine facilities through the National Marine Equipment Pool (NMEP), the National Facility for Scientific Diving, High-Performance Computing (HPC), airborne research facilities, Arctic and Antarctic bases, the new Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation (jointly with DTI), the European Space Agency's environmental science missions and marine-related research programmes with a technology-development component.[302] The NMEP, for example, maintains a wide range of equipment, with an asset value in excess of £20m, for use by the UK marine science community.[303] In addition, part of the role of the marine research centres, now gathered under the Oceans 2025 umbrella, is to provide research infrastructure to the rest of the UK marine science community. For example, at PML, facilities made available to researchers and research students include use of inshore research vessels; seawater experimental mesocosms; and world-class capability in ecosystem modelling and satellite remote sensing.[304] Similarly, POL hosts the largely NERC-funded British Oceanographic Data Centre. We have received no adverse comments about these arrangements and conclude that they are working effectively. Nevertheless, we recommend that the provision of facilities be regularly reviewed as part of the mandate of the proposed new co-ordinating body which would be the best available independent body to obtain objective information from potential users and providers, especially from those outside the NERC community.

157. Infrastructure and equipment can also be shared across Europe. The Director of NOCS was particularly keen to stress the useful role of the European Strategy Forum on Research Infrastructure (ESFRI) in co-operation at the European level. He argued that one of the criteria for the UK to remain at the leading edge of marine science was to "increasingly recognise that the scale of investments in major infrastructure required over the coming decades (e.g. cabled sea-floor observatories) will require cooperation" within Europe.[305] In addition to the EMSO (European Multidisciplinary Seafloor Observatory), he singled out EURO-ARGO (European contribution to the global profiling float programme) from the 35-strong ESFRI list for particular attention.[306] NERC also suggested that "partnership arrangements with other countries for the shared resourcing and use of expensive marine equipment, such as the ROV and marine seismics, would seem sensible in the future to ensure that such equipment is fully utilised."[307] We encourage the development of partnership arrangements within Europe for the provision of highly advanced underwater technologies and infrastructure.


158. A new addition to the National Marine Equipment Pool is Isis. Isis is an unmanned deep-diving submersible of the type that has transformed marine science. Professor Thorpe told us that NERC was "very impressed with the measurements that ISIS has been taking and ... what great potential it has".[308] Having seen the preliminary results from the early usage of Isis aboard the James Cook, we imagine that the excitement of the new potential arising from this equipment will encourage scientists to wish to exploit it to the full. However, they will be deterred if they cannot be guaranteed access in the reasonably near future. We were disappointed to be told informally that this resource was underused due to a lack of appropriately trained technicians to maintain and operate it. NERC clarified that the ROV has a dedicated team of technicians who can support its deployment for approximately 100 days a year. This is considered sufficient as Isis is "only required to support a small proportion of NERC sea-going science and the main platform for ROV deployments is the RRS James Cook, which is also required to deliver other marine science activities".[309] NERC's Chief Executive accepted that "Should NERC science require greater access to the ROV in future then the technical support arrangements for the ROV would need to be reconsidered."[310] Just as with demand for ship-time, we are concerned that demand for Isis will be conditioned by the availability of technical support and that bids will not be made as a result. We recommend that NERC keep the use of Isis under review and ensure that its potential is not undermined by factors such as the availability of crews or platforms. We further recommend that NERC investigate whether there would be more demand for use of Isis, if more time were offered.

Information technologies for marine science

159. The transformation of ocean science in recent years has been attributable in large part to the development of computers and software with the power to run large-scale models of ocean processes. Dr Rodgers of BAS told us that "supercomputing … offers us integration … to bring data and theory together".[311] However, there are concerns that the computing power available now is insufficient for the work that needs to be done. Dr Bell of the Met Office told us that "the computing resources to which … the Met Office has access are not as large as the resources that are available in some other countries, for example the USA, Japan and, in our case, also France".[312] He told us that the issue was "being addressed by the Hadley Centre in discussions with Defra and MOD. There are also discussions with NERC as to whether we can share computer resources in the future and get better computer resources".[313] Researchers working in the polar oceans also told us that they need higher resolution computer models in order to understand ocean circulation and to make predictions about changes in the sea ice.[314] The absence of powerful computing resources was "the reason why we are not further forward than we might be".[315] Dr Rodger of BAS explained that, with regard to computer modelling of oceanographic data, "We need multiple runs, for example, in the environment rather than a single run; we do not have the resources to run as many multiple, high-resolution runs for as long as we would wish at the current time."[316]

160. The Chief Executive of NERC accepted that "there is a great demand for increased computing power to utilise the observations that we are making with the ships and to feed it into the climate change question."[317] We recognise that the availability of computing power is an issue not limited to marine science and that greater power is needed to meet the demands of modern science in many fields. We recommend that NERC keep under review the computing resources needed in the environmental sciences, particularly with regard to NERC's new theme of environmental change.

Government support

161. The then OSI told us that "Funding is provided for marine science via the Research Councils, in the same manner as for other research areas".[318] This includes funding via applications to the Large Facilities Capital Fund, such as the bid for £25 million towards the purchase of the RRS James Cook and the earmarking of £38.5m for a replacement for the RRS Discovery to be ready for service in 2011/12. Otherwise, the OSI takes a hands-off attitude towards support for marine science, leaving it to NERC to distribute funding as it sees fit. This has consistently been the approach taken by the OSI, with the exception of the establishment and sponsorship of the Marine Foresight Panel in the mid 1990s.


162. The Marine Foresight Panel was set up somewhat later than the other panels in the first Foresight round from 1994 and it published its main report in 1997. The report identified "many opportunities to exploit the diverse marine technology activities where the UK has unique skills and capabilities", in the areas of offshore energies, maritime transport and construction, marine fisheries and aquaculture, coastal waters and maritime leisure and the exploitation of non-living marine resources. It made recommendations for each of these five specific sectors and also for generic research and development necessary to achieve the objectives in these sectors and for policy. The key policy recommendations were:

163. When no similar panel was established in the second Foresight round, the Marine Panel considered that its work was "sufficiently successful and thought-provoking" to persuade its members to continue in a private capacity. Foresight provided it with funding of £40k over the next two years.[320] This funding stopped with the move of the Foresight programme as a whole away from standing panels to project-based activities. Since that time, marine science has had a major input into one Foresight project, that on flooding and coastal defence. However, the panel continued for some time in its private capacity; for example, in January 2005 it produced a study on biotechnology, supported by the DTI and the South West England Regional Development Agency.

164. Professor Sir David King told us that "Much of the outcome [of the original Panel report] has gone into both the industry and the Research Councils in terms of current work."[321] Asked about monitoring of the report's recommendations, Defra told us that its new marine fisheries research programmes "incorporates all of the recommendations of the Foresight Marine Panel on marine fisheries".[322] However, there appears to have been no systematic follow up of how the Foresight recommendations have been implemented. We regret the lack of attention paid by Government, in particular the OSI/DIUS, to marine science since the disbandment of the Marine Foresight Panel. We also regret that there has been no systematic attempt to track implementation of the recommendations made by the Marine Foresight Panel. We believe that greater effort is needed in horizon-scanning within the marine science and technology sector, and we recommend that this be included in the remit of the new marine body.

251   Ev 103 Back

252   Ev 203 Back

253   Ibid Back

254   Ev 122 Back

255   Ev 203 Back

256   Ev 122 Back

257   Ev 210 Back

258   Ev 171 Back

259   Ev 97 Back

260 Back

261   Ev 239 Back

262   Ev 238 Back

263   Ev 103 Back

264   Q 608 Back

265   Ev 237 Back

266   Ev 248 Back

267   Ev 238-239 Back

268   Ev 238 Back

269   Ev 249 Back

270   Q 37 Back

271   Q 38 Back

272   Polar Science Working Group Draft Report, Version 5 for Comment, NERC Polar Science Working Group Report, para 66; Back

273   Ev 171 Back

274   Q 233 Back

275   Ev 264 Back

276   Ev 137 Back

277   Ev 243 Back

278   Q 82 Back

279   Q 234 Back

280   Unpublished evidence to the Committee Back

281   Q 460 Back

282   Q 235 Back

283   Ibid Back

284   Q 611 Back

285   Presentation to the Select Committee, May 2007 Back

286   Ev 182 Back

287   Ev 183 Back

288   Q 82 Back

289   Ibid Back

290   Q 85 Back

291   Ev 171 Back

292   Ev 169 Back

293   Ev 203 Back

294   Ev 182 Back

295   Q 230 Back

296   Ev 182 Back

297   Ev 129 Back

298   Ev 103 Back

299   Ibid Back

300   Ev 94 Back

301   Q 86 Back

302   Ev 182 Back

303   Ibid Back

304   Ev 118 Back

305   Ev 169 Back

306   Ev 171 Back

307   Ev 260 Back

308   Q 617 Back

309   Ev 260 Back

310   Ibid Back

311   Q 446 Back

312   Q 190 Back

313   Q 192 Back

314   Q 431 Back

315   Ibid Back

316   Q 448 Back

317   Q 613 Back

318   Ev 235 Back

319   Marine Foresight Panel report, pp.8-9 Back

320   Ev 236  Back

321   Q 547 Back

322   Ev 265 Back

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