Select Committee on Science and Technology Tenth Report


234. Marine technology encompasses two main areas: provision of technologies to support marine science (such as developing measuring or sampling equipment), or the provision of technologies to support marine engineering (such as the development of vessels and structures placed in the marine environment, such as coastal defences and offshore oil rigs).[485] Knowledge transfer covers the use of scientific or technological development to industry for commercialisation and the use of knowledge or data to support policy or statutory obligations or other activities.

Marine technology

235. There are many different applications for marine technologies, including:

236. Industry witnesses told us that the strongest areas of growth were in the oil and gas industry, offshore fish farming, renewable energy and carbon capture and storage.[486] IMarEST suggested that opportunities existed in the development of "green" ship technologies, including "a stronger capability for recycling and environmentally friendly decommissioning and recycling of ships" and "decision support systems for the management of ballast water and associated treatment techniques to minimise the transfer of alien species".[487] There will also be a need for ships that are more fuel-efficient and have lower emissions. Dr Thompson of EPSRC identified key sources of future demand for marine technology in responding to environmental change and in creating more efficient marine transportation systems.[488] Finally, new technology is urgently needed for the fishing industry, not to catch more fish but to be more selective and reduce by-catch.

237. Public support to encourage the development of technology in the marine area and the transfer of knowledge from the academic to the commercial sector comes from the Government and the Research Councils, such as NERC and EPSRC (see below). The newest "Research Council", the Technology Strategy Board, also supports collaboration between industry and academia. Part of its current range of research looking at future commercial potential includes investigating micro organisms as a source of novel enzymes for biocatalysis and supporting research into wave and tidal energy.[489]

Marine technology and scientific advances

238. Marine scientists need new technology to meet the demands of the discipline. IMarEST described the ocean as being "like outer space—an environment that is difficult and costly to reach and hostile to work in" with "the added disadvantage that it is largely non-transparent beyond depths of around 100 meters".[490] This means that those who wish to explore it require novel technologies since, as the Institute astutely comments, "ocean science is blind without ocean technology."[491] The JNCC agreed that "Because of the scale of the marine environment and difficulties of researcher access, technological innovation and development is proving of the utmost importance."[492] They highlighted the value of technological developments such as GPS, remote sensing technologies, electronic tagging, satellite tracking and multi-beam sonar, and predicted that "Mapping, surveillance and monitoring, both of the state of the marine environment, and of human activities, and the effect of those, on the marine environment, will be key areas for future innovation."[493]

239. During this inquiry, we have seen many examples of how new technology can transform science. Autonomous underwater vehicles can now be deployed to remote locations such as beneath the Antarctic ice sheet or to ocean floor hydrothermal vents. These types of location are of great interest to scientists since they are relatively unexplored and uncharted and previous studies have shown them to be areas of great interest in terms of new biodiversity or geological features. Technologies are also complementary to the traditional model of recording observations and taking measurements of the marine environment from a research vessel. Data can be collected using a variety of remotely operated unmanned submersible vehicles (ROVs), autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) or fixed or drifting buoys, moorings and gliders.

240. Dr Rodger from BAS told us how there had been advances in the Arctic in the last decade due to new technology.[494] He went on to suggest that any new investment from NERC should be spent on new technologies, such as gliders, towed systems, buoys and new moorings, which already existed but were not available in the UK.[495] Professor Dickson of Cefas added that some of what was required had yet to be invented: "we are waiting for sea gliders that will work under the ice and within the shelf [and] that will go all the way to the ocean floor".[496] The NERC directors agreed that the availability of technology in the guise of new instruments and platforms was holding them back: "the identification, understanding, and prediction of many interdisciplinary oceanographic processes remains as elusive because we do not have the tools to make necessary observations and measurements".[497] Similarly, Mr Gallett of the SUT identified technology for filling the gaps in observational datasets as an area that needed "bringing up to speed".[498]

241. There are concerns about the level of investment in marine technology to support science. NOCS told us that "UK investment in marine technology remains relatively low compared to other nations, particularly Japan, USA, France and Germany";[499] while POL argued that

    Apart from the NERC there are few bodies willing to fund marine technology. Better collaboration with EPSRC may benefit technology funding. At present the UK is weak in developing and deploying "big in situ technology" such as robots, deep sea submersibles and autonomous under water vehicles. Sea floor observatories, particularly of the cabled type, are talked about, but nothing happens. We believe that the UK is missing out by not getting involved with "big technology".[500]

NERC supports technology development through its directed programmes (for example, Autosub Under Ice and the SeaSense LINK programme) and through the Oceans 2025 centres.[501] The reorgnisation of funding for the centres under Oceans 2025 has seen an increase in the priority given to technology development, which now forms a central theme with three main research units: Enabling technology for ocean telescience, Development of instruments, platforms and measurement systems, and Towards an optimal observing network. The largest technology R&D team supporting UK marine science is based in the NOCS Underwater Systems Laboratory, where Autosub, a long-range, deep-diving, autonomous underwater vehicle, was developed.[502] BGS is also an important player in developing technology for subsea drilling.[503]

242. EPSRC also funds programmes, mainly concentrating on marine energy research but also marine, coastal and waterways engineering. It has concerns about the strength of the UK research sector in renewable marine energy and has targeted this through their science and innovation award scheme.[504]

243. The private sector often has better facilities than the public science sector. Gardline offered the example of the development of systems which undertake seabed stills photography and video imagery.[505] They commented that

    Whilst the private sector has embraced these developments, a number of issues including funding, running costs and lack of knowledge of the latest technologies available have restrained the public sector and research organisations. As a result, outdated systems are being employed on research programmes, resulting in poor data quality, slow acquisition speeds and resultant cost implications.[506]

Private sector facilities are often underused, although there are programmes to exploit them through joint working. For example, the Serpent (Scientific and Environmental ROV Partnership using Existing iNdustrial Technology) programme allows scientists access to ROVs on private vessels. Gardline argued that where systems and technologies have been developed in the public sector, these remain underused within the organisation due to restrictions on their use or prohibitive charges and are often superseded by developments in the private sector.[507]

244. Cefas stressed the role of the private sector in pushing forward technological advances, arguing that progress has "largely been driven by private sector requirements such as in oil and gas exploitation and more recently in the renewables sector" and that "Recent advances in molecular technologies in the marine sector are largely spin-offs from medical research."[508] In order to develop their own science and technology, to make remote measurements (for example, nitrate in marine systems) and to introduce the latest molecular technologies, Cefas has utilised a "seedcorn" investment programme, "partly sponsored by Defra and partly by returns generated from wider markets income when necessary". Cefas commented that this is necessary because "individual customers for our work rarely take the long view of developing such technologies".[509] This implicitly includes Government departments as well as other customers.

245. There is a need to support development of new technologies through industry-academic collaborations. We welcome schemes such as Serpent which enable scientists to use private sector facilities and believe that these moves should be encouraged. However, marine science is an area in which new technology can revolutionise research and allow significant steps forward in understanding fundamental questions. We will be interested to see how Oceans 2025 affects the development of technology in marine sciences, but NERC must be ready to support industry-academic collaborations, international co-operation or the development of new technologies where these are essential to furthering marine science in the UK. Investment in new technology offers the opportunity to improve ocean and coastal sea observations radically and to increase the sustainability of exploitation of marine resources. An investment at this time could enable the UK to be leaders in the field rather than having to purchase technology at a very high cost at a later stage.

Technology transfer to the commercial sector

246. The private sector with interests in marine science and technology is characterised by a sharp divide between the large international companies operating in the energy fields, for example, and the much smaller companies in the marine technology area. The Association of Marine Scientific Industries told us that the commercial marine science and technology market was predominantly a niche market for specialised products and services, consisting mainly of very small companies.[510] They estimated that there were "probably less than ten or 12 companies in the UK".[511] AMSI argued that "much of the effort to exploit government funded technology has been inappropriate to the MST sector" because of these characteristics.[512] In oral evidence Mr Burt from AMSI explained:

    The financial mechanisms to make [technology transfer] happen are poor, to say the least. There are very little opportunities to get significant funding to pull through technology to the market place. There are DTI schemes, there are NERC schemes, but when we lay these alongside, for example, US schemes, then I think the UK is poorly placed.[513]

247. Mr Burt argued that the DTI schemes, even at their most generous, "contribute very, very little, if anything, as you enter production and bring products to a commercial realisation, so there are significant overheads for the UK to have to recoup once it starts to sell product".[514] Similar rules do not apply in other countries which leaves UK companies at a commercial disadvantage. He also criticised current technology transfer arrangements on the ground that "the disadvantage with the current system is that, more often than not, (a) there is no mechanism to enable early engagement between industry and the centres of excellence, and (b) there are really no formal funding mechanisms to take that through."[515]

248. IMarEST agreed that much of the government effort in technology transfer in this field had been wasted, finding "many of the marine technology transfer offices set up by academics organisations … excessively bureaucratic" and that "the current scheme which encourages and funds academics to exploit their research and technology is often ineffective and can even be damaging to existing businesses where unfair competition may be the result".[516] Dr Rayner explained that IMarEST wanted more funding for existing companies, rather than new spin-off companies, to foster the process of creating a position in the global market.[517] He argued that, given the characteristics of the industry "companies tend to specialise in a very narrow niche and what is really required for small companies is helping them to exploit that niche on a wider geographical basis and helping them to create new technologies into those global niche markets".[518] NOAA in the US plays a much more active role in promoting the marketing of technologies. This level of integrated support for getting products to the international marketplace is missing in the UK.

249.  EPSRC accepted that "If we are developing technology and the UK is not making best use of it, then that is a concern for all of us."[519] Dr Thompson of EPSRC told us that "Within the resources we have, we work very hard to make sure that, where it is appropriate, there are good contacts with companies, so certainly 40 per cent of the research portfolio we support is collaboration with industry."[520] EPSRC is taking steps to address this by going directly to companies and through intermediaries to make companies aware of the support available. The Research Council has also just reorganised its internal structures so that EPSRC have a defined point of contact with every regional development agency in order to "jointly promote companies working in the science base, as well as doing lots of things on a national level working with the DTI."[521] One example of this closer collaboration is a joint NERC/EPSRC project at NOCS, looking at sensors where there were three companies already involved.[522] EPSRC "hope that will shorten the innovation circle because they are there watching over the shoulders of the academics. As soon as they see something that they can go and take value and make a new product from, they will be in there exploiting it."[523] However, EPSRC expenditure on marine technology is "less than half a per cent" of their total budget.[524]

250. NERC told us that it "encourages commercialisation or other industrial application of its marine research and associated technology", citing the example of the Blue Microbe Knowledge Transfer Network.[525] Each NERC marine centre also engages in knowledge transfer, including three (PML, SAMS and SMRU) which have their own commercial companies.[526] SAMS and PML both received funding from the then OSI in the last round of the Public Sector Exploitation fund competition which provides support for the commercialisation of research carried out in public sector bodies.[527] On the other hand, IMarEST criticised the ending of the NERC Marine and Freshwater Microbial Biodiversity programme in 2005 as leaving "a potential gap in linkages between industry participants and research providers".[528] The Institute argued that "A five year funding timescale for such projects is unsuitable due to the lack of understanding of new products (by both governments and potential users) and the long lead times for screening, testing and development", and called for the bioscience industry to receive continued support to expand into marine research.[529]

251. Not all of the products invented in academic laboratories will be suitable for commercialisation. Mr Burt of AMSI pointed out that "There are many, many technologies being developed in marine science and technology centres in the UK often for extreme applications. Very few of them are what I would call commercial products or capable of being commercially exploited".[530] However, IMarEST recognised that "good ideas for exploitable technologies do arise in academic and government labs", adding that "ideally these labs should be encouraged to work in partnership with industry to 'design for manufacture', so as to make their inventions saleable."[531] There are a significant number of products which could be taken on by the general market. We perceive a need to put more money into marine sector and to increase effort in technology transfer. We commend projects such as EPSRC's efforts to stimulate work in sensor systems where Research Councils have identified a potential gap in the market and moved to address it. We believe that there is greater scope for such activity than has previously been explored and recommend that the Research Councils pursue an active approach to identify areas for technology development in the marine sector.

Technology and policy formulation

252. NERC told us that "Many of NERC's marine science outputs find application in regulatory activities and policy making, for example in fisheries, flood-control and environmental protection."[532] Concerns were raised with us about access to knowledge by non-scientists for policy formulation. For example, the JNCC argued that "accessing research conclusions presents a major challenge" and called for a series of improvements including "providing electronic access to results, more effective communication of results, and infrastructure provision for reviews on important topics; all publicly-funded marine research data should be held electronically to agreed standards and placed in the public domain; techniques for assessing the degree of confidence of using scientific conclusions to address policy and operational questions".[533] Dr Vincent of the JNCC argued further that "there needs to be some better infrastructure in order to be able to collate information, particularly on key policy issues, and make it more available to the wider user." [534]

253. From the science side, the MBA felt in general that "knowledge transfer from the science community to policy advisors and to industry is not as strong and well-structured as it could be", although the UK "does far better than its European neighbours in transferring information from academic and government scientists to policy makers".[535] It commended the MCCIP as an example of good practice.[536] This was supported by Natural England who praised the MCCIP approach as "a mechanism that could be applied in other marine science areas and in other fields,"[537] and by IMarEST.[538]

254. There are divergent views on whether or not the current findings of marine research are being taken up by policymakers. We believe that there is an important role for a marine agency to promote knowledge transfer from scientists to policy formulation. This could include publishing data in an appropriate format and promoting stakeholder engagement.

Industry and strategy

255. From the evidence before us, the UK appears to be missing out on marine technology support. We hope that this will now change with the increased awareness of the Research Councils of the importance of knowledge transfer in general and the welcome emphasis on technology development on Oceans 2025 in particular. One important aspect of this will be closer involvement of industry in marine science. It was a cause of regret to many that the CCMST's proposal to include industry in the new co-ordinating body for marine science and technology was rejected by the Government in the early 1990s. IMarEST emphasised to this inquiry that in improving co-ordination of research funding and strategy, "It is … essential that industry is also engaged with government and the scientific community."[539] Dr Burt of AMSI agreed that a cross-departmental agency would need "to build very clear bridges where industry can be incorporated into that because there may well be cases where industry needs to engage early in some of these programmes".[540] We believe that the development of marine technology should be an important component of the work of new marine body which should ensure that it engages with industry in developing its strategy and plan of work.

485   POST Report 128, Marine Science and Technology, July 1999 Back

486   Qq 262-3, 267 Back

487   Ev 232 Back

488   Q 269 Back

489   Ev 261 Back

490   Ev 232 Back

491   Ibid Back

492   Ev 134 Back

493   Ibid Back

494   Q 430 Back

495   Q 437-8 Back

496   Q 442 Back

497   Ev 203 Back

498   Q 340 Back

499   Ev 171 Back

500   Ev 104 Back

501   Ev 183 Back

502   Ibid Back

503   Ibid Back

504   Q 270 Back

505   Ev 138 Back

506   Ibid Back

507   Ibid Back

508   Ev 101 Back

509   Ibid Back

510   Ev 228 Back

511   Q 312 Back

512   Ev 228 Back

513   Q 289 Back

514   Ibid Back

515   Q 260 Back

516   Ev 138 Back

517   Q 309 Back

518   Q 291 Back

519   Q 298 Back

520   Ibid Back

521   Ibid Back

522   Q 318 Back

523   Ibid Back

524   Q 317 Back

525   Ev 180 Back

526   Ev 208 Back

527   Ev 261 Back

528   Ev 232 Back

529   Ibid Back

530   Q 289 Back

531   Ev 231 Back

532   Ev 179 Back

533   Ev 134-135 Back

534   Q 412 Back

535   Ev 162 Back

536   Ibid Back

537   Ev 210 Back

538   Ev 229 Back

539   Ev 230 Back

540   Q 279 Back

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